MAYNARD FERGUSON: LIVE AT THE TOP
Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: Maynard Ferguson
Audio: Dolby 2.0
Video: Color full screen
Features: See Review
Studio: Brentwood Home Video
Length: 60 Minutes
Release Date: March 29, 2005
In the late 1980's I was lucky enough to be playing bass in my college jazz band in Jacksonville when Maynard Ferguson was hired to come play with us. He brought his bassist, drummer, and keyboardist, so while I did not actually perform with him, I got well-acquainted with most of his catalog since my jazz orchestra had to rehearse for his appearance. In those days he traveled a great deal appearing with college bands. In the 1975 when this concert was filmed, the jazz-rock fusion was at its height of popularity, and he was in great demand as a performer.
This brief concert, filmed in Rochester New York in one of the first indoor malls, At the Top, is a good representation of his shows at the time, with a tight rhythm section, great horn players (of course) and Maynard himself displaying his almost unreal high register and exceptional control of those stratospheric tones which made him so famous.
His repertoire may seem quaint to us now, but it was quite hip for its day. Opening with the hopelessly overplayed and woe-begotten "MacArthur Park" is bearable because we don't have to listen to the stupid lyrics and instead we get his unparalleled virtuosity. His version of Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" follows, and of course this has been learned by every pep band in America. The best number is third, Chick Corea's Spanish-tinged "La Fiesta" which opens with a stunning string bass solo and has plenty of the tasty 1970's Fender Rhodes playing which is heard throughout the show.
The fourth tune is the standard which as Ferguson himself points out every trumpet player has to learn, "I Can't Get Started." This is followed by "Gospel John" in which Ferguson actually seems to be scatting and preaching through his trumpet, all throughout the usual impossibly high register, then he picks up his euphonium and jams on it as well. "Got the Spirit" closes the show, and features some excellent baritone sax playing. This is a very eclectic mix but also has tunes well-known to any jazz audience of its time. Unfortunately, any jazz fan would be hard pressed to explain what new things have happened since fusion.
One of the nicest things about most good big band leaders, even the ones that are great players in their own right, is that they allow for plenty of great soloing by their best players, and cheer them on the whole time. So often classical concerts are almost competitions between the soloists, the conductor, and the orchestrata itself, but bands seem to just have more fun. This is definitely true of this concert. It is a fun trip through 1970's big band jazz.
It is difficult to rate concerts like this since they are basically just snapshots from the past, and show some of the limitations of the production values of the time, but this concert is still much better than many I have seen that were produced in more recent times. It was obviously taped for television but the picture has few problems and the camera angles are interesting. Nothing exciting or exceptional but nothing to really complain about either, it is fully functional and works well.
Just stereo but you can hear everything clearly and the band really cooked, so again nothing exceptional but nothing to complain about either.
Some black and white shots from this concert are shown, as well as photos and audio excerpts from Ferguson's 1975 Carnegie Hall concert. One of the more interesting clips is a "Tommy Medley" which bears very little resemblance to the Pete Townsend composition in my opinion except that some of the same notes and chords are used. According to a talk with Greg Dispenza, who was present at the concert, this DVD's concert actually happened in late 1974, not 1975 as the package says. I am not sure which is correct. These features are generally unnecessary to the concert and do not increase the value of the product in general. The entire band personnel is listed though, which is nice since most DVD's don't even bother with this feature in our present day.
Back when horn players ruled, Maynard Ferguson owned the high notes, and this filmed for public television show will show you why in those days band was cool.