Friday, May 27, 2016

Clare Fischer - Surging Ahead

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

“Think you can lick it?  Get to the wicket.
Buy you a ticket.   Go!

Go by bus, by plane, by car, by train...
New York, N.Y..

What they call a somethin' else town.
A city of more than eight million people,
with a million people passin'
through every day. Some come just to visit
and some come to say. If you scuffle hard enough
and you ain't no dunce, you can always get by
in New York City. I heard somebody say once.

Yeah...if you can't make it
in New York City, man, you can't make
it nowhere.

Not too long after its inception in New Orleans during the WWI years and its incubation in Chicago in the mid-1920s, Jazz moved to New York City which, as implied in the above lyrics by Jon Hendricks, has become the music’s proving ground ever since.

If musicians want to make it big in the Jazz World, sooner or later they have to test their luck in New York City.

The ease of moving around the city via its public transportation system, the close proximity of people and venues made possible by the restricted island geography, the cultural proclivity of many of its denizens toward The Arts which is underscored by its status as the financial capital of the United States made New York City the premier “place-to-be” for the aspiring Jazz artist.

With lots of people, plenty of places to play and a ton of money to be spent on entertainment, what’s not to like about being in New York if you are a Jazz musician looking to make a name for yourself?

And yet, following World War II, plenty of first-rate Jazz musicians eschewed New York City and came to the Los Angeles area where the backyard living made possible by the sunny and healthy southern California weather, a geographic dispersement into affordable family homes facilitated by the automobile and the stunning growth of freeways and the development of  the entertainment, aircraft and assorted service industries provided a financial base for the explosive growth of the area from 1945-1965.

During this period, southern California wasn’t the mess that it is today. In 1960, the entire state of California had a population of 15 million as compared with today’s 38 million. The 3.7 million folks living in LA was about half the size of the population of NYC, but they were spread over an area of 4,084 square miles compared to NYC’s 304.8 square miles.

In the post WWII years, Southern California’s movie and television studios and its radio stations provided lots of commercial work for musicians who could read music as well as improvise Jazz. There were excellent symphony orchestras, concert venues and numerous hotel lounges that featured excellent show bands. And LA had twice as many Jazz clubs as Manhattan, although it’s true that many of them were not as well known as those in NYC.

Is it not surprising then that a number of excellent Jazz musicians shunned New York City and preferred to remain in southern California?

Many of the musicians who settled in Los Angeles during the post WWII period were transplants from the East Coast and the Midwest who came to California as members of touring big bands and vocal groups and discovered in southern California’s sun-drenched climate that, among other things, winter was optional.

One such Midwestern transplant from Durand, MI was keyboardist, composer and arranger, Clare Fischer who arrived in Los Angeles as the Musical Director for the vocal group The Hi-Lo’s in 1957.

Soon after his arrival, Clare established his own trio and began a recording career with Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz label.

The distinguished Jazz author Leonard feather picks up the story from there with this article about Clare’s earliest recordings for that label.

In the summer of 1962, reviewing Clare Fischer's First Time Out (Pacific Jazz PJ 52) for Down Beat and assessing it as a five-star surprise of the year, I commented that "Fischer has had enough trouble establishing himself as a major jazz composer-arranger, through a series of bad breaks (the non-release of his Donald Byrd LP, the failure to credit him on Dizzy Gillespie's Duke Ellington portrait album); but hardly anyone knew that he is also an extraordinary jazz pianist." [Leonard’s review follows this piece]

Some of the reasons for the delay in recognizing Fischer were made clear by biographical details as sketched by John William Hardy in the liner notes for the album in question. Because of his extensive schooling, interrupted for two years by his Army service and then resumed until he obtained his master's degree, it was not until 1957 that Fischer came to Los Angeles and began to be noticed by big-league professional contemporaries.

But the next few years were spent largely on tour with the Hi Los. For all their superiority over other vocal groups of the late 1950s, and despite the occasional credit accorded Clare for his remarkable work with them as pianist and arranger, the job was hardly conducive to the kind of prestige and artistic freedom of expression he has been enjoying more recently.

Having decided once and for all to find his own direction, Clare in 1962 became a part of the local jazz scene. For a while he had a regular gig playing one night a week at Shelly's Manne Hole. The group that worked with him there (Larry Bunker and Ralph Pena) is heard in three tracks on the present set; Strayhorn, Things Ain't What They Used To Be and Davenport Blues. Later he gave up this weekly showcase in order to gain some experience as a working member of a jazz combo: he joined Cal Tjader, and at the time these words went to press was within earshot of Pee Wee Marquette as the Tjader group played one of its intermittent stands at Birdland.

