The Best Kept Secret in Jazz
MAARTEN DE HAAN, 1998
..by the time I actually heard the Hi-Lo’s, I started picking that stuff out; my ear was happening. I could hear stuff and that’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings -like the harmonies I used on ‘Speak Like A Child’ -just being able to do that. I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare Fischer was a major influence on my harmonic concept… He and Bill Evans, and Ravel and Gil Evans, finally. You know, that’s where it really came from. Almost all of the harmony that I play can be traced to one of those four people and whoever their influences were.
- Herbie Hancock
He calls himself one of the best kept secrets in jazz history. Arranger and pianist Clare Fischer, an American with German forefathers, has worked with a host of notable musicians including, Donald Byrd, Cal Tjader and Prince. With his new CD, “Rockin’ in Rhythm”, he hopes to step out of the sideman scene.
A short man took his place in front of the Metropole Orchestra in The Hague, The Netherlands, to conduct a string arrangement. “Now we will play something by Henri Mancini, a good friend of mine, with whom a lot of studio musicians in Los Angeles have worked,” announced the conductor. This introduction reveals the musical past of Clare Fischer, the conductor. The 68-year old pianist, composer, and arranger has spent a great part of his life working for others in the studios of Hollywood.
This is a fact that surprises many who are familiar with Fischer’s talents. For instance, pianist Bert van den Brink, who together with Cor Bakker recorded the piano duo CD “Declared” described Fischer’s colouring of harmonies as unique. Oddly enough, however, a room filled with golden records, four-star reviews, and Grammys have not made Fischer a household name. Worse, people seldom know how to spell his name correctly. Even on the ticket to his concert in The Hague, his name was listed as ‘Claire Fisher’. “So many people have thought I was female, so I started referring to myself as the lovely Clare Fischer,” joked Fischer.
I was interviewing Fischer in his hotel room in Hilversum. He did not give off the impression of someone who was seeking or chasing fame. With the composure of one who has lived a full life, Fischer spoke about his real passions: music and language. “The average person has about a 15% understanding of a foreign language, He knows which language it is and is familiar with a few words. It is no different with music. Most people only hear the lyrics to a song or feel the beat. I have always made music for good listeners, who hopefully have a 65-to-80 percent of musical understanding. That is why with my vocal sextet pieces are sung in the original language, whether that is German, Spanish or Japanese,” explained Fischer.
Fischer himself speaks Spanish and Portuguese; and is considered to be one of the few jazz musicians who have really made Cuban-based music his own. For this reason, he is immensely popular in Mexico. “While studying music at the conservatory, I was swept away by Latin American music and often hung out in the barrio,” recalled Fischer.
Forty years ago in Detroit - “where I was just about the only person with a steady job,” said Fischer, - he offered his talent to the vocal quartet “The Hi-Lo’s.” For five years he was pianist and arranger for this group. “As a teenager I had already arranged pieces for the school band in exchange for music lessons. I also played cello, clarinet, and some other instruments regularly. Thanks to that experience, as an arranger I was able to understand the specific sound and tuning of an instrument and to work intuitively,” recollected Fischer.
While with “The Hi-Lo’s” Fischer did the arranging for a recording featuring trumpeter Donald Byrd, on which a subtle use of strings and harps furnished a melancholy quality to some well-known standards. Even though Byrd’s “September Afternoon” remained on the shelves of the record company for 25 years, Fischer was lucky enough that trumpeter Byrd played a copy for Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie then asked Fischer for his own “Portrait of Duke Ellington”, which was well received. Fischer then signed his first record contract.
Fischer’s early records are meticulous studies in jazz, bossa nova and mambo with the harmonic depth of Bach, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. They have been highly praised by music critics, but commercially not very successful. Fischer presented himself both as pianist and arranger and composed “Pensativa” and “Morning”, which became his most famous pieces. His many talents however proved a disadvantage. “Whenever I played with a trio, people would say, ‘Fischer owes a lot to Bill Evans,’ whom I had never heard . My big musical influence at the time was Lee Konitz, but when I did orchestrations, it was Gil Evans, the arranger, that I copied. I called this my Evans Brothers syndrome,” recalled Fischer.
