PACIFIC JAZZ / Cherokee (Noble); Jumping Jacks (C. Fischer); Cotton Tail (Ellington); New Thing (B. Fischer); Passion (C. Fischer); Sad About Nothing Blues (B. Fischer); Mood Indigo (Ellington); Eleanor Rigby (Lennon-McCartney); Blues Parisien (C. Fischer); Son of a Dad (B. Fischer); I Loves You, Porgy (Gershwin-Hayward); All Out (Winter); Ornithardy (C. Fischer) / The Clare Fischer Big Band, dir. by Brent Fischer; Clare Fischer, keyboards (tracks 3, 7, 11) / CLAVO RECORDS (no number)
This album was mostly recorded by Brent Fischer while his father Clare was still alive. Brent’s father plays keyboards on Cotton Tail, Mood Indigo and I Loves You, Porgy, replaced by Quinn Johnson on tracks 1, 4-6, 8 and 12-13 and by Alan Steinberger on the others (2, 9, 10). The collective personnel of this big band shifts from track to track and is too massive to include in the header, but notable names include Steve Huffsteter, Carl Saunders and Ron Stout on trumpets and flugelhorns, Scott Whitfield and Andy Martin on trombones, Don Shelton and Gary Foster on flutes and alto saxes, and Sean Franz and Bob Sheppard on tenor saxes.
The CD opens with Clare’s arrangement of Cherokee, familiar to many jazz lovers from his own “Jazz Corps” CD of 1997, but here played with a bit more brass and bite. The constantly shifting meter draws the listener inward, where the oddly punching sound of bass trombone adds a piquant feel to the performance. Brent describes Jumping Jacks as a tune he heard his father play often at the piano when he was a child, but didn’t discover on sheet music until many years later. It’s a wonderful piece, with just a hint of an R&B beat to it mixed in with boppish licks and that “jumping” main melody, though the rhythm melts and softens a bit for Huffsteter’s trumpet solo, and even more in the second half of the piece. It almost sounds like a little suite, as the tempo and themes shift and morph every couple of choruses! The finale is especially interesting.
In the liner notes, Brent describes a moment when Clare was unexpectedly visited in the recording studio by Duke Ellington, whereupon he immediately began playing Duke’s tunes in his hippest style. Ellington came up when he was finished, put his hand on his shoulder, and said, “Now, that’s the way my music was meant to be played.” Clare’s arrangement of Cotton Tail may lack the kinetic energy and fire of Ellington’s original 1940 recording—the extended and harmonically complex introduction is certainly non-Ellingtonian—but it was Clare Fischer’s way of saying “thanks” to Duke while adding his own individual touch. Interestingly, Ben Webster’s solo is scored for two tenor saxes and baritone, which gives the piece a compositional rather than an improvisational feel to it…sort of like “Supersax plays Webster.” This is followed by a soft-grained chorus in irregular meter played by the flutes and electric piano (Clare Fischer), followed by an excellent single-note solo by Clare with bass underpinning in which he does not copy Ellington, then trumpet and trombone solos, the latter underscored by soft winds (a Clare Fischer specialty). The penultimate chorus is lifted, again, directly from the original Ellington record, but why not? You can’t improve on perfection.
Brent Fischer’s original New Thing has a bit of a jazz-funk beat to it, similar to the kind of “fusion” that existed before Miles Davis. (Think of Don Ellis or the Electric Flag.) Interest is kept up, however, through his mastery of form: neither the melodic line nor the harmony fits into the prescribed mold that one would expect from this sort of piece. Alex Budman’s alto solo and Stout’s flugelhorn are outstanding, bridged by a clarinet-choir interlude that is obviously a paean from Brent to his father’s love of clarinets.
Passion is unusual in that Clare Fischer wrote it in 1945 when only 17 years old. If you dispute that claim, you might want to ask Brent to let you hear his father playing it on a 78-rpm record. I alternately laugh and get angry when so-called musical “experts” tell us that so-and-so couldn’t possibly have written such sophisticated music at such an early age. Another example that comes to mind is Charles Mingus’s The Chill of Death. Passion isn’t nearly as complex as Chill, but it certainly has the type of sound that one would associate, back then, with the early Stan Kenton or Charles Mingus bands. Mingus worked exclusively on the West Coast when he was younger, and although he made only a few rare recordings during that period, who’s to say that young Clare Fischer didn’t hear him? Certain passages in this piece put me in mind of Mingus’s This Subdues My Passion.
Sad About Nothing Blues starts out, oddly, with the sound of a needle playing the opening of a 78-rpm record, but once the music starts the sonics are modern and clean, so it was obviously a bit of a joke. Brent says in the liner notes that neither he nor his father ever felt the blues were really sad; when Clare wanted to write something sad, he wrote a ballad; so this blues rocks with joyous abandon. Trumpeter Saunders and trombonist Scott Whitfield provide the laid-back, almost Bob Dorough-style vocals on this track (with Saunders backed on counterpoint by Whitfield in two choruses), and it is certainly the highlight of the piece.
