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Maynard Ferguson: Live -- At the Top

Jack Bowers By

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Maynard Ferguson
Live — At the Top
Brentwood Home Video
1975/2005

I loved trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's bands of the early to mid-'60s — great charts, great players, and they swung their butts off. By 1974, when Live — At the Top was filmed at the Plaza Hotel in Rochester, NY, Maynard had entered his "pop/funk/rock" phase for Columbia Records, covering hit songs by Lennon/McCartney ("Hey Jude") and Jimmy Webb ("MacArthur Park,"), recording themes from the movies Star Wars, Shaft, The Way We Were and, most notably, Rocky, and doing whatever else was necessary to survive. This hour-long concert opens with four songs from Maynard's quasi- commercial album Chameleon ("Park," "Chameleon," Chick Corea's "La Fiesta," the standard "I Can't Get Started") and closes with Jeff Steinberg's sermon-like "Gospel John" and Slide Hampton's adrenalizing "Got the Spirit," the last a torrid showcase for baritone saxophonist Bruce Johnstone.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of excitement here (and plenty of high-decibel histrionics as well), but Maynard is no longer playing Jazz, only high notes (at least on these tunes), and the arrangements, good as they are, can't match those that Hampton, Don Sebesky, Mike Abene, Don Rader, Willie Maiden, Don Menza (all of whom doubled as top-drawer soloists) and others wrote for those incomparable ensembles in the '60s. Having said that, there is much to admire on this concert date, especially Johnstone's rapid-fire tour de force on "Spirit," bassist Rick Petrone's mind-blowing unaccompanied intro to "La Fiesta," and earnest solos by flugel Don Hans, trombonist Randy Purcell, pianist Alan Zavod and high-note trumpeter Lynn Nicholson on "Park," tenor Brian Smith on "Chameleon," Zavod and trombonist Jerry Johnson on "Fiesta," and alto Andy Mackintosh on "Gospel John." As for Maynard, always the showman, he's his usual bundle of energy, scraping the stratosphere with those incredible screams, singing quite well on "I Can't Get Started," pushing the band, and even playing tuba on "Gospel John." As was the custom back in the mid-'70s, Zavod plays electric piano and Petrone bass guitar, swapping it for acoustic bass only on "Fiesta."

The performance was taped for WXXI-TV in Rochester and shown on that station in June 1975. Among the several DVD "extras" are comments by Greg Dispenza who attended the concert, which was actually held in the fall of 1974; At the Top archives (stills of Maynard and the band taken during the performance); audio clips of Maynard's July '75 concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall with comments by Bud Jackson who was not only there (front row center) but also supplied the tapes; and a Maynard Ferguson slide show comprised of photos of MF from his early years to the present, accompanied by the theme "Maynard Ferguson," recorded with Stan Kenton's orchestra, and including remarks by its composer, the late Shorty Rogers, and trumpeter Buddy Childers (at least, I think that's Buddy).

For a thirty-year-old video, the picture and sound are remarkably clear, and the band's precision and power literally spring to life in one's living room. Maynard was forty-six years old when the concert was held, and even though there was considerable wear and tear on the chops, he could still go places other trumpeters only dreamed of approaching. In fact, he's still hard to touch today, some thirty years later. Even though this isn't some of the best music MF's ensembles ever played, the Plaza concert is worth seeing and hearing for Maynard alone — and the band isn't bad either.

Track listing: MacArthur Park; Chameleon; La Fiesta; I Can't Get Started; Gospel John; Got the Spirit (58:00).

Personnel: Maynard Ferguson, trumpet, leader; Bob Summers, Lynn Nicholson, Stan Mark, Ernie Garside, trumpet; Don Hans, trumpet, flugelhorn; Andy Mackintosh, alto sax; Brian Smith, tenor sax; Bruce Johnstone, baritone sax; Randy Purcell, Jerry Johnson, trombone; Alan Zavod, electric piano; Rick Petrone, acoustic bass, bass guitar; Danny D'Imperio, drums.

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