Maynard Ferguson in AČ
By George Klein
Friday night Maynard Ferguson brought his Big Bop Nouveau Band to the Power Center in Ann Arbor. I had seen a version of this band about five years ago at the Charlotte Festival and remembered, in addition to Maynard's ear-splitting trumpet, his enthusiasm and constant handshaking with band members -- before their solos, after their solos, sometimes during their solos. I wondered if at 67 he still had the sound, the enthusiasm, and the handshakes. So I went. He does, he does, he does.
This was an amazing performance in several ways. First is the raw talent of the band. All but one are just out of college; Maynard mentioned their schools when he introduced them. They can all play as energetically and as loud as Maynard, which I guess if more of a testimonial to Maynard than to them since he's got forty years on them. Second is Maynard's pure delight in these young players. He gave them plenty of solo space and announced their names several times during the show. And he shook their hands repeatedly. It's a small band: 3 trumpets, 1 trombone, 2 saxophones, piano, bass, drums, and of course Maynard. Everybody gets solos and handshakes. The obviously close relationship between him and them produced a highly energetic evening, but it's hard to know if he's inspiring them or vice versa. Probably both. At any rate Maynard played ferociously all night and bounded around the stage with abandon despite his formidable heft. On that subject, he called attention to the physiques of the three trumpet players, all of whom looked like football linemen, and said, "these guys are built to play trumpet," as he took of his jacket, revealing his own tonnage. He said they're sometimes referred to as the Jenny Craig Quartet.
The other amazing thing was the range of styles and moods, something I don't remember from the last time. You can always expect a fair amount of glitz, bravura, and cheese from Maynard. He still loves to screech in the stratosphere and punctuate the end of his solos by dramatically pulling the trumpet away from his lips in a flourish. There were some forays into rock, and his encore was "Birdland." But there was also a fresh and compelling version of "Caravan" and a delightful original by Denis DiBlasio called "Cajun Cooking" that conveyed a very infectious New Orleans shuffle.
But the piece that really knocked me out was something Maynard said he wrote while teaching music in southern India at the ashram of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. It's called "Sweet Baba Suite." (It's on his new Concord CD These Cats Can Swing. I found it at WEMU read the notes.) It blends beautifully the Indian raga bai-rav with straight ahead jazz. Maynard even chanted and played soprano sax to create the Indian feel. I had no idea that he was capable of something like this, or that he teaches at this ashram every year. It's certainly not the first attempt to combine Indian music and jazz, but the conception and execution were outstanding. There were parts that sounded Indian and parts that were jazz, but a lot of it sounded like a real synthesis of both. This Indian connection also explained an extension of the omnipresent handshakes. After the handshake, Maynard gave the Indian greeting of palms together and vertical in front of the face.
So I can see more depth and cultural sensitivity in Maynard than I was aware of before. This plus his obvious zest for what he's doing, his incredible ability to play in the upper register, and a crop of talented young players made for an exciting and worthwhile evening. Namaste, Maynard.