The Tjader job obviously is a stepping stone toward his ultimate objective. Eventually Clare will be able to keep a trio of his own together on a steady basis, and will be able to select, from the many offers reaching him, whatever album writing assignments may provide the most stimulating challenge to his pen.

The sides between these covers mark Clare Fischer's third major pianistic exposure on records. In addition to First Time Out there was the remarkable bossa nova album, Brasamba!, on Pacific Jazz PJ 64, presenting him in a different instrumental context (Bud Shank, Joe Pass et al) in one of his several flings in the realm of Brazilian music. (He has also written bossa nova compositions and arrangements for such leaders as Tjader and George Shearing.) But this new LP is like neither of the previous ventures. Instrumentally, it returns to the piano-bass-drums format of the original; but from the standpoint of material it places an entirely different accent, for instead of an album dedicated largely to original material, we have here a collection that includes jazz and pop standards, one recent movie song and only a single Fischer composition. With the exception of the final track the personnel, too, is different from that heard on Clare's debut sides.

These differences are not necessarily qualitative; they simply represent an attempt to find new approaches, sympathetic new talent and appropriate familiar material. Inevitably, though, comparisons are going to be drawn. There will be those who find the Fischer style easier to grasp and more fascinating to follow when the framework is an established, recognizable piece; there will be others, of course, for whom the manner rather than the matter of his playing is the only relevant factor (or, as I heard a critic observe one night at the Half Note, "the material is immaterial.")

The musicians who work closely with Clare on the first side (one dare not say that they "accompany him!' for the trio as a piano-with-rhythm-accompaniment composite is a thing of the past) are both comparative newcomers to the scene. Colin Bailey, a 28-year-old drummer from Swindon, England, came to this country in 1961 as a member of Bryce Rohde's Australian Jazz Quartet, but stayed on after the group broke up and worked for 16 months in San Francisco with Vince Guaraldi. He came to Los Angeles in January of 1963 and has been playing with Victor Feldman's Trio at the Scene.

Albert Stinson is a discovery of Charles Lloyd, saxophonist with the Chico Hamilton Quintet. A native of Pasadena, he has been working with Chico in recent months. Colin Bailey says: "The first time I heard Al take a solo, I stopped playing and just sat there listening in amazement. We hit it off well together right away. Needless to say I have the greatest respect for him — he's like another Scott La Faro!'

The original intention on this session was simply to cut Way Down East for a single disc release, but the trio achieved such an immediately happy groove that Dick Bock immediately declared himself in favor of extending the date to complete a whole album side.

Concerning Clare's own work, it might be fitting to recall some of my comments in the review of the first LP: "It is hard to describe his style. There are in him elements that suggest a harmonic sympathy for Bill Evans, and at moments his articulation and right-hand voicing reminded me of the early Dodo Marmarosa. He is always in complete command of the keyboard; unlike Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron and other arrangers who are secondarily pianists, he can be judged entirely by a pianistic yardstick!'

These comments came to mind when I listened for the first time to Billie's Bounce. Using the 1945 Charlie Parker blues line as a point of departure, Clare manages from the outset to retain the essence of Bird's theme while adding harmonic changes that were never envisioned in the simple original. After the thematic statement has been completed, he is off on his own, playing the blues, constantly emphasizing his concern for the rhythmic and emotional essentials of the form while extending it to reach new and intriguing harmonic horizons.

As Clare remarked concerning this album in general: "I suppose my underlying intention was to present the blues oriented side of me, so that later I can present the lyrical side in another. You can well understand that the side presented here I've found in clubs to be the more readily graspable!' To these comments it should be added that no hard and fast line can or should be! drawn between the two aspects. There are lyrical moments in his blues-directed moods just as there is a touch of the blues here and there in his more lyrical performances.

Way Down East was, as noted, recorded as an idea for a motion picture called The Chase, it was composed by Larry Adler, whose reputation as a strictly pop harmonica soloist has long concealed his deep concern for modern jazz (recently he insisted on using Bill Evans in a TV show; for years his pianist was Ellis Larkins). Adler's waltz is a charming theme and Clare's interpretation commercial in the better sense of the term, i.e. appealing and melodic on a high level.

Satin Doll, a 1952 Duke Ellington tune, is used as the groundwork for a seven-minute harmonic masterpiece. The intensity builds magnificently, the creative process is at work constantly as Fischer flexes all his mental and physical muscles in an infuriatingly perfect performance. Infuriating to me, that is, because I become angrily jealous of all pianists with gifts such as Clare's. Here is a rare example of mind, hands, heart and soul in impeccable collaboration.

