A BASSIST WHO IS NO MEAN TENOR
by TERRY TEACHOUT
New jazz singers are as thick on the ground these days as blockbuster movies, and just about as interchangeable. Not so Jim Ferguson, whose first album "Not Just Another Pretty Bass," is the most distinctive recording debut since Diana Krall came along four years ago with "Only Trust Your Heart." Mr. Ferguson, who grew up in South Carolina, is a balladeer with a high, sweet tenor voice whose accent is as Southern as the smell of fresh-cut mint on a hot summer day; though he can swing hard, he prefers to amble lazily through wistful songs like "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "Early Autumn," singing in the pensive manner of a man who has spent his share of sleepless nights wondering what might have been.
You would think that so individual and engaging an artist would have made the big time long ago, but Mr. Ferguson has yet to appear as a headliner in a New york club, though he has performed with legends like Benney Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Stephanie Gappelli - on bass. That's one reason he isn't better known: Mr. Fergusen, like Ms. Krall, is a gifted instrumentalist who only recently began to feature himself as a singer. Then there's the little matter of his day job. A resident of Nashville since 1981, Mr. Ferguson pays the rent by playing bass and singing backup vocals in the road band of Crystal Gayle, the country-pop crooner with the ankle-length hair. It's a living, but one that isn't exactly conducive o being taken seriously as a jazz singer. To be sure, country music and jazz have more in common than is generally realized. Charlie Christian grew up listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Gary burton got his start playing vibraphone in recording sessions led by Chet Atkins, one of the many nashville based pickers who is perfectly capable of holding his own in a jam session. But it is unusual for a musician to divide his time more or less equally between jazz and country, as does Mr. Ferguson, and his hybrid musical identity is even more surprising given the fact that his career in country was something of an afterthought. He is a protégé of of the songwriter-pianist Loonis McGlohon and the bassist Red Mitchell, who died in 1992, and except for brief tour of duty with the New Christy Minstrels, he spent the first part of of hi slife playing jazz exclusively. Even after moving to Nashville in 1981, Mr Ferguson continued to work with distinguished jazz musicians like Gene Bertoncini, Kenny Burrell, Jackie Cain and Roy kral, Marian McPartland, Jay McShann, Bucky Pizzarelli and Clark Terry. It's no surprise that he should be in demand, for his fluid, supple solo style is at once unobtrusively virtuosic and unfailingly melodic - just what you'd expect from a bass player who sings on the side.
Mr. Ferguson's singing, however, is not a sideline but a central part of his musical life. Unlike most jazz instrumentalists who also sing, he has a solid technical foundation (he studied voice in college and has been doubling as a singer ever since), and his taste in material is far more sophisticated than that of the vast majority of the young jazz vocalists who have attracted attention in recent years. "Not Just Another Pretty Bass," for instance, features unhackneyed songs like "Blame It on My Youth," "South to a Warmer Place" and "The Real Thing," an exquisite ballad by Gerry Mulligan and Mel Tormé that is on its way to becoming a contemporary standard. "I like to sing songs with well-written lyrics-carefully thought out and poetic-and well-constructed melodies," he explains. "And I guess I'm also a guy who likes to sing sad songs, too." Why has it taken so fine a singer so long to break free from the anonymity of the side man's life? "I simply didn't feel ready," says Mr. Ferguson, who is 48. "I'm a late bloomer on all fronts-I didn't have my first child until I'd been married for 13 years."
Even then, he insisted on doing things his way: instead of moving to New York and starting over again at the bottom of the musical food chain, he decided to cut an album-quality demo tape and send it over the transom to a long list of music-business insiders. Accompanied by the tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and two top Nashville jazzmen, the pianist Pat Coil and the drummer Jim White, Mr. Ferguson went into a local studio and laid down polished versions of 21 songs. The resulting cassette, which began making the rounds last year, quickly caught the ear of several well-placed New Yorkers. Jonathan Schwartz started playing it on his influential Sunday radio show, and the producer-arranger Bill Kirchner, who calls Mr. Ferguson "the most impressive singer-instrumentalist to come along since Chet Baker and Andy Bey," put him in touch with Challenge /A-Records, which has now released "Not Just Another Pretty Bass." It contains 11 tracks drawn from the original tape; the liner notes are by Will Friedwald, the author of "jazz Singing" and "Sinatra!" "Not Just Another Pretty Bass" doesn't sound in the least like a self-produced demo tape. The vocals are warm and irresistibly tender, and the band plays with the telepathic confidence of a longtime working group; the feel is that of a relaxed, intimate late-night set by a jazz singer of the first rank, accompanied by a formidable quartet of instrumentalists who are at the top of their game. Nor would a casual listener suspect that Mr. Ferguson is simultaneously singing and playing bass (he didn't cheat, either; except for one or two minor repairs, there are no overdubs).
For all its obvious popular appeal, "Not Just Another Pretty Bass" is unlikely to meet with the kind of large-scale crossover success that has made Ms. Krall a superstar. Small-label releases rarely crack the charts, and Mr. Ferguson's reluctance to move to New York makes him harder to market. But stranger things have happened, especially in the decentralized age of the Internet, when one lucky break may be enough to start a ripple of interest that can grow into a tidal wave. Accordingly, he has set up a Web page (www.jimfergusonmusic.com) at which curious visitors can listen to snippets of "Not Just Another Pretty Bass" and order the CD from amazon.com. And while he isn't giving up his day job yet, he is already choosing songs for a second solo album. Even if Jim Ferguson were to become a matinee idol, it's hard to imagine fame changing him all that much. A home-owning husband who dotes on his 7-year-old daughter, he is soft-spoken and self-effacing to a fault. ("He's the least neurotic singer I know," says a colleague who prefers, understandably enough, to remain nameless.) But there is a note of quiet pride in his insistence that the chief virtues of his singing are its straightforwardness and simplicity. "I know some people think scat singing is the essence of jazz singing," he says, "but Nat Cole and Billie Holiday and Sinatra didn't do it. They paid respect to the composer and the melody, and I try to do that, too. I always feel the song is more important than I am."
Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, is a contributor to Time magazine.
Jim was recently interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition. Click below to listen.
Listen to Jim's interview on NPR Morning Edition