First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2004, Volume 11, #1
Written by John Metzger
Trumpeter Maynard Ferguson has been performing for well over 50 years, first rising to prominence as a member of Stan Kenton’s Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra where he drew tremendous attention for his exquisite range. Specifically, he was able to hit notes that were higher, stronger, and more accurate than anyone else. Subsequently, he began his solo career by leading his own big band, and it was to this format that he returned in 1988 with Big Bop Nouveau. In between, he tore into jazz-fusion with a vengeance, placing a heavy emphasis on rock songs as well as Eastern mysticism — he had been hanging out with Timothy Leary in upstate New York — and his albums increasingly were peppered with cover tunes, including renditions of Laura Nyro’s Eli’s Coming, The Beatles’ Hey Jude, and John Lennon’s Mother. By the mid-1970s, however, Ferguson let his commercial aspirations get the best of him. He continued to change and adapt along with popular music, and his star power temporarily soared as a result of it. Although his abilities remained quite strong, his song selections and arrangements caused him to become a bit of a parody of his former self, hurting his legacy in the process.
Two albums from this period — Chameleon and Conquistador — were recently remastered and reissued, and each showcases some of the best and worst aspects about Ferguson’s music during this era of his career. Without a doubt, the negatives are neatly highlighted via the first three tracks on Conquistador. True, Ferguson’s rendition of Gonna Fly Now (Theme from "Rocky") is definitive — it climbed to #28 on the pop charts — but that means little. Faring even worse are the largely unnecessary, disco-fied Theme from "Star Trek" — yes, it really did get this silly in 1977 — and the tedious lounge jazz of Mister Mellow, which would sound far better without the dated female vocal accompaniment. Of course, Chameleon had its share of duds as well, including a routine reading of Paul McCartney’s Jet and Ferguson’s barely passable vocal outing on the Vernon Duke/Ira Gershwin tune I Can’t Get Started. At the other end of the spectrum were the funked-out bliss of Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, a spicy take on Chick Corea’s La Fiesta, and the swinging Superbone Meets the Badman — all from Chameleon — as well as Conquistador’s powerful title track and the frenetic The Fly.
There’s little doubt that Chameleon is by far the better of the two outings since much of Conquistador is compromised by its pop-production style. While both albums do have their moments, they also are hardly essential fare for fans of either jazz-fusion or Maynard Ferguson.
Chameleon — ½
Chameleon is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Conquistador is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box