This evening consisted of a concert given by Maynard Ferguson, and the Bingham High School Jazz Ensemble. The first part of the evening was the high school band, and I must say, that was the surprising part of the evening. I knew what to expect from Ferguson, but I had no idea what has been going on down at the High School level. My kids go to another high school here in the city, and I've been to many of those concerts. I had pretty much accepted that program to be the measuring stick for the state of high school music around here. However, I had not been to any concerts at other schools.
Over the last years, I have heard these band concerts, and both Val and I have noted to each other every time that what we had just heard held no candle to our previous school experiences when we were students. Both Val and I had had previous good experiences in band programs, and we both remember them proudly with fondness.
The Bingham High School Jazz ensemble was the kind of program that we had both grown up in, and we thought that with the cuts in music curriculum, were lost forever. But not so. Not to take anything away from the music programs at our childrens' schools, the Bingham program definitely has the passion that is missing in 99% of the programs out there right now. Those kids are so incredibly lucky to have what they have. The jazz band was staffed with a full complement of traditional jazz band sections, without the oddities necessitated by being short on trombone players or Saxophone players - there were no Bass Clarinets, or similar weirdness at all. They even had a Baritone sax player, who held his own and sounded great.
The director got them going with a tempo, and then got out of the way and let them play. They had a great rhythm section, anchored by two able bass players, alternating on tunes - following the kick drum very nicely, a good piano player who understands the role of the piano in a jazz combo, and a VERY solid drummer who knew his role as well. So often you get a drummer that comes from the "Twisted Sister" school of jazz drumming in high schools, but this kid was wonderfully sensitive to the nuances of what was going on around him. He followed, led, called, answered, and played very well. Delightfully refreshing indeed. This teacher gets the passion of the music, more than the notes.
Their selections were age appropriate and not too difficult for them, but were executed very well, with solos being played in all sections of the band through the performance. Soli sections were tight and well balanced. These young players are getting a GREAT education, whether they realize it or not!
Then it was on to the Main Event.
As I said, I knew what to expect from the Maynard Ferguson portion of the show. This was my third time seeing him. As I sat during the intermission before he came on, I did a quick calculation, and noted that the first time I saw him was 28 years ago, in Edmonton Alberta. To my young ears, that concert was nothing short of heroic. I saw him again about 8 or 9 years ago in New York City. By that time, his band had gotten smaller, likely due to economic factors. His career had come down from the commercial success that was paralleled by his signature "Rocky" cover. He had made it onto the Billboard Top 100 with that tune, and had become equated not only with the song, but with the film's character as well - overcoming the odds of being a jazz trumpeter and making it with a pop tune onto the pop charts. Many critics at the time felt that his was the better version of the song (Gonna Fly Now), over the composer's own version, although the composer's version had made it to #1 on that same chart. There were other commercial/pop numbers that shored up the career at that time as well. (Think Star Wars Theme here.) He took some heat for seeking out the overly commercial outlets for his music, but also always had the "jazz card" close at hand as well.
So, what I expected was that same heroic type of trumpet playing with that astonishing 8 octave range, but a bit more subdued, due to his 78 years on this earth. And indeed, that is what he delivered. More than anything right now he is a band leader (and he has been a band leader since the Stan Kenton Big Band disbanded in the late 50's - no pun intended). Ferguson still has most of those notes, though not with the mind-warping, face-melting ferocity had once had them. He transitions to a flugelhorn when he wants to have a more mellow, fat sound. He played solos and parts in most of the arrangements, but really, his band is a great showcase of GREAT players, particularly trumpet players, as one might imagine. DUH!. His lead trumpet player has that same sort of prodigious propensity for the stratosphere, and, closing one's eyes, one might be transported to younger years and another concert. One of the trumpet players was a nephew of his, and also played very well. Rounding out the horn section was a trombone (the band leader) and two reeds.
The Piano player was a master of the instrument, as were all of the rhythm section players. Each got rousing applause for solos, especially the bass player who played a solo that consisted of BOTH a walking bass line, AND a lovely melody, plucked simultaneously with both hands rather than the usual one hand. It was reminiscent of the late Ray Brown, or perhaps John Clayton, although both those players were "upright" players, and this dude was playing Fender Jazz Special.
All in all, it was an impressive show for such an old guy. He seemed to take on a different persona once the music started. He waddled slowly on stage, but when it was time to play, he was all present and accounted for.
I heard a few people talking to each other as they were walking out of the theater. They mentioned that "it's obvious he just doesn't have *it* anymore." These were people who thought perhaps they were going to see some high-brow sophisticated jazz concert, where their intellectual capacity would somehow be challenged. But they obviously showed up with the wrong expectations. Excuse me, but if that was your expectation with this show, you were actually SUPPOSED to be at the Chick Corea concert. If you were looking for a slick retrospective of a 5 decade career played by a guy who still has considerable chops for his age, complete with a medley of hits that are "responsible for my (his) FABULOUS wealth," then you were in the right place, and yuo walked away having had a fun time.