Before Maynard Ferguson embraced rock, soul, funk, Sylvester Stallone, fusion, disco and every other sticky music industry trend in an effort to remain relevant and pay the rent, he was a jazz musician of the highest order.
Actually, that doesn't do Ferguson justice. Let me try again. For a period of about 15 years starting in 1950, Maynard Ferguson was one of the most spectacular soloists on the West Coast jazz scene who led a series of big bands that recorded some of the most consistently exciting jazz LPs of their time. Each album topped the previous one, and the musicians on the dates were first rate readers and soloists. The blowing was all out, no holding back, and the results were powerful and cocky.
Like the bands of Ellington, Basie and Goodman during the mid-to-late 1950s, the players in Ferguson's ensembles pushed themselves to perform better and better in an attempt to measure up to the astonishing talent and charisma of the band's leader.
From his first leadership session for Capitol Records in 1950 (the year he joined Stan Kenton) through his dates for EmArcy (1954-1957), Roulette (1958-1964), and Cameo and Mainstream (1964-1965), Ferguson's bands during this period played increasingly intricate charts and demonstrated killer collective chops.
Maynard's EmArcy sound in retrospect is hard to describe. His bands then were young, fresh, ambitious, and hugely upbeat—a pure mid-1950s sound with an accent on the future rather than the past. There's also excitement in those albums, an inner joy that comes from knowing you can do things other musicians can't—and that the marketplace is rewarding you for those abilities.
Again, to appreciate what is being said here about Ferguson on EmArcy (and Roulette), you must suspend the image in your mind of the paunchy guy with curly gray hair wearing open shirts and red sports jackets. Instead, think about a lean and hungry trumpet player with a test-pilot crew cut and sky's-the-limit attitude about jazz and brass.
Collectors certainly know the difference between the two Maynards. Among Mosaic Records' most sought-after box set is The Complete Roulette Recordings of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, a 10-CD collection that is long out of print. The last time the box surfaced on eBay a few months ago, it went for around $650. Yes, the Roulette sessions are that good (and fortunately are starting to be reissued individually).
But while Ferguson's Roulette period certainly is fabulous (I'll cover these albums in a future posting), the EmArcy dates are equally great. The Roulette recordings are stunning for their virtuosity, but the EmArcy albums have a terrific snap thanks to brisk arrangements and spirited playing. (EmArcy was a play on M-R-C—short for Mercury Records Corp. In the 1950s, EmArcy was Mercury's jazz subsidiary.)
Ferguson's first full date for EmArcy was Dimensions. Recorded in Los Angeles in February 1954, Dimensions offers a strong display of Ferguson's trumpet playing and band talents. A series of small group albums for EmArcy followed, including Hollywood Party and Jam Session (both February 1954), and The Maynard Ferguson Octet (April 1955).
Then from November 1955 to May 1956, Ferguson recorded Around the Horn, featuring all Bill Holman originals and arrangements. The album is pure perfection, from start to finish. The writing is confident and catchy, and the playing swings and swaggers. Extensive touring followed, with the chairs in Ferguson's band constantly changing as musicians left for studio dates and others between dates sat in.
Ferguson's final EmArcy date—and the subject of this post—was Boy With Lots of Brass. Recorded in July 1957, it's my favorite album of the EmArcy period. I'm embarrassed to say I own three copies of the original LP.
The first copy was given to me back in the 1970s by Daryl Lowery, a high school friend who's now a recording saxophonist and professor up at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Each day after big band practice, we used to head down to his basement to listen to jazz records on his massive Altec Lansing Voice of the Theatre speakers. And each afternoon I'd pull loose his dad's copy of Boy With Lots of Brass and insist on hearing Moonlight in Vermont, with Ferguson's soaring solos. After a period of time, Daryl handed me the album, waved off my objections and said, "Just take it."
