Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gary Foster: Revelations

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In an earlier life, when the World was young, I wrote woodwind and reed player extraordinaire Gary Foster a “fan letter.”

It was occasioned by my attendance at a rehearsal of a community college big band. Gary was the orchestra’s musical director and my letter commented on the considerate and courteous way in which Gary put the band through its paces.

During the practice, he took the time to help individual players and/or sections of the band who were struggling with various parts of an arrangement, made numerous suggestions to improve the band’s attack and dynamics, and did so many other, little things to bring out the best in the band’s performance.

Most importantly, especially with young minds and personalities, Gary went about his business with a demeanor that was the epitome of civility.

Don’t get me wrong, Gary challenged the students. He didn’t put up with sloppy phrasing, bad intonation or inattention to detail [Did I mention that these were “young” musicians?].

But when he did make corrections and adjustments in their playing, he did so with explanation, direction and instruction and not with ridicule or mocking and abrasive criticism.

As a result, boy did that band roar.


Here’s this mild-mannered, Father Christmas looking guy holding this tiger by the tail.

Any of us who ever played in a big band should have been so lucky as to have Gary for a director and teacher.

In yet another, even earlier life, which I’m sure he’s forgotten about along with the fan letter, I played a few gigs with Gary.

I had returned from a year long visit to Asia courtesy of the US government and was working fairly regularly in a quartet led by alto saxophonist and flutist Fred Selden. The group also included pianist Milcho Leviev.

Around this time, Fred and Milcho were quite busy with the Don Ellis Orchestra and it was becoming increasingly common for them to send substitutes to gigs when they were out-of-town with Don’s band.

I was very impressed with Gary’s tone the first time I heard him play as it sounded much like the sub-tone used by Lee Konitz and Paul Desmond and less like the Bud Shank or Art Pepper tones I was used to while working with “West Coast” musicians.

Desmond kiddingly once described his tone as having “the sound of a dry martini.”

Not surprisingly, given Konitz’s and Desmond’s penchant for working with harmonically-oriented pianists such as Lennie Tristano and Dave Brubeck, respectively, Gary would become great chums with similarly oriented pianists Clare Fischer and Alan Broadbent over the course of his career.

Ever since I started the JazzProfiles blog, I’ve had it in mind to do a feature on Gary, but I just could not find a starting point.

In talking with a friend about Gary’s performance on a new Mark Masters CD – Everything You Did - a tribute to the music of Steely Dan [about which more in a future review] over coffee recently, he said: “Of course, you must be familiar with Gary’s recordings on the Revelation label?”

I said: “John William Hardy’s old label; the one that was based in Glendale, CA?”

To which my friend replied: “Yup, the very same.”

Gary, it seems, made five LP’s for Hardy’s label including one with Warne Marsh [Ne Plus Ultra Revelations #12], one on which he shares the leadership with Warne and Clare Fischer [Report of the 1st Annual Symposium on Relaxed Improvisation Revelation 17], and three under his own name: [1] Subconsciously [Revelation #5]; [2] Grand Cru Classe’ [Revelation #19]; Kansas City Connections [Revelation #48].

When I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t heard any of Gary’s recordings for Revelation, my buddy offered to “… bring them to you the next time we get together for coffee.”

And so he did.

And in so doing, he finally unlocked a way that I was comfortable with for doing a feature on Gary and that is to take selected excerpts from John William Hardy’s liner notes to Gary’s Revelation recordings and to present them as a chronicle of highlights from Gary’s early career.


Let’s begin at the beginning with Subconsciously [Revelation #5]. Here are some are some of the things James William Hardy had to say about Gary work on this recording.

“GARY FOSTER, the 32 year old multi-instrumentalist whose work is the subject of this long-play recording, is not overdue as a jazz leader-soloist on record. Born in 1936 in Leavenworth. Kansas, his musical training and jazz experience have led him through a complex maze of developmental stages, esthetic re­organizations, and maturational crises. These might, in the past 10 years, have been recorded on phonograph disc to some discographical and musicological profit for the listener, but I think, having known and heard the artist through this period, that the present recording would have been the first one really worth owning and continuing to hear over a long period of time. Because Foster in the past few years has finally begun to stabilize his musical philos­ophy after a period of self-doubt and eclectic experimentation with sounds and forms not true to his innerself.