Clare’s arrangement of Mood Indigo respects Ellington’s voicing and instrumental blend but adds a few touches via the contrabass clarinet. He also plays a conventional grand piano on this track, a rarity in his later years (he thought electric pianos were more consistent in pitch). There are, of course, some individual touches in Fischer’s scoring of the middle theme, and his own piano solo is more influenced in rhythm by Monk and in harmony by Horace Silver and Tristano while still paying homage to Ellington. (This makes sense in a way since Ellington was Monk’s primary influence as a pianist.) The whole piece has a compositional feel to it, even the final choruses which are played misterioso by the band sotto voce. Mood Indigo indeed.
I approached Eleanor Rigby with some trepidation. I well recall the original record and all the jazz-styled arrangements played by white big bands of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s who tried so hard to be hip. This version by Clare and Brent is better than most due to their superior command of voicing (i.e., mixing E minor and C7 chords together: note, particularly, the outstanding half-chorus for trombones just before the electric piano solo by Johnson) that lifts it above the usual level. But oh, those drums!
Blues Parisien, composed by Clare for one of his clarinet choir albums, was rescored by him here for conventional big band. Oddly this, too, has a 1950s sound (think of the Clifford Brown big band or some of the Shorty Rogers Giants recordings), but in a good way. Huffsteter plays an excellent solo on this one. Son of a Dad is described in the booklet in an unusual way. As a child, Brent used to lie under the piano with the family dog listening to Clare write music; years later, the position was reversed, with Brent composing at the piano while Clare lay underneath with the family cat. The difference was that Clare would throw out ideas for different voicing to his son, which the latter adopted. Once again it’s a rock-based piece but more intriguing than the normal such number due to its irregular thematic structure and harmonic base.
I Loves You, Porgy is all Clare Fischer, playing one of his favorite ballad numbers from Gershwin’s ersatz jazz opera. As in the case of Gil Evans’ treatment (with Miles Davis), Fischer has rescored it harmonically which makes all the difference in the world, giving richness and luster to what was originally just a pretty tune. The listener is all the richer for that experience.
All Out is one of the few pieces on this disc not written by either Fischer, but Brent’s arrangement of it is strongly in the Fischer tradition: rich and unusual chords, and ultimately a very satisfying treatment. The album concludes with Clare’s original Ornithardy, originally composed for French horns, low brass and woodwinds on his 1960s album Extensions. In this case, however, Brent didn’t do the honors: he found this new arrangement by his father in his music library and decided to use it as is. Sheppard takes the beautiful, rich-toned tenor solo. Some of the scoring in the latter section of the piece, high winds over low, reminded me a bit of the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band.
For an album that “took over 4 years to prepare and contains writing that spans 7 decades,” the music contained herein is remarkably consistent, and excellent. This is one fine album!
—© 2015 Lynn René Bayley
CONTINUUM / City by the Lake (C. Fischer); In the Beginning (C. Fischer); For Steve (C. Fischer); Step Up (B, Fischer); Coisa Numero Dois (Moacir Santos); Cal’s On (C. Fischer); Isfahan (Strayhorn); Man is No Damn Good (C. Fischer); Blue Requiem (C. Fischer); Stoltz (C. Fischer) / The Clare Fischer Big Band, dir. by Brent Fischer, incl. Carl Saunders, Steve Huffsteter, tp; Scott Whitfield, tb; Don Shelton, a-sax; Bill Reichenbach, bs-tb; Rob Verdi, contrabass sax/sopranino sax/slide sax; Alan Steinberger, p; Dave Stone, bs. / CLAVO RECORDS 884501597159
This disc differs slightly from Pacific Jazz in that all of the tracks were recorded when Clare Fischer was still alive. Of course, his son Brent was a trusted associate for many years before that sad event and he has served his father’s music well in the years since, thus he is the director of the big band on all of these tracks. The music is all in the quintessential Fischer style: hip, harmonically adventurous, and a bit laid-back, with creamy reed and brass blends and a relaxed but propulsive rhythm section. On this session the orchestra not only uses Steve Huffsteter, who was a mainstay of the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band of the late 1970s-early ‘80s, but also bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach who anchored the Akiyoshi band’s brass section for a spell.
The disc begins with a relatively straightahead swinger, City By the Lake, in the kind of medium tempo that has virtually disappeared from most modern jazz. The notes describe it as “Alban Berg meets Duke Ellington,” but the Berg influence is not apparent until the last chorus starting about 4:30. Both the tempo and the harmonic interest pick up in the next track, In the Beginning, written by Clare Fischer for Hubert Laws. Here, after a strange introduction, the music becomes even stranger, putting me in mind of Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus in its attempt to portray the beginning of the universe in sound (but neither do it as well as Charles Ives in his Universe Symphony). As things coalesce, however, we return to a medium swing tempo. Lee Callet on baritone sax and Clare Fischer on piano (not just his solo, but the hip accompaniment he plays behind Callet!) are the standouts here, although Rob Verdi’s solo on the slide sax—a bizarre instrument made by the Swanee company (you can see and read about it at http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Misc/swanee.htm)—has its own unique charm. Again the last chorus, beginning around 8:24, takes one into unusual melodic and harmonic realms.
