Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says being there is the only thing that feels like being there; still, this concert DVD isn't a bad time capsule of a 1974 concert by a jazz great.
"Influential Trumpet Player. Composer. Instrument Designer. Band Leader. One of a Kind. Maynard Ferguson is One of the True Legends of Jazz."
Where have you heard the name Maynard Ferguson before? The bandleader and trumpeter's take on "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky cracked the Top 40 in 1977 and made "Birdland" part of the jazz consciousness. With those claims to fame—and his successful 1974 album Chameleon—Maynard Ferguson, the trumpeter who could hit a "double-high C," was at the top of his game. In 1974 he recorded this concert in Rochester, N.Y., for an episode of At the Top, a public TV series.
Ferguson is gone now, having passed away in August. But this performance shows Ferguson, who was always in motion even when he's turned the stage over to soloists from his band, at his most energetic. He even sings a little bit on "I Can't Get Started." As usual, his concert showcases the young talent in his orchestra as much as it spotlights Ferguson himself.
The 58-minute show, taped 14 stories up at a Rochester hotel's nightclub, features six hits by Maynard Ferguson and his big band:
• "MacArthur Park"
There's not a lot of talking here; Ferguson introduces a couple of the pieces and always gives credit to his up-and-coming soloists. The emphasis is on the show, with lots of close-ups of the musicians and lots of crowd shots, all the better to see the 1970s hairdos and mustaches. You'll also see lots of cigarette smoke wafting through this room, since the anti-smoking movement had just gotten started back in 1975, and a waitress walking through the crowd serving drinks (just to remind you that it is an actual club).
There's a disclaimer at the start: "Original audio and video materials were used to create this disc. Although the media was state of the art at the time, some imperfections may appear on this DVD, and should not be considered technical problems." There's something to that since this concert has a lot of the problems you'd expect from a 30-year-old videotape, despite being newly remastered. Watch Ferguson's trumpet leave a visible trail, like a Fourth of July sparkler. Moreover, the lighting has a misty quality, the colors bleed on the bright red shirts Ferguson's band wears, and there's glare on the instruments. The camera work and editing themselves aren't bad, giving you lots of close ups of the musicians as they perform. The sound was decent, but not stellar, as you could imagine from the lack of info available; there's a noticeable drop in volume when Ferguson speaks or sings.
The extras round out the package well, adding more than 20 minutes of bonus music to the mix. Among the standouts: musician Gregg Dispenza talks about this concert, which also marked his first time in a nightclub; a Maynard Ferguson Slide Show, with music and comments by other musicians, and a re-creation of Ferguson's 1975 Carnegie Hall concert through photos, sound clips of "La Fiesta," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and "Tommy Medley," and an interview with music educator Bud Jackson, who was present for the concert. The slide show doesn't let listeners know who's talking, but I was otherwise impressed with the features here.
As a snapshot in time, Maynard Ferguson: Live At The Top works. You get to see Maynard Ferguson perform at a career high point. If you want to see a jazz master at work, you'll probably like this one, though I do caution that the DVD disclaimer wasn't kidding about those imperfections.
I acquit Brentwood Home Video, since it's great to see this rare performance on DVD, although I do wish the original concert video had been better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Brentwood Home Video
• At the Top Photo Archives
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