This Can't Be Love is a tour de force in the course of which, notably during the third and fourth choruses, Clare indulges in octave unison lines for two hands, a technique that recalls Phineas Newborn, though his application of it is entirely his own. Bailey has a tasteful solo chorus and Stinson maintains the remarkable sense of note-selection that is a strong feature throughout this side.

Strayhorn, one of the three tracks cut with the trio Clare led at the Manne Hole, is to the best of my knowledge the first song ever dedicated to Swee'pea since Duke himself recorded Weely in 1939. "The tune" says Clare had been used on Johnny Come Lately for Diz's album.  He has always been part of my admiration for Duke's group" The only original in the album, this occasionally gospel-tinged work moves with grace from 4/4 to 3/4 time and reflects some of the airy charm of Strayhorn the person, of whom Clare must have an instinctive knowledge. Larry Bunker and Ralph Pena, long among the most respected musicians both in jazz and studio circles around Hollywood, lend strong support.

Things Ain't What They Used To Be is a 1941 blues concocted by Mercer Ellington (now a disc jockey on New York's WLIB) and his father. As with Billie's Bounce, it is subjected to extensive renovation without losing any of its blues-drawn essence.

Davenport Blues was recorded by its composer, Bix Beiderbecke, in 1925. Except for the opening phrase (starting with the two triads stated by Pena), little is retained of the original theme and the performance to all intents becomes an original, and a mood-sustaining one, to which the 12/8 meter lends much of its character.

Without A Song is the only track that uses the personnel heard on the previous trio album (Gene Stone and Gary Peacock). Played in long meter (the tune is rarely heard nowadays in its original 32-bar form), it provides a point of departure for some of the most buoyant improvisation of the album.

It is difficult, until one has lived with an LP for a while, to select the items most likely to prove lastingly valuable and most certain of repeated playing. All that need be added at this point with reference to these two sides, and to the outlook in general for Clare Fischer at this stage of his career, is that the evidence of his stature continues to mount. Musicians of his caliber, and with his outlook, are not merely an invigorating element in the present day scene; more meaningfully, they symbolize the wave of the future in the progress of jazz.”

Clare Fischer FIRST TIME OUT—Pacific Jazz 52:
Nigerian Walk; Toddler; Stranger; Afterfact; I've Been Free Too Long; Piece for   Scotty; Blues for Home; I Love  You.
Personnel: Fischer, piano;   Gary  Peacock, bass;
Gene Stone,  drums.
Rating:   *****

“This is the surprise of the year.

Fischer has had trouble enough establishing himself as a major jazz composer-arranger, through a series of bad breaks (the non-release of his Donald Byrd LP, the failure to credit him on Dizzy Gillespie's Duke Ellington portrait album); but hardly anyone knew that he is also an extraordinary jazz pianist.

It is hard to describe Fischer's style; there are in him elements that suggest a harmonic sympathy for Bill Evans, and at moments his articulation and right-hand voicings reminded me of the early (not the recent) Dodo Marmarosa. He is always in complete command of the keyboard; unlike Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron, and other arrangers who are secondarily pianists, he can be judged entirely by a pianistic yardstick.

Five of the eight pieces are Fischer originals. The others are Peacock's Stranger, the Cole Porter’s I Love You, and the most attractive Nigerian Walk by drummer Ed Shaughnessy. All the Fischer works are of vertical as well as horizontal interest. Scotty, dedicated to the late Scott LaFaro, is a poignantly pretty tribute. Afterfact is a compiling swinger.

Free Too Long is a study in group improvisation, with no set plan structurally, melodically, or harmonically. It is not exactly atonal and seems at most times to be geared to a C feel or pedal point; whatever the technicalities, it comes off better than any experiment of this kind since Lennie Tristano's Intuition. This freedom is constructive rather than anarchistic.

Home is an unpretentious piece, always true to the blues changes and never betrayed into condescending pseudo-funk. The mood is ruined by the drum solo; in fact, the often-obtrusive drums almost reduced the rating by half a star. Yet Stone on the whole is a capable, swinging musician.

Peacock, though, is worth an extra full star in himself. He is one of the most amazing bassists I have heard, with the dexterity of a guitarist and consequently tremendous melodic strength. His solos are consistently original and inventive. His only faults are a tendency at times to get too busy during Fischer's solos instead of just playing straight time, and an occasional intonation lapse in the higher register.

This is not the best-organized trio on the scene, but it includes two talents of such magnitude that the album is essential listening for anyone interested in unexploited talents. It is ironic that Fischer had to wait almost until his 34th birthday for the first exposure of a talent that probably has been his for 10 or 15 years.”                                           (L.G.F.)

Downbeat Magazine
September 13, 1962

The following video features Clare, Ralph Pena and Larry Bunker on Things Ain't What They Used To Be.

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