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Jazz review: Jim Ferguson excels on jazz’s other side

fergusonMany fans see jazz mainly as forceful, experimental or edgy music, with performers obsessed with being on the cutting edge and looking more to the future than the past or present.

While some of that is undeniably true, there’s a less familiar and publicized side that great musicians often display. Saturday night at the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Jazz Cave, a distinguished trio featuring bassist Jim Ferguson, pianist Joe Davidian and alto/tenor saxophonist Rahsaan Barber excelled in another thematic vein: as melodic interpreters and sentimentalists.

Ferguson, a longtime bassist/vocalist who combines brilliant instrumental technique with underrated singing acumen, asked the audience early how many people had seen the previous night’s exceptional Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour show. When a few among the packed house raised their hands, Ferguson responded, “Well, we’re going to do the same show, but use different notes.”

In truth, while the Ferguson Trio was equally accomplished, their sensibility, tone and direction was quite different. Ferguson’s specialty was the Great American Songbook, and in particular its romantic/tender end. Through two sets and nearly two hours, he and his mates revisited numerous show tunes and standards. Their treatments always retained the original song’s integrity, while using their framework to demonstrate impressive instrumental facility.

rahsaanFerguson sings in a mellow, unassuming, yet emphatic fashion, with good articulation and style. He’s somewhere in between a crooner and a storyteller/communicator in terms of lyric presentation. He was most effective on tunes from his favorite composer/lyricists like Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. His versions of “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Shadow of Your Smile,” “These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and “What’s New” were among the evening’s many highlights. In each case, not only did Ferguson sing the melody with distinction, but offered first-rate bass solos either before, after or occasionally in conjunction with equally exemplary ones by Davidian and Barber.

Without any drummer to define the rhythmic setting, Barber and Davidian, as well as Ferguson, were free to take tunes in any direction they chose. Most selections were ballads, featuring secondary solos disciplined enough to reaffirm the themes, yet colorful enough to showcase the players’ flair.

Barber showed he could flourish within a more restrictive setting than usual. He found ways to include dynamic phrases, whirling lines, and vocal effects into his renditions, while carefully controlling his volume and pace. He never became overly animated or aggressive on either horn to distort or stretch any piece out of time, yet he was also quite soulful within the parameters of several  tunes’ often maudlin backdrops.

davidianLikewise, Davidian’s array of octave leaps, deft maneuvers in both the treble and bass ends, and his repeated ability to be both flashy and solid won ample applause during his solos. The three players proved so dazzling no one in the audience missed or even thought about the absence of any percussive textures or secondary horn support.

While not necessarily what some people might expect to hear when attending a jazz concert, the Jim Ferguson Trio did precisely what all first-rate improvisers do; they presented dynamic material in a fresh, vivid fashion. It was just much more “My Romance” than “A Love Supreme.”

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.