Clare Fischer’s Fascinating “Latin” Bands

Intenso cover2

¡INTENSO! / GILLESPIE: Algo Bueno. ELLINGTON: Rockin’ in Rhythm. C. FISCHER: Gaviota.4 Solar Patrol.1,3 The Butterfly Samba.1,2,4,5 Renacimento.1,2 O Canto. Play Time.6 SALCEDO: La Mucura. FARRÉS: Trés Palabras / Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band: Dr. Clare Fischer, kbds/arr; Brent Fischer, cond/marimba/vib/el-bs/”gtr”-sounding parts/auxiliary kbds; Carl Saunders, Ron Stout, Rob Schaer, James Blackwell, Brian Mantz, Michael Silver, Anthony Bonsera, tpt; Scott Whitfield, Francisco Torres, Philip Menchada, Jacques Voyemant, tb; Steve Hughes, bs-tb; Alex Budman, Kirsten Edkins, sop-sax/a-sax/fl/cl/pic; Don Shelton, sop-sax/fl; Brian Clancy, Sean Franz, t-sax/fl/a-fl/cl/bs-cl/rec; Rob Hardt, t-sax/fl/a-fl/cl; Lee Callet, bar-sax/fl/a-fl/cl/rec; Bob Carr, bs-sax/fl/pic/Eb bass-cl; 1Quinn Johnson, kbds; 2Ken Wild, el-bs; Luis Conte, Kevi Ricard, perc; 2Ron Manalog, 6Walfredo Reyes, 3Tris Imboden, dm; 3Sheila E., timbales; 4Roberta Gambarini, 5Scott Whitfield, voc / Clare Fischer label (no number), available as high-def download at

Ritmo cover2

¡RITMO! / C. FISCHER: San Francisco P.M.1,3 Funquiado. Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ‘Til Ready.4, 5, 6 Machaca. Guarabe. The Quiet Side.4 Pavillon. Vamp ‘Til Ready (Remix).4, 5, 6, 7 B. FISCHER: Rainforest3 / Rob Schaer, Pete de Siena, Ron Stout, Carl Saunders, Steve Hufstetter, 2Jon Lewis, 1James Blackwell, 1Brian Mantz, 1Josh Aguiar, 4Michael Stever, tpt; Charlie Loper, Andy Martin, Scott Whitfield, Jacques Voyemant, 1Francisco Torres, 1Mariel Austin, 4Charlie Morillas, tb; Steve Hughes, bs-tb/tuba; Bill Reichenbach, bs-tb; 4Jim Self, tuba; Don Shelton, Rob Hardt, sop-sax/a-sax/cl/flute/a-fl; Alex Budman, a-sax/cl/fl; Jeff Driskill, t-sax/cl/fl/a-fl; Sean Franz, t-sax/bs-cl/fl; Glenn Morrisette, t-sax; Lee Callet, bar-sax/cl/fl/a-fl; Bob Carr, bs-sax/bs-cl/fl; 1John Mitchell, bs-sax; Clare Fischer, 3Quinn Johnson, 5Alan Steinberger, kbds; 1Steve Khan, 7Matt Brownlie, el-gtr; Brent Fischer, el-bs/vib/marimba/aux kbd/rainstick; 3Alex Acuña, 6Peter Erskine, dm/perc; 1Poncho Sanchez, congas / Clare Fischer label (no number), available as high-def download at

The late Clare Fischer was undoubtedly one of jazz’s most interesting figures from the mid-1950s through the late 1980s (the bulk of his active career). Initially a jazz pianist, he wanted to get into arranging because he kept “hearing” music in his mind in fascinating chord mixtures that hadn’t occurred to others. He did so when he heard the jazz-pop vocal group, The Hi-Lo’s, and was intrigued by their unusual chordal blends. He approached them with the idea of writing arrangements for them, they agreed, and he was off to the races. In the early 1960s he visited South America and came back with some of the Latin musical sounds in his head and decided to use them in his jazz pieces and arrangements. He then moved into fascinating jazz-classical pieces for orchestra, one of which was written for Stan Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra, and became known for that type of music. Later he created his own pop-jazz vocal groups, with which he recorded both complex arrangements and advertising jingles, and eventually he moved into classical works using improvisation. He also wrote a number of pop arrangements in the 1980s for such well-known artists as Chaka Khan, Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney, Prince and Michael Jackson.

