Ferguson Makes Jazz Feel Right At Home in Des Moines
Friday, July 9, 1999 - The Des Moines Register
By Ben Allaway

Walking from the City Hall parking lot toward the river last night just after 7, I heard a trumpet solo that seemed to riff off the Embassy Suites Hotel, soar across the river to the Travelers umbrella, which volleyed it back across the Locust Street bridge.

This is good, I thought. Jazz was raised on the river, even one blocked in by city buildings and bridges, steamboats and log rafts.

We don't have the steamboats, and log rafts were mostly found on the Mississippi River, but jazz must have felt right at home on the banks of the Des Moines River with the setting sun silhouetting the beautiful skyline of Des Moines, fenced in by the Locust and Walnut Street bridges.

Downtown got it right when city leaders build the Simon Estes Riverfront Ampitheater, and "Nitefall On The River" got it right when it booked jazz legend Maynard Ferguson into this beautiful venue.

The lone trumpet I'd heard walking to the river was actually not Ferguson, but a young local player named Chuck Mercer, fresh out of East High, who was playing with the East High School Jazz Combo directed by Mark Hawkins.

This was the warm-up act, a fully professional sounding ensemble with a growing reputation for excellence and dedication. They rehearsed every morning at 6:30 for the last two weeks to prepare for tonight's gig with Ferguson.

Fresh off a plane from the Montreal Jazz Festival, Ferguson and his Big Bop Nouveau Band came on with a relaxed but simmering groove called "You Got It." Ferguson arrived on stage after several minutes of playing by the band and jumped right into the lead role with a blistering trumpet line that set the tone.

Big Bop Nouveau is a leaner big band at 10 pieces, but they are all outstanding soloists and blaze through Ferguson's eclectic repetoire, which ranges from bop to '70s kitsch classics like his "Theme from Rocky" and "MacArthur Park," to Asian influenced tunes.

Ferguson teaches in India for a month each year and dedicated the tune "Misra Denuka," or "Freedom Scale," to some frieds from India.

Full of mystical influences this was a stunning work which had two endings, one a big, characteristically high trumpet note, the next a vocal from Ferguson chanting in Indian style which carried out over the water and into the night.

The all-too-short evening ended with Ferguson's incredible arrangement of Charlie Parker's "Birdland," which proved again that no one blows like this warm gentleman from Montreal.