Ferguson's Horn of Plenty Pierces Sound Barrier
By Howard Reich, source unknown

What a difference a name makes.

Wednesday night audiences at the Jazz Showcase tend to be a bit sparse, but this week there hardly was enough room in the house for the waiters to serve the drinks.

Such is the drawing power of Maynard Ferguson, whose high-decibel, high-style trumpet playing richly deserves the standing-room-only crowds. That Ferguson is being backed by his Big Bop Nouveau Band only adds to the appeal, for its members clearly belong to Ferguson's leather-lunged school of jazz playing.

Ferguson, of course, leads the stampede, his piercing, careening lines blasting right past the band's five horns and standard rhythm section. There probably isn't a trumpeter alive-jazz, blues, classical or you name it-who can get as much sound and point from a trumpet.

But there's much more to Ferguson's art than just volume. His vibrato is fast and thrilling; his runs careen from the top register to middle and bottom with incredible speed; his ability to blur from one pitch to the next nearly defies our standard conception of the well-tempered scale. Or, in other words, there would be no way to notate the pitches that Ferguson plays; they are entirely of his making.

Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band probably is misnamed, for this is really a hard-driving swing band with a taste for braying dissonance and an occasional bop run.

Regardless of semantics, however, it's one of the most incendiary ensembles in jazz, its well-drilled, muscular horn section offering the ideal counterbalance to Ferguson's soaring solo lines.

The evening opened with a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, in the form of his "A Night in Tunisia," although Ferguson's version is far different from Gillespie's. Where the composer tends to emphasize intricate Latin cross-rhythms and atmospheric colors (witness his performance last weekend at the Great Lakes Naval Base), Ferguson's treatment is brazenly loud, fast and explosive. It's also one of the most exuberant versions we've heard.

"Hit and Run" turned out to be the most aptly named number in the opening set, as well as the only arrangement that truly could be called "bebop." Ferguson handled the fast-moving chord changes and nearly frenetic runs persuasively, his every note fitting into the scheme.

Though Ferguson and friends obviously intended "But Beautiful" to be the evening's ballad, their penchant for fireworks got the better of them. Still, it was a pleasure to behold Ferguson opening with a darkly burnished tone that slowly gave way to a brighter, fiercer sound. By the end of the number, it was hard to believe that it had begun at a whisper.

So it went, with Ferguson and the band offering a rhythmically propulsive account of Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone," which wasn't. Still, the sense of swing and phrasing were impeccable throughout.

The band, comprising players roughly half Ferguson's age, generally kept pace with the boss. The standouts included Craig Johnson's lead trumpet, Glenn Kostur's baritone saxophone and Matt Wallace's blistering alto and tenor saxes.

They'll be rattling the Showcase through Sunday; here's hoping the walls hold up.