In his later years, now with a doctorate and teaching music, he used much of the proceeds from his lucrative career to do what so many others were denied the chance: recording as much of his music that hadn’t been recorded before he died. Though now much older and suffering from heart disease, he arranged recording sessions when he could and leaned more and more on his talented son Brent to help him out in this venture. He also made Brent promise to release as much of these late recordings as he could when he died, a task which Brent has taken very seriously and kept up over the years despite his own busy schedule.

Thus, although I’ve never been much of a fan of Latin music except when it’s played by the old Dizzy Gillespie band. Machito (who was also strongly jazz-oriented) or Perez Prado, I am much taken by Clare Fischer’s music because these original pieces and arrangements retain a strong jazz flavor as well as incredibly innovative voicings. From the very opener of the ¡Intenso! CD, Dizzy Gillespie’s Algo Bueno, we know we’re in for a wild ride. Fischer takes the old DG classic and turns it on its head, using a salsa beat with the rhythm of the original tune redistributed and the underlying chord sequence completely rewritten. And please note, all of you young Jazz Giant Arranging hotshots, how completely original the voicings are, not to mention Fischer’s own high-wire electric piano solo that fits so beautifully into the arrangement.

But we’re just starting! In Gaviota, a tune very close to Latin pop in style, Fischer is still using innovative chording, here behind the very fine vocal of Roberta Gambarini, who scats her way through the second chorus with stunning musical brilliance—sort of a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Alice Babs. Fischer’s solo on this one is more low-key, but tasteful and harmonically adventurous. In the last chorus, Gambarini returns, her vocal backed by high winds and a wonderfully inventive but understated bass line. She again scats her way to the finish line.

When I heard Duke Ellington in person, in 1973, his band played his famous Rockin’ in Rhythm with its usual uptempo brilliance. Here, Fischer slows the melody line down, again redistributing the beats in an innovative fashion, playing it against the rhythm section which almost makes it sound like a countermelody against a Latin-like bass line. This one is mostly ensemble, orchestrated by Brent Fischer and Matt Wong from Fischer’s score after his death, and features a nice tenor sax solo (unidentified in the booklet).

Solar Patrol, another Fischer original, features Sheila E on timbales. This was written by Fischer in 1983 and recorded by the odd combination of organ, two electric guitars and two electric basses with drums and percussion; this full band arrangement is also by Wong and Brent Fischer. There’s a hot soprano sax solo by Alex Budman as well as Sheila’s timbales playing. The Butterfly Samba again features Gambarini as vocalist. This is a new arrangement (by Brent) of Fischer’s old score from the early 1960s, with lyrics by Darlene Koldenhoven, and Gambarini really flies above the ensemble, with Scott Whitfield joining her in a scat chorus. It reminded me a little of the wondrous bop vocalizations that the legendary duo of Roy Kral and Jackie Cain did with Charlie Ventura’s old “Bop for the People” band did. There are also tasty if brief solos by Ron Stout, Kirsten Edkins, Rob Hardt, Ron Manalog, Alex Budman, Carl Saunders, Jacques Voyemant, Brian Mantz and Quinn Johnson. What a great chart!

Renacimento, the Latin word for Renaissance, indeed opens up with a Renaissance-sounding line played by the winds (including a recorder, played by Lee Callet). This is clearly one of Fischer’s finest fusions of Latin and jazz with a bit of classical, featuring punching brass and quasi-Stravinskian harmonies. Also recorded after Clare’s death, Brent combined his arrangement for the 1982 album And Sometime Voices with a version he wrote for nine saxes. The ensemble chorus in the middle, highly innovative, is clearly the star of the show, although Carl Saunders’ trumpet solo is stupendous.

In O Canto, Brent collaborated with composer-arranger Keith Horn on this chart, which also combines two of his father’s arrangements into one. Brent Fischer knocked himself out on this one, playing not only marimba but both the guitar and bass guitar parts, all of it set to a Batucada beat with the energetic drumming of Luis Conte. Saunders again plays a brilliant trumpet solo and Clare Fischer himself scats along with his own electric piano solo! La Mucura, a well-known Latin tune, is completely rewritten here by Clare, who first recorded it for his Crazy Bird album in the early 1980s but rewrote it here for big band. Says Brent in the liner notes, “You have to see his handwritten chart to soak it all in.” Once again, his redistribution of beats and imaginative harmonic daring completely change the line and texture of the music. Clare adds a tasteful eight-bar break on electric piano, followed by wonderful solos on soprano sax and trumpet (Saunders again?).

