Big Band Horsepower: Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Fuel-injected and testosterone-drenched are not descriptions usually associated with big band music. Enter Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. These prominent big bands of the late-60s and 70s throw convention and easy listening out the window. Each band had a fearless leader who was a virtuoso on his respective instrument.

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Big Swing Face, 1967

Buddy Rich, known the world over as the best drummer of all time, heads up his band from the rear with fireworks and showmanship. On several live sessions you can hear Rich shouting orders like a gunnery sergeant. He was notoriously hard on his players and it paid off in spades — leaving behind numerous recordings, most on the Pacific Jazz label, teaming with hard-driving, turn-on-a-dime tracks. Rich usually supplied a mix of compositions, both contemporary and jazz standards, on his albums. Some tracks dipped in to the WWI-era swing bag. However, it’s Rich’s contemporary tracks that really offer his band’s full pyrotechnic potential. A favorite of mine is the album Big Swing Face from 1967 on Pacific Jazz. On this release we can hear some true modern gems like “Mexicali Nose” and “Willowcrest”. The band roars in focused unison while Rich lays down superhuman drum solos. On 1969’s Keep The Customer Satisfied Rich pays tribute to the score from the film Midnight Cowboy with a lengthy medley that just about brings down the house. To have seen this band live would have been an opportunity to witness perfection.

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M.F. Horn 3, 1973

Maynard Ferguson, oppositely, lead from the front on both trumpet and trombone. He was best known for his “stratospheric” playing on trumpet having had the ability to hit a triple C in his trademark upper register. Ferguson was also known to dance on stage — achieving his usual euphoria by his band’s infectious swing. By 1970 he honed his players into a contemporary sound machine with the uncanny ability to play anything and everything. He sometimes covered pop themes such as the title track from 1974’s Chameleon or “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” on 1977’s Conquistador without reservation. He made the “Theme from Shaft” on 1972’s M.F. Horn Two swing like nobody’s business. Some of his staples have aged very well including the moody “Eli’s Comin'” and the 10-minute epic “Macarthur Park” both from the excellent 1970 release M.F. Horn. Ferguson proved to be a genius at arranging — making familiar tunes wholly original and relevant. If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

If anything, Ferguson breathed new life into big band orchestrations with his unabashed enthusiasm, bold strokes and crowd-pleasing material.

Next time you need a soundtrack to a formula one grand prix or a jumpstart to your day try spinning some Rich or Ferguson — seat belts are optional.

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