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Maynard Ferguson: Chameleon / Conquistador

Matt Merewitz By

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It‘s not your everyday big band that has three simultaneous scream trumpet players on every song. Nevertheless, it is what has come to be expected from the master trumpeter-band leader Maynard Ferguson. The newly re-released and re-mastered Maynard Ferguson Big Band tapes, Chameleon and Conquistador, fully embody the modern big band. It has all the elements of a good big band. All horn sections blend beautifully. The band has great dynamic contrast. The rhythm section swings, grooves, and metrically modulates with ease. Maynard features young killer soloists with crazy chops (who play ridiculously high). And oh yeah, there’s that impeccable fusion feel to it. It just puts you right there in the 1970s.

Chameleon, originally released in 1974, kicks things off well with the album’s namesake. After that, however, besides a few good moments that admirably feature individual soloists in the band, things fall apart. Ferguson never fully realizes that his screaming lead doesn’t really work over ballads. His fireworks just get old after the first three songs. He would have been more effective in giving his arrangers all Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea material to adapt for high-energy big band. Surely he would have achieved this with his band’s trademark energy and instrumental technique.

Highlights include the aforementioned opener, a three trumpet cadenza with drums on Corea’s “La Fiesta,” and a decent rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started.” Probably “Superbone Meets the Badman” is the most engaging tune on the album, with energetic brass hits and backgrounds propelling baritone saxophonist Bruce Johnstone and trombonist Randy Purcell into passionate solos. Easily not notable if not unnecessary are the Paul McCartney’s “Jet” and Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City” sans vocals.

Conquistador is the bane of any straight-ahead jazz listener’s existence. Much of the album consists of “easy listening” tracks lacking MF’s trademark edge. First released in 1977, the record went to the top of the Billboard jazz album chart (#1) and pop album chart (#12). Its commercial nature (most evident in its use of R&B vocals, but also in featuring Maynard as a balladeer) can be likened to the harsh words many critics had in 2002 for Kenny Garrett’s release Happy People, which also sounded a bit too poppy for the “hardcore” jazz fan.

Even though loyal Maynard listeners had loved to listen to the trumpeter for years, they found Conquistador hard to swallow. So too, modern straight-ahead fans have become accustomed to Garrett’s style being the epitome of modern hard bop; supposedly the logical antithesis of the modern mainstream. Whatever the impetus for these albums was, one cannot deny the lyrical moments and beauty of harmonic ideas on each album. And it is important that these artists made their respective records not only for the sake of stylistic diversity, but for the well-deserved exposure they each received from more people buying their records. Overall, Conquistador, in the mind of this reviewer, is not worth too much attention. Go check it out at the library if you haven’t heard it already.

At times the band is reminiscent of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra tradition; namely on “Gospel John” and “Superbone” while also having an “on the edge” Buddy Rich feel – pushing the tempo at every chance. On Conquistador, Ferguson, newly returned to the States from his sojourn in the UK, basically cashes in on the popularity of the theme song of the motion picture blockbuster “Rocky.” The album, produced by pop star Bob James and released by Columbia, turned out to be an international crossover hit and earned the 49 year-old Ferguson more money than he had ever earned before; more money than the movie soundtrack earned itself.

The most important aspect of these reissues is the extended liner notes included on each. An interview with drummer Danny D’Imperio complements the original Chameleon release in terms of an insider’s look. Likewise, an interview with Mark Colby, saxophonist on Conquistador, sheds new light on the politics of the recording process including how disappointed Ferguson and band-mates were, after James and Columbia prevented many of them from participating in the horn tracks of the hit recording, relying instead on New York “studio cats,” to save money flying the band from the West Coast, where it was on tour at the time.

