Back in the mid-‘70s, in the midst of the first wave of jazz fusion, big bands staged a comeback of sorts. Touring big bands had not been a viable financial option since the dawn of the ‘50s. Duke Ellington was an exception, keeping his band on the road largely financed out of his own pocket and a steady stream of recordings, but even the venerable Count Basie found it necessary to pull off the road for a short time before reconvening his big band with a new sound and a new book of arrangements. For many others, time was less kind. But then a curious thing happened: the powerhouse sound of these bands, driven by large horn and saxophone sections and bolstered by electronically amplified rhythm sections found receptive young audiences among those who had been drawn in by the electronic jazz of Miles Davis, Weather Report, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. With books of charts that relied heavily on modern pop and rock songs, the bands of Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, and others were reborn, playing concerts at venues across the country. Many of these shows were done at high schools, with school band members selling tickets to raise money for band activities. The schedule was grueling for these bands, but for many it was simply amazing to be back on the road again. By far one of the most successful big bands of the time was the band led by Maynard Ferguson.
Before the recording of Chameleon, Ferguson had noted the paucity of opportunities for big bands in the U.S., and by 1967 he was touring and living in Great Britain as well as traveling to India on a personal spiritual quest. After landing a contract with Columbia Records, Ferguson returned to the U.S. and compiled the group heard on this recording, a combination of American and British musicians. Following a 13-week tour that took them across the country and back again, Ferguson recorded and released Chameleon to thundering acclaim. Now that Columbia/Sony is reissuing these classic Ferguson albums, it’s easy to see why they were so successful. Chameleon is full of energetic playing, hot soloists, excellent material, and beautifully realized arrangements by a stable of musician/arrangers that included Jay Chattaway, Randy Purcell, and Jerry Johnson. It is truly the updated big band sound that Ferguson and company were no doubt hoping to create when they went into the studio.
“Chameleon”, the super phat Herbie Hancock funk track that opens the album, was a big hit for Hancock upon its release, and Ferguson’s version, arranged by Jay Chattaway, whose main experience up to that point had been as a Navy band arranger. It’s a sheer powerhouse track from the get go, with trombonists Randy Purcell and Jerry Johnson digging into Hancock’s chromatic bass line while Australian pianist Alan Zavod gets some tasty licks in on electric piano. The trumpet section adds a solid wall of brass that is topped off by Ferguson’s trademark high notes, and when it comes time for solos, tenor sax player Brian “Hard Bop” Smith provides plenty of energy to keep the chart cooking along nicely. “Gospel John”, composed by Jeff Steinberg, opens with Maynard portraying a fiery Baptist preacher with his trumpet, “preaching” to the congregation with the aid of Alan Zavod’s gospel chords. When the number kicks into gear, it is sometimes reminiscent of a marching band number, but the arrangement really brings it around, with the trombones providing counterpoint to the trumpet section in the later statements of the melody.
Of the pop song arrangements, “The Way We Were” is the most successful, largely because Ferguson plays with lyricism and tenderness, even in the upper register. It’s just a gorgeous arrangement of a classic melody that is very well executed by the band. Less successful is an arrangement of Paul McCartney’s “Jet”, which drummer Danny D’Imperio refers to in the liner notes as “filler.” Everyone tries their best to make the chart work, but in the final analysis it is simply not a track many listeners will care to hear more than once. Somewhere in the middle is Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City” which reproduces the feel of the original fairly accurately, and has some nice solo work as well.
That leaves the absolute best tracks (other than the title track): a fiery reworking of the Chick Corea composition “La Fiesta” (which was also recorded by Woody Herman’s band, for which the Herman Herd received a Grammy award) and the Chattaway original “Superbone Meets the Bad Man”. The Corea composition features a sizzling passé doble section that allows the rhythm section to spur the band and, later, the soloists into a white hot frenzy. The melodic middle section features Andy Mackintosh on soprano sax. “Superbone Meets the Bad Man” hearkens back to Ferguson’s days on the stage at Birdland and features the bandleader playing his Superbone, a valve/slide trombone of this own design. Ferguson’s foil on this chart is baritone sax player Bruce “Badman” Johnstone.
The album’s remaining track is Ferguson’s take on the Bunny Berigan classic “I Can’t Get Started”. Ferguson is no great singer, but he doesn’t embarrass himself, either, and has a lot of fun with revised lyrics such as “Stan Kenton made me a star” and “Linda Lovelace thinks I’m obscene.” Not only does Chameleon provide a perfect time capsule of what big bands sounded like in the ‘70s, it also sounds remarkably fresh and (with a couple of exceptions) less dated than one would expect. It’s just great music.
Less exciting by far is Conquistador, which was released, not as the follow-up to Chameleon, but as the successor to Primal Scream, an album that was made with Bob James in the producer’s chair. James brought in his own New York session musicians, so Ferguson’s band members didn’t appear on the album. Though the album was a commercial success it miffed the band members, and very few of the album’s charts were incorporated into the band’s live appearances. On Conquistador James was still at the helm, and there were plenty of guests brought in, but the touring band did figure prominently.
The level of musicianship on Conquistador is high, but the chief problem is that the material is, overall, not very good. With the exception of “Gonna Fly Now”, the theme from the hit movie Rocky that became a hit for Ferguson, the material is almost all forgettable. “Conquistador”, co-composed by Ferguson and Jay Chattaway, is a pretty decent chart with some nice solos, but you’ll scarcely find yourself humming it on the way to the supermarket. That’s also true of “The Fly”, another Ferguson/Chattaway composition. Of the remaining tracks, “Mister Mellow” (which features a trademark guitar solo from George Benson) is pure drivel, a foreshadowing of the smooth jazz that producer James helped create, complete with vapid female backup vocals that coo (what else?) “Mister Mellow .... Mister Mellow”. Bob James’s composition “Soar Like an Eagle” is more of the same sonic wallpaper, though it tries hard to exude some kind of funky vibe. The band’s take on “Theme from Star Trek” sounds like the Enterprise has wandered into a department store with its vapid Muzak background over which Ferguson’s trumpet glides prettily but emptily.
In fact, it would appear that the entire raison d’etre for this album is the inclusion of Ferguson’s version of “Gonna Fly Now”. Jay Chattaway’s version forgoes some of the epic qualities of the original in deference to a certain funkiness, but overall it’s the song you remember. In fact, it may well truly be the song you remember, because Columbia rushed Ferguson’s version out ahead of the soundtrack album, and had a huge hit with it, a bigger hit than the Bill Conti soundtrack. It’s a decent performance, but overall not particularly jazzy. It was albums like Conquistador and a few that followed that caused many a jazz fan to quit taking Maynard Ferguson seriously as a jazz musician, though his recent work with his Big Bop Nouveau band have done much to reinstate his jazz credentials.
Chameleon is a welcome CD reissue, and there will certainly be those that will enjoy Conquistador as well. But a lot of the best M.F. is still languishing in the Sony vaults because Sony doesn’t think they will sell well enough to justify reissue. These releases include Primal Scream, and the excellent M.F. Horn series: M.F. Horn 1, M.F. Horn 2, M.F. Horn 3, and the absolutely classic M.F. Horn 4 & 5: Live at Jimmy’s. That last set, recorded live, features a knockout version of the Ferguson big band playing some of the group’s best charts, including “Teonova”, “MacArthur Park”, “Nice N’ Juicy”, and the stunning “Got the Spirit”. Now that some of the more commercial Ferguson CDs are out of the bag, write to Sony and ask that they reissue these other classic albums and help restore the legacy of Maynard Ferguson and an important time in the history of big band music.