In Trés Palabras Fischer again displays his outstanding penchant for voicing. The Fischer-Wong orchestration uses a softer palette, with the flutes and high saxes playing mezzo piano in the opening chorus. There’s a quasi-Bach feeling to the polyphony along with an (unidentified) excellent flute solo. Since the notes don’t indicate a substitute keyboardist for this track, I’d assume that Clare Fischer plays the laid-back but tasteful solo here. This CD closes out with Play Time, another Fischer original and the last song he ever recorded. This was also its premiere recording, featuring a tasteful trombone solo by Francisco Torres and Clare playing along with the reeds. The arrangement by Brent Fischer is bright and full of joie-de-vivre, using a fade-out ending.

In the booklet for ¡Ritmo!, which actually preceded ¡Intenso!, Clare Fischer penned a brief introduction to the album, thanking his son Brent for originating the concept of this Latin big band for him to romp in.The personnel here is a bit different, too, including several musicians (Steve Hufstetter, Charlie Loper, Bill Reichenbach) who had played in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s great West Coast big band of the 1970s-early ’80s, before she and hubby Lew Tabackin moved East.

It opens with San Francisco P.M., a jolly tune apparently celebrating this “city by the bay” before it became an illegal Latino hellhole. Steve Khan guests here on electric guitar, playing a nice solo, followed by Rob Hardt on flute, Quinn Johnson on electric piano and another guest artist, Poncho Sanchez, on congas. A nice alternating brass riff is heard in the rideout chorus. Funquiado is based on a cute funky riff invented by Clare, who then also invented this title to describe it. It’s played by the brass section, which has a lot more input here on these charts than they did in ¡Ritmo!. There’s also an excellent trumpet solo here, possibly played by the indomitable Carl Saunders. There’s also some really nifty backbeat drumming by Alex Acuña, after which the mood quiets down while Clare plays a sparse electric piano chorus.

The strangely-titled Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ‘Til Ready was commissioned by Dr. H. Owen Reed, Clare’s former professor at Michigan State University. Brent describes it as “a quadruple Latin rock canon, which occurs near the beginning of the piece and continues in triple canon into the main body of the work.” The opening is relaxed and beautifully scored, with Alan Steinberger guesting on keyboard while the band comes in behind him in canon (as advertised). This is clearly one of Clare’s most innovative pieces. Glenn Morrisette plays tenor sax on this one and the indomitable Saunders later follows on trumpet, contributing to the whole with improvisations that fit into the complex framework. The ensemble passages are all innovative and act as development sections in this wonderful piece. The tempo slows down at the six-minute mark for Morrisette’s second solo, played above suspended chords (evidently the “blues” section), after which the band plays in a somewhat funky groove for a while, with Saunders’ solo limning the ensemble. Had I known of this piece earlier, it would surely have gone into my master thesis, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. It’s that good.

Machaca was the title track of the second Clare Fischer and Salsa Picante album, rewritten here by Clare for full orchestra. Brent admits in the notes that “This project was done in bits and pieces over the years so I’m not sure who the soloists are except the flute is definitely Don Shelton.” It’s a little too close to fusion-rock for my taste, but good in its own style.

This is followed by Brent Fischer’s Rainforest, a chipper samba-like piece originally written for the Zapp String Quartet under the title Undiscovered Rainforest. There are nice moving counterfigures in this, along with an excellent trombone solo by Andy Martin, a good tenor chorus by Rob Hardt and nice solos by Brent Fischer on electric bass and his father Clare on electric piano. It’s a heck of a piece! Guarabe is a Clare Fischer piece recycled from an earlier album with Cal Tjader, this arrangement commissioned by the California State University big band at a time when musicians like Gordon Goodwin, Randy Kerber and John Yoakum were in it. As with several of the pieces in ¡Intenso!, the rhythmic underpinning is quite complex, certainly beyond the skills of many bands untrained in jazz. The tempo drops to a nice middle-tempo groove for the second half.

By contrast, The Quiet Side is exactly that, a quieter piece that Brent found among his father’s effects when he died. The lush blending of reeds and brass in the opening chorus harks back to some of the innovative arranging style of Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra, although Fischer’s voicing is unique. Pavillon has some nice Clare Fischer-type voicing by the high reeds but is a bit too much like rock music for my taste. The album ends with a different arrangement of the final section of Vamp ‘Til Ready, much more rock-funk than the original.

For the most part, then, these are excellent pieces by Clare Fischer plus one real gem (Rainforest) by Brent, superbly played with gusto and good taste.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s