Track Listing: Chameleon: Chameleon (Hancock/Jackson/Mason/Maupin) - 4:36 Gospel John (Steinberg) - 6:05 The Way We Were (Bergman/Bergman/Hamlisch) - 3:27 Jet (McCartney/McCartney) - 3:56 La Fiesta (Corea) - 8:06 I Can't Get Started (Duke/Gershwin) - 3:44 Livin' for the City (Wonder) - 4:57 Superbone Meets the Bad Man (Chataway/Chattaway) - 5:09

Conquistador: Gonna Fly Now (Connors/Conti/Robbins) - 4:23 Mister Mellow (Chattaway/Ferguson) - 6:28 Star Trek (Theme) (Courage/Roddenberry) - 6:22 Conquistador (Chattaway/Ferguson) - 7:32 Soar Like an Eagle (James) - 6:37 The Fly (Chattaway/Ferguson) - 4:32

Personnel: Chameleon: Maynard Ferguson: Trumpet, Horn (Baritone), Vocals; Bob Summers: T rumpet, Flugelhorn, Latin Americ an Rhythm; Stan Mark: Trump et, Flugelhorn, Multi Instruments; Dan ny D'Imperio: Drums; Bruce Johnstone: Flute, Sax (Ba ritone), Vibraslap; Andrew MacKintosh: Flute, Sax (Alt o), Sax (Soprano), Bells, Cowbell; Dennis Noday: Trum pet, Flugelhorn, Multi In struments; Rick Petrone: Ba ss, Guitar (Bass); Randy P urcell: Trombone; Allan Zavod: Piano, Piano (Electric); Lynn Nicholson: Trumpe t, Flugelhorn, Multi Instr uments; Brian Smith: Flute, Sax (Tenor), Ta mbourine; Jerry Johnson: Trombon e.

Conquistador: Patti Austin: Vocals; Gwen Guthrie: Vocals; George Benson: Guitar, Soloist; Pe ter Erskine: Drums; Jo n Faddis: Trumpet; Maynard Ferguson: Trumpet, Flugel horn, Horn; Bob James: P iano, Keyboards; Julian Pri ester: Trombone; Marvin Sta mm: Trumpet; George Young: Sa x (Alto); Mark Colby: Sax (Sop rano), Sax (Tenor); Ralph MacDonald: Percussion; David Taylor: Trombone; Sta n Mark: Trumpet, Trumpet Calls; David Nadien: Strings ; Wayne Andre: Tromb one; Kenny Ascher: Keyboar ds; Richard Berg: Voca ls; Ellen Bernfield: Vocals; Jame s Bossy: Trumpet; R andy Brecker: Trumpet; Alfre d Brown: Strings; Vivian Ch erry: Vocals; Mark Cobby: Sax (Sopran o), Sax (Tenor); Donald Corra do: French Horn; Harry Cykman: Strings; Max Ellen: Strings; Jo e Farrell: Sax (Tenor); Paul Faulise: Trombone; Eric G ale: Guitar; Paul Gershman: Strings; Bernie Glow: Tr umpet; Lani Groves: Vocals; Biff Hannon: Keyboards; Bill Hannon: Keyboar ds; Harry Lookofsky: Stri ngs; Roger Homefield: Trombone; Hilary Ja mes: Piano; Gordon Johnson: Bass; Gary King: Bass; Har old Kohon: Strings; Phil Kra us: Drums; Jeff Layton: Guit ar; Will Lee: Bass; Char les Libove: Strings; Guiseppe Loon: Trumpet; Irwin "Marky" Marko witz: Trumpet; Harvey Ma son, Sr.: Drums; Charles McCra cken: Strings; Mike Miglio re: Sax (Alto), Sax (Soprano); Bobby Militello: Flute, Sax (Bari tone); Marvin Morgenstern: Strings; Joe Mosello: Trumpet, Trumpet Calls; Marty Nelson: Vocal s; Dennis Noday: Trumpet, T rumpet Calls; Linda November: Vocals; Max Pollikoff: Strings; Randy Purcell: Trombone; Lance Quinn: Gu itar; Matthew Raimondi: Strings; Alan Rubin: Trumpet; Allan Schwartzberg: Dru ms; Alan Shulman: Strings; Richard Sortomme: Strings; Brooks Tillotson: French Horn; Ron Tooley: Trumpet, Trumpet Calls; Gwen Gutherie: Vocals; Emanuel Vardi: Strings; Ellen Bernfeld: Vocals; Albert Scheonmaker: Strings; Martin Nelson: Vocals.

Title: Chameleon / Conquistador | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Columbia Records

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