As a result, he now emerges as in important jazz voice, and one of only two saxo­phonists, the other being Jerry Coker, who has developed a thor­oughly personal expression that stems from the joint influences of Les Konitz, Warne Marsh (the Tristano School) and Clare Fischer. Like Coker, Fischer, and the Tristanoites, Foster is a thoroughly grounded classicist, as a clarinetist, whose jazz ex­perience dates from hit earliest musical activities and are an immutable part of the man's entire personality and art. Like them, he believes in a freedom of improvisational form that is under­pinned with discipline and a strong relationship to compositional structure. And tike them, he practices the production of a musk that is full of warmth, love, and grace, but that is simultaneously alive with a pulsing swing and the poignancy of a truly basic jazz feeling. There is economy in his work, but it often fairly bursts with ebullience in its multi-noted passages that does not in any way finished quality, a full, whole, confident character that belies its spontaneity.

I first met Gary Foster at the University of Kansas, where he transferred after two years at Central College, Fayette, Missouri. At Kansas Foster was enrolled in the music department, majoring in clarinet and in music education. I did not meet him in this capacity, but as a jazz musician who, along with tenorist Nathan Davis (now a popular ex-patriot musician in Germany), Carmell Jones, and pianist Jay Fisher (now a Chicago-based musician), was making the music scene in and around Lawrence a lively one indeed. That was in 1957. Graduated from Kansas, he had a year of teaching while attending graduate school, in which, in his second year he studied saxophone and clarinet while pursuing music his­tory studies. In 1961, Foster and family moved to the Los Angeles area during the short-lived rise in interest that jazz was to have there following the popular West Coast school reign in the fifties. The early 60"s were not the best years for a young white saxo­phonist to establish himself in an active jazz life.


Many people had just discovered Rollins and Trane. and the long overdue rise from obscurity for the L. A. negro jazz artist was in full progress. As justified as that was, it ironically sent to or kept many a promising white musician in the underground, unless he hustled himself into a harder form of playing that took advantage of the new interest in overt soul music and the extroverted proclamation of the blues. There was a short time when, without satisfactory employment. Gary experimented with "hardening" his approach. But as he and others knew, Foster was in no way suited to that style. Fortunately, he secured a position teaching music with Berry & Grassmueck Music Co. in Pasadena (where he now administrates the studios, conducts with Warne Marsh and others a subdivisional unit for jazz-oriented students, and teaches privately). And even more fortunately, he met, in 1962, pianist-composer Clare Fischer.

Shortly thereafter, he became a student of Fischer, who re-es­tablished the flagging confidence of his pupil in the validity of his approach to jazz and at the same time helped to formulate a more sensitive and intricate approach to improvisation which no previous influence had been able to accomplish. Fischer was an enthusiastic student and scholar of the Tristano saxophonists aforementioned, as well as a well-spring of compositional and executional theory that Gary soaked up like a sponge. Besides the student-teacher relationship, Fischer also occasionally offered Foster opportunities to record and play in public that he had been almost denied for his first year on the coast

The present record is not Foster's first, although it is the first to feature his extended jazz playing. Gary has been a mainstay of the reed sections on several Fischer big band recordings. For the discographer (almost he alone) Foster's very first appearance on LP was as a member of the college all-stars led by trumpeter Don Jacoby in I960 (MGM LP E3881— see Gary in the red sweater?) on which recording he plays all tenor solos. Gradually, in the mid-1960's Foster has become a sought after player in the studios and on Jazz and dance gigs alike, and, as these notes go to press, he spends important playing time in the quintet of Jimmy Rowles and a group led by Fischer.”


Next up for Gary on Revelation was an appearance with tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh on his LP entitled Warne Marsh [Ne Plus Ultra Revelations #12] about which John William Hardy had this to say.

“In the late 1940's. a couple of years after I had been run­ning through the stylistic influence of the late Bud Powell, I happened to be listening to a jazz program on radio. I had turned on the program in the middle of a recording and was completely taken aback by a cascading line of such utter complexity played by two saxophones that my jaw dropped in astonishment. This was Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, and what I heard represented to me a new level of development in jazz that I was soon to plunge into. It was a development that manifested a high degree of melodic construction and harmonic usage that seemed such a logical development of what had just proceeded it. Often the melodic involvement, with displaced accents, cross meters and the like, would be so complex that the idea of playing it in a strict sense of time would go out the window.