Fischer did not want to tour Europe to make his fame because he had just started a family. In the 1960s, he worked frequently in Hollywood as a studio musician, playing piano for films and television advertisements. He learned that in the studio producers are often a musician’s worst enemy. “They always want you to do something else than what you are good at. Often I was asked to play like Joe Sample. With great difficulty I did what they asked me to do and felt terrible about it. One time I was working in the studio with Sample himself. During a break he came up to me and said to my great surprise, ‘I want to tell you something that really bugs me. Every time I go into a recording session they ask me to lay down some of that shit that you do!’” laughed Fischer.
After ten years of studio work and successful artistically thought his solo records were obscure, Fischer found a new direction. Just like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, he was a pioneer on the electric keyboard, and in that capacity he became a sideman to vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Years before, he had orchestrated Tjader’s records and had initiated one of the very first bossa nova records in the United States. The reunion with Tjader gave a new impulse to Fischer’s love of Latin American music. He started his own group with Latino musicians and called it “Salsa Picante,” which showed great eclecticism in musical styles. Later, he added a vocal group, “2+2″. It was Stravinsky mixed with boogie-woogie and country with Renaissance music.
Simultaneously, Fischer started working as a string arranger with Black R&B groups. How a white American with German forefathers could end up with the Motown label is easily explained. “Nepotism. My brother’s son, André Fischer, was the drummer in the band “Rufus with Chaka Khan.” Apparently, the arrangements I made for their early records were appreciated, so in the following years I was hired almost exclusively by Black artist,” explained Fischer. Once his fame as an arranger was established, Fischer was hired by pop musicians like Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, and Robert Palmer. Fischer added, “I am surprised that my arrangements are now considered one of the prerequisites for a hit album. People feel that they make a song sound almost classical”
Some years ago, problems arose between Fischer and Robert Palmer that had to be resolved in court. Palmer had authorized producer, Teo Macero, to change Fischer’s score for one of his recordings and had without his permission used his arrangements at a concert. Difficulties like these painfully reminded Fischer of his earlier struggles with studio producers.
On the other hand, his collaboration with singer Prince was pleasant and fruitful. The somewhat odd couple joined forces on more than forty pieces. “Prince is intelligent. He never visits the studio when I am working for him; and I have never met him in person. He sends me memos and we talk over the phone. Once I sent him my “2+2″ Grammy winning CD. I heard from people that were present at the time that while he took out the disc he looked away from the cover, saying, ‘I don’t want to know what he looks like. It is working just fine as it is.’ Prince does not want to meet me because he knows that the minute he walks into a studio he will start interfering. It is uncommon that a person with such a strong ego realizes that I have an ego too,” said Fischer.
After Fischer suffered a severe concussion seven years ago, he claims he has become more emotional and expressive. He’s sensitive about how tough it is to grow older in a changing world. Many of Fischer’s kindred spirits have passed on. With each great loss, he has written a requiem or an elegy. Fischer reminisces, “The death of my friend Antonio Carlos Jobim touched me deeply. Like me, he was 68, and I am still alive. After he died, I had a dream in which I was conducting his “Corcovado”, but it was not the usual version of that tune. There were these harmonic countermelodies in the bass. When I awoke I wrote down what I had dreamed. It became Jobim’s in memoriam, a piece I called “Corcovado Funebre.” I have just recorded it with my horn and bugle band.” With his commercial work, Fischer was able to finance this costly band of twenty brass instruments. “I may die a poor man, but I will have a smile on my face.”
This year Fischer was again nominated for a Grammy for an arrangement of Cole Porter’s “In The Still Of The Night” for the French vocal group “Chanticleer.” Ironically, this award was given for the instrumental arrangement behind the vocals, although Fischer scored the vocal parts. For him, it is another example that people will always have trouble categorizing his work.
“I am one of the best kept secrets in jazz history. Many of my early records are hard to find and it is still difficult to release new ones,” stated Fischer. “I have just managed to interest a record company for “Rockin’ In Rhythm.” It took me four and a half years! Today’s version of Don’t call us. We’ll call you. is Oh, we love it, but we just don’t know how to market it. To which I say, just bring the son of a gun out and let it do its own marketing.”