Tunes on Tuesday: Airegin

Why this tune?

Sonny Rollins wrote “Airegin” (“Nigeria” backwards) in 1954, and recorded it first with Miles Davis and his band. I drew on the version on Miles’ 1957 “Bags Groove” album for my
piano track.

The first version I heard of the tune couldn’t be more different. That was Maynard Ferguson’s loud, fast big band version from his 1977 album “New Vintage.” I learned this week that he recorded that arrangement first on a 1964 album “Color Him Wild,” which I found on YouTube.

I was listening to lots of big band music in the late 70s as a high school student just learning about this music we call jazz. Some of the classic bandleaders from the Big Band era were still touring in that period, including Count Basie and Woody Herman. Mercer Ellington continued to perform with his father’s band after Duke died in 1975.

Some of those bands, like Herman and Ferguson, tried all sorts of musical styles to stay relevant and attract audiences, under serious competition from disco and other pop music. Woody Herman played Stevie Wonder songs and other pop hits. Ferguson tried all sorts of styles. The 1977 album that included “Airegin” also included Ferguson’s arrangement of the theme from Star Wars, “Maria” from West Side Story, and an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherezade.”

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Full piano track

Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, 1957

Maynard Ferguson, 1977

Published by Oren Levine

Jazz pianist and composer in Washington, DC. Also a digital product and technology professional working at a small DC nonprofit

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