The average reaction of the Lick player at that point would be: ‘Well, — they play a lot of notes, but man, they don't swing!’ — Which might have been part of my reaction except for the fact that I loved the notes they were playing. (Nobody seems to get bugged with the opposite: ‘He sure swings, but he keeps playing the same licks or someone else's vocabulary.’)

About four years back. Warne Marsh moved back home to Los Angeles and shortly thereafter we started working to­gether in my band. Sometimes in the course of the evening our rhythm section would be roaring to the point that he would be forced to play over it. The Warne Marsh that came out then was something very different! In this album on Subconscious-lee I think you'll find him approaching this. You almost feel like accusing him of swinging. Heaven For­bid! If Warne is not listened to for the sheer sake of Warne, then relative judgment will get in your way and you'll miss the point.

Gary Foster joined all this as a second generation orienta­tion and as a result you will find his playing much more metrically oriented. Still, together the two have honed these lines, these fingerbusting lines, to the point that in many in­stances they are played at a faster tempo than the originals. I think the best examples of Gary's playing are contained in the free piece that follows Subconscious-Lee and on 317 E. 32nd (based on the chord changes of "Out of Nowhere").

Many might mutter, ‘His tone is Konitz oriented’ and con­sider that a criticism. I find that irrelevant considering how well he plays und that I've had to listen for over twenty years to dozens of alto saxophonists trying to sound like Charlie Parker. Few succeeded…..”


Gary’s third recording for Revelation was in essence a leaderless session entitled Warne Marsh, Clare Fischer and Gary Foster Report of the 1st Annual Symposium on Relaxed Improvisation [Revelation 17]. In his notes, John William Hardy explains the title’s context this way:

“Here is a session—in the best sense of the word. What is occasionally known as ‘Live!’ is usually no liver-er than a studio. The program is preplanned and the formality of the hall (or studio) establishes a context to be conformed to. The situation on 9 May 1972, in Clare Fischer's living room in Van Nuys, was much different. The music was allowed to create its own context. There was no leader—only an agree­ment that all participants would arrive about 7:00 p.m. and enjoy themselves—eating, drinking, playing, talking and re­laxing. Pete Welding and I set up the little Stellavox Sp-7 recorder, distributed some microphones and set forth to moni­tor the musical proceedings as they occurred. We made only a general effort to turn on the tape when the music started and nobody worried whether we had or not or whether a selection would finish before the tape ran out. There were certainly no second takes—or takes at all in the accepted sense. Just players, playing. Sometimes selections were dis­cussed and sometimes somebody just started playing, the chords were spelled out obviously for those unfamiliar in the first chorus, and then the thing went forward.”

Mr. Hardy steps aside as the annotator for Gary’s fourth Revelations LP - Grand Cru Classe’ [Revelation #19]- in favor of Michael James who in 1973 was described on the liner notes as a “… distinguished British Jazz Critic and frequent contributor to The Jazz Monthly.


Of Gary’s music, Mr. James observed:

“… Foster, both in this collection and the one which preceded it, indicates certain cardinal features of his approach.  … Foster has evinced a strong commitment to ortho­dox if complex chordal structures, and, as J.W. Hardy notes, thinks chordally better than most wind instrumentalists.  … [One of] Foster's [preferred] methods of expres­sion is a type of melodic density that sets them in a class apart from hackneyed blues riffs or ostensible originals hasti­ly thrown together just for economic convenience. As an illustration of this quality can be found in Foster's own comments on Bill Evans's Tune for a Lyric. ‘Melodically and harmonically it appeals to me,’ he says, ‘in the way it seems to evolve in a “through” composed man­ner. The repeat scheme is not so purely geometric as it is in many jazz tunes and the end of the song keeps delaying its inevitability in a way I really find enticing.’