But it is with For Steve, a piece written for Clare’s friend Steve Bohannon, that we take a leap off the proverbial musical cliff. It’s a strange, polytonal funeral dirge that lasts less than a minute and a half. Ironically, when the next selection, Step Up, began, I thought it was a continuation of the same piece as there was little silence between the tracks, although Step Up, though using ingenious half and whole steps in the melodic line, is a fairly straightahead uptempo blues that continues to use polytonality here and there. The underlying harmony, however, stays fairly conventional which allows the soloists to enjoy themselves without having to mold their work along the lines of the principal theme.
Coisa Numero Dois was composed by Clare Fischer’s friend and colleague Moacir Santos, but except for the Latin rhythm (quite gentle here) one could easily mistake it as Fischer’s own work. Although there is nothing particularly striking about the harmony, the underlying feeling of the whole piece just sounds unsettled and mysterious, and the band plays it with incredible feeling and a tremendous sense of mood. Brent Fischer indicates in the notes that this is his father’s doing via the arrangement. It doesn’t matter; this is a masterpiece. Even the soloists seems to recognize that they had to mold their work to the whole rather than take it too far afield. The incredible high wind and electric piano passage beginning at 6:50 is simply astounding—there is no other word for it—creating an otherworldly atmosphere that defies verbal description. It’s difficult to tell if Clare’s piano solo in the middle of this chorus is written or improvised (I would suspect written for the first break, but improvised in the second half), but it fits the surrounding material perfectly. At nearly 10 ½ minutes long, it is the second-lengthiest piece on the CD, but you never tire of listening to it…there’s just so much substance here.
Brent humorously describes the genesis of Cal’s On. It “existed as a single melody line on a piece of paper. For years as I was growing up it just sat there on Dad’s piano. I read through it and thought it was one of the most ingenious lines I had ever encountered. I asked him if he had chord changes to go with the line. He said yes, it was all worked out in his head. I then asked him to write down the changes before he forgot. More years passed by. Finally in frustration, I wrote in large letters at the top of the page, ‘WRITE DOWN THE CHORDS, DAMMIT!’” Apparently he remembered, because here it is, with the standout solo being Clare’s own on electric piano. It’s a medium uptempo swinger, and the typically quirky, Clare Fischer-like melody is one of those elusive things that remind you of some of his more interesting early works like Agogically So (written for and sung by the Hi-Lo’s). Just think of it as Jimmy Giuffre on acid.
I was very familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s Isfahan from the Duke Ellington Far East Suite…or, at least, I thought I was until I heard Clare’s arrangement here. The tempo is brighter than the original and the chords altered just enough that it sounds like an original composition based on Isfahan. A bit Stravinsky-ish in mood and feeling, this Isfahan sounds as much Russian as Middle Eastern. Interestingly, Ron Stout’s solo evokes more memories of Chet Baker than of any of Ellington’s (or Fischer’s) usual trumpet soloists.
Man is No Damn Good, clocking in at just a few seconds under 12 minutes, could have been a dull piece but is one of Clare Fischer’s masterpieces. After a slow and typically mysterious opening, the music jumps to attention in tempo but not in volume. There are echoes of Ives and Bartók here in addition to a bizarre quote from the baby slumber song Lullaby and Goodnight. This is a tone poem of epic, almost Mingus-like proportions, shifting tempo and mood seemingly at will (such as the sudden shift to a slow 3/4 at the seven-minute mark, or the “spacey” passage for winds and brass that follows) yet somehow retaining its integrity as a composition. At 8:06 we suddenly shift tempo from medium to slow for a chorale-like theme played by soft brass in the middle range: this could have been written by Brahms, at least until the point where high winds play a brisk, almost mocking passage above it. Eventually the tempo and volume pick up, only to be undermined by another soft piano solo by Clare leading to a very soft brass and reed passage.
Once again, there is little silence between this piece and the next one, titled Blue Requiem and written for drummer Jeff Porcaro, and once again the latter almost sounds like a continuation of the former, like two pieces of cloth cut from the same bolt only with slightly different angles on the pattern. The drumming heard is initially in a march beat as the orchestra plays rich, floating chords like hanging clouds in the sky. At one point (3:14 or so) the orchestra actually sounds like an organ. Our latest sound adventure ends with Stoltz, dedicated to the famed clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, an uptempo swing romp of the sort Stoltzman likes to play, in an arrangement that sounds very much like the Benny Goodman band during its Mel Powell-Mary Lou Williams days. Alex Budman plays a very fine clarinet solo while slightly missing the drive of both Stoltzman and Goodman. Interestingly, the latter part of this music slows down a shade in tempo and takes on an ominous quality, far less open and chipper than the beginning, but then suddenly we are back in the temp and mood of the opening chorus for the coda and ride-out.
This is a simply splendid CD, one of the finest yet produced of Clare Fischer’s music, and a must for the collection of any serious lover of orchestral jazz.
—© 2015 Lynn René Bayley