I purchased my second copy of Boy With Lots of Brass (as a backup) at a New York street fair years ago. The guy threw it in for a couple of bucks with another purchase I made, but not before adding an acidic remark—"Old-time garbage compared to Gonna Fly Now." Whatever.
The third copy I bought about four weeks ago at a used book store in my neighborhood. I couldn't resist. The album was in mint condition and the store clerk said the son of the album's producer brought it in along with other EmArcy records. No wonder it was in such pristine shape. So I pulled out $15 and made the deal.
Simply put, the songs and arrangements on Boy With Lots of Brass are out of this world: Give Me the Simple Life, My Funny Valentine, The Lamp is Low, Imagination, The Song Is You, Jeepers Creepers, Love Me or Leave Me, A Foggy Day, Easy to Love, Moonlight in Vermont, I Hadn't Anyone Till You and I Never Knew. Each one has its own powerful personality.
The band's personnel also is drop dead. Ferguson on trumpet and trombone; Johnny Bello, Joe Burnett and Tom Slaney on trumpets; Bob Burgess and Jimmy Cleveland on trombones; Tony Ortega, Jimmy Ford, Willie Maiden and Tate Houston on saxes; Bobby Timmons on piano; Richard Evans on bass; and Larry Bunker on drums.
A 23-year-old Irene Kral (Roy's sister) provides the vocals on I Hadn't Anyone Till You, Imagination, The Song is You and Moonlight in Vermont (now you know why I nearly drove poor Daryl crazy).
Said Ferguson in the album's original liner notes:
"In Moonlight in Vermont, we really tried for a kind of far out integration of the singer, the band and the trumpet. Another thing, by the way, about Irene is that in addition to having fine intonation and sound, she learns very fast. She's the most consistent singer I ever heard. Her four vocal tracks in this album were recorded in 25 minutes, and this was her first solo record date. She's a real pro."
Where did Ferguson find Irene? Maynard tips his hat to Carmen McRae:
"This is [Irene's] first big band experience; she had sung some before with a commercial vocal group. This is how I found her. I was auditioning 12 girls one day for my first band and didn't like any of them. Carmen McRae happened to pass by, and recommended Irene. The first couple of times I went on the road, I had no girl singer, and when I finally arrived in Chicago where Irene was, I forgot to contact her. But she showed up at the job and asked for a chance to audition. I brought the rhythm section in the next day, heard her, and she started with the band that night."
The album's arrangements are by Willie Maiden, Ernie Wilkins, Al Cohn and Bill Holman. Red-hot writing from some of the best band pens of the decade.
By the 1980s, Ferguson may have become a punch line to serious jazz listeners. But back in the 1950s, when cars were covered in chrome, supermarkets had four aisles and steaks were cut thick, Ferguson and his band roared, commanding the attention of audiences, musicians and arrangers alike. Today, Ferguson's mid-1950s bands still command respect—among record collectors and avid big band fans in the know.
I will turn to Ferguson's Roulette years in the coming weeks, including an in-depth look at one of the greatest big band albums ever recorded.
Wax tracks: Great news: You don't have to rummage through dusty used-record stores trying to score a copy of Boy With Lots of Brass. The album, out of print for years, was recently released on CD by Fresh Sounds. It can be found here.
Ferguson's 1950 Capitol date as well as Dimensions are on a Fresh Sounds CD called Band Ain't Draggin'. It can be found here. Several tracks from Around the Horn as well as Ferguson's other EmArcy releases are on Verve Jazz Masters 52, found here or at iTunes.
Wax video clips: Go here to see and hear Maynard in the early 1950s in a short for Universal in 1957 called Swingin' and Singin'. That's Ferguson on Superbone and trumpet.
Go here to see a Maynard Ferguson alumni group in 2004 play the Ernie Wilkins chart for The Lamp Is Low from Boy With Lots of Brass. The only original band member in the group from the LP is the legendary Tony Ortega, who takes a solo early on and conducts the band from his chair.