Foster, then, in his continuing affiliation to established methods of extemporization and in his enthusiasm for melodically intricate lines braced by harmonic structures of con­siderable substance, may be viewed as something of a musical conservative in an era which has seen numerous players dis­carding, sometimes, one feels, in too doctrinaire a manner, conventions that had governed jazz improvising, until 1960 or thereabouts, for upwards of three decades. Yet in so far as that description evokes a hidebound, unadventurous spirit rather than an artist who seeks to retain and build upon the distilled wisdom of earlier generations, it is hopelessly inac­curate in Foster's case.

Not only has this been made plain by his occasional involvement in group improvisations not guid­ed by the usual harmonic precepts, … , but, more to the point, it becomes transparently clear as soon as he embarks upon his first solo chorus in the opening item of the present set. His improvisation flows naturally out of the song, devel­oping impetus as it progresses, and building, without false artifice or even any marked increase in tonal emphasis, towards its logical conclusion.

In fact the solo's communica­tive power derives mainly from the controlled accumulation of melodic interest within a predetermined rhythmic and har­monic continuum, rather than from any sudden shifts in phrase patterns or tonal coloring. Such an amalgam of grace­fulness and steadily gathering music intensity proclaims Fos­ter's allegiance to what might loosely be termed the Lester Young aesthetic, a school of thought which embraces such diverse stylists as Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz, placing as it does greater emphasis on melodic resourcefulness and con­tinuity of line man upon the more visceral stratagems of abrupt changes in volume or tone.

Foster, I believe, owes something to all three of these players, but his work never­theless possesses a truly personal flavor, transmitting a sunlit lyricism which, whatever their other qualities, is not an at­tribute one would readily associate with any of the other musicians named. In drawing this distinction one is reminded of the very individual use which, in a rather different area, the pianist Barry Harris has made of Bud Powell's vocabulary. …


For his fifth album with Revelation, Gary took matters into his own hands [so to speak] and wrote these comments for the liner notes:

Kansas City Connections [Revelation #48].

In 1951, as a junior high school student in Leavenworth, Kansas, 35 miles from Kansas City, I first heard improvised jazz music at the hands of Olin Parker, my school hand director and musical inspiration. Olin brought jazz records and magazines about jazz to the band room and organized a small school jazz hand that hooked me to the music forever. I soon learned that, geographically, Kansas City had its own important place in the history of jazz and that, long before my ears were opened to the music, Charlie Parker, Jay McShann, Lester Young and Count Basic had put Kansas City on the jazz map.

In the following years I lived and studied near Kansas City. In the middle and late 1950's, Bob Brookmeyer, Carmell Jones, Jimmy Lovelace, Charlie Kynard and Frank Smith were the names I mast associated with the continuing tradition of Kansas City jazz. In recent years I have been fortunate to teach at the University of MissouriKansas City and to play in the area many times, under various circumstances, most often with the musicians heard on this recording.

The playing of my colleagues here is proof that jazz in Kansas City is in good health today. Carmell Jones (back home again), Herman Bell, Arch Martin, Kim Park, Mike Ning and many others help to keep the music alive there.

This recording came about through the eagerness and encouragement of Jim Nirschl. Jim is a valued friend and Kansas City nerve ending for jazz musicians from all parts of the world. A Kansas City connection.

Roots, family, friends and music are all Kansas City connections. Not to mention Kansas City barbecue!

Gary Foster, 1985”

Although my view of him is informed largely from impressions, in general, I couldn’t agree more with his long-time friend, Dick Wright’s description of Gary when he writes:

“Over the years, I have seen and heard Gary grow from an outstanding young Stan Getz-influenced tenor saxophonist to, today, a consummate artist on alto, tenor and soprano saxes, as well as clarinet (his first instrument) and flute. He is truly a ‘musician's musician’ who is held in the highest regard by fellow musicians as well as jazz lovers and jazz students of all ages. Gary … is equally at home in the recording studios, the class room and on the concert stage. …”

Somewhat ironically, I didn’t select a track from any of Gary’s wonderful recordings on Revelation Records to feature on the accompanying video montage.

Perhaps when you listen to his spellbinding performance on Some Other Time from his Make Your Own Fun CD on Concord [CCD-4459] you’ll understand why.

In all the years that I have been listening to this music, I never heard it played more beautifully by anyone.

Gary Foster is a very special musician.



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