One need only glance at Sherman Ferguson’s smiling face on the cover of his long-overdue debut as leader of his own quartet to understand that this is a gentleman who thoroughly enjoys his work. Ferguson’s happiness is evident throughout the session, lending it an aura of good-natured camaraderie that enables his companions to simply loosen their ties and blow. Even without a piano to cue the changes, drummer Ferguson and bassist Trevor Ware are such accurate and persuasive timekeepers that front-liners Carl Randall and Louis Van Taylor are gently pushed along by the lively and persistent rhythmic undercurrent, responding with a number of ardent and resourceful solos in the post-bop vernacular.
Ferguson, a Philadelphian who counts Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Billy Hart, Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins among his mentors and inspirations, is a “musical” drummer who uses his remarkable technique and receptive ear to lay down a handsome carpet of sound that enhances but doesn’t overshadow the group dynamic. The only lapse comes on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” wherein Ferguson’s natural aggressiveness weakens its poignant message. “Lush Life” is one of five jazz originals (the others are by Johnny Griffin, Wayne Shorter, Oliver Nelson and Bobby Watson) linked to a pair of compositions by Ferguson (“Mixed Nuts,” “Philly Joe / Jughead’s Hat”) and another, “Spirit of Higgins,” created on the spot by the quartet at Worldstage in Los Angeles a week before Higgins’ death as an impromptu tribute to the ailing drummer.
“Mixed Nuts” is in the New Orleans tradition of buoyant “street drumming,” while “Philly Joe / Jughead” opens with Ferguson’s nimble drum solo before assuming a boppish posture with incisive statements by Randall and Van Taylor (who’s listed on soprano but plays tenor). Griffin’s bluesy “Call It Whachawanna” is followed by Shorter’s ”Lester Left Town,” taken at a much faster tempo than usual, Nelson’s melancholy “Black, Brown and Beautiful” (introduced by Van Taylor’s soprano and Ware’s arco bass) and Watson’s eccentric “Monk He See, Monk He Do.” Pianoless quartets don’t always live up to their basic purpose, which is to swing; thanks to Ferguson and Ware, here’s one that does.