In the late ‘50s, Maynard Ferguson led a big band noted for the superior improvisational, composing and arranging skills displayed by its members. The band’s series of Roulette records announced the arrival of a musical force with an uncommon commitment to straight-ahead blowing.
Many of Ferguson’s former band members--drummer Peter Erskine, alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan and trumpeter Don Rader--joined the trumpeter Wednesday night at Anaheim’s Celebrity Theatre for a stop on his current 60th Birthday Big Band Tour.
Erskine sat in for a wild-eyed romp through “Zihuatanejo,” while Morgan and Rader brought not only history and strong musical memory to the current youthful Ferguson gang, but also tidily swapped lines and the warmth of generous experience.
Highlights across the nearly 2-hour set were abundant. A Don Sebesky arrangement of “A Train” got things moving with a fine trombone statement by Alex Iles. Maynard’s overstated introduction to “Star Eyes” quickly gave way to one of his strong fluegelhorn solos that make you remember how far back he goes. A clean reading of “I Can’t Get Started” was perfect before the closing medley.
At moments the brash energy of the band’s relentless go-for-broke attack can overwhelm the nuanced complexity many of the arrangements are capable of releasing. And yet, at its most focused, as on “Cherokee,” this band becomes one of the living embodiments of intelligent musical guts. The heroic front-line role on this is given to 18-year-old alto saxophonist Chris Hollyday.
Then the evening moved to its rousing finale--Slide Hampton’s “Frame for the Blues.” No one was disappointed that Jim Donica’s bass was in an appropriate Halloween mood for “Birdland.” Its arch theme, so hip with the promise of perennial youth, now stands (as it ought to) as Maynard’s personal anthem.