02/18/11 By Lee Mergner
Lou Fischer: Jazz Fusion Men of a Certain Age
Jazz bassist and educator revisits the music of his early years, in a group co-led by Ndugu Chancler
Jazz bassist and educator Dr. Lou Fischer is not afraid to use the F-word when talking about the music on his latest recording. The album, Morning Walk, has been released on Summit Records, features a band called High Time, co-led by drummer Ndugu Chancler and they play “fusion” with a capital F. Although the genre has taken its knocks from those critics and fans who find the chops-oriented approach off-putting, Fischer doesn’t see the word or the genre as a bad thing at all. “Fusion to me represents a juxtaposition of any and all genres of music,” says the 58-year-old bassist. “In the broadest sense, we play fusion music any time we play jazz. Even in straight-ahead jazz, there’s a fusion of all elements—classical, African traditions and rhythms, Brazilian music.”
Of course, in that general sense, few people would have a problem with the genre, but what us jazz people are talking about when we talk about “Fusion” is something much more specific. We’re referring to the genre that evolved from the jazz-rock of the 70s to the contemporary jazz of the 80s and then split into either easy-going Smooth Jazz or the high-octane shredding of modern fusion. “Within the fusion genre of jazz, sure, we put those labels on,” says Fischer. “Going back to its beginnings, it all became electric. Initially it started on acoustic bass and moved to electric bass. And it started with a multitude of keyboards and then it transitioned to one keyboard with all sorts of setting. Yes, it’s electric and a fusion with rock elements. There’s still traditional Western harmony based. I really think it’s groove-based more than anything.”
In his job as professor of music and jazz studies area coordinator at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, Fischer even teaches fusion from all the different eras to his students. “We have a fusion ensemble here at Capital University. What I do with them is select a piece from each iconic group from within the genre from 1970. We look at the mainstays of the initial era—Return to Forever, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra—and then on to the ‘80s and ‘90s and present.”
As one of the founders of the Jazz Education Network, Fischer himself is generally seen as a straight-ahead jazz player, but there’s more to him than his stature and most recent recordings. In fact, like many baby-boomer jazz fans and musicians, Fischer grew up with a strong affinity for the early progenitors of the genre. “I grew up in Texas so we knew all about the Jazz Crusaders. I just loved their music. I heard about them because of the R&B connection they had in the ‘60s. They figured if they dropped that bad word ‘jazz’ that they’d sell more records. Joe Sample told me they went from selling 40,000 to 400,000 as soon as they dropped it. And the music didn’t change. Just the moniker.”
Indeed, the legacy of the Crusaders looms large in Fischer’s professional and personal life. Fischer’s new group can even be traced to his connection to that noted band. “Because they’re a groove-based band, I’ve always loved that group. Ndugu and I got together because of the connection to the Crusaders. We were both in the group, though at different times. I was in the band during the Streetlife tour around 1979-1980. Ndugu came in after that, replacing Stix Hooper. We both had that connection but we hadn’t played together in that style. We played Latin, Afro-Cuban, big band and straight-ahead stuff but never fusion. I said, ‘Hey, man, why don’t we go back to our roots and do something together.’ That’s how the album materialized. I got some tunes, you got some tunes.” And suddenly, it was back to the 70s, except with shorter hair, thicker waistlines and families.
Pat Coil, the pianist in the group, worked with Carmen McRae for many years, but it was his time with the Woody Herman band that brought him together with Fischer way back in 1976. After a nearly year-long stint on the road with Herman, the two decided to form an original jazz-rock band. It was called High Rise. Hey, it was the ‘70s after all. “It started out as a group of four, but it later turned into six pieces,” recalls Fischer. “We almost signed to Inner City. We were four guys who came from Woody Herman’s band. Steve Houghton, Pat Coil, myself and a tenor player named Pete Brewer.”
Fischer says that they were all studio session players in Dallas and that they got together as a band in order to an outlet away from both the big band jazz they’d played on the road with Herman and the pop music they were playing in the studio. “As much as we loved playing in Woody’s band, after doing it every night for eight months, you want to get away from that for awhile. We wanted an outlet for our original music. We did a couple fairly experimental albums.” The group played together from 1976 through 1979, and played all over the Southwest.
Naturally, like virtually all jazz-rock musicians of that era, the band members sported very long hair. How long was his hair? “Pretty long. My hair was about two inches below the neck, yep. It could easily be that now, but …. It was part of the thing then.”
Also part of the thing was plugging in while still staying faithful to the spirit of jazz improvisation. “I played both electric and acoustic in the band. I had a whole rack of pedals. We were experimenting with sounds. Our woodwind guy doubled on six or seven instruments. We didn’t cover anything. We did all our own original stuff. We added two instruments that were unique to us. One was a steel guitar and the other was a percussionist. We were working towards synthesizing or fusing folk music with what we were doing. At some point Columbia were interested but they had Weather Report.”
Fischer recalls one performance by the group when they noticed the members of Weather Report outside the glass windows of the club, looking in. Shorter, Zawinul and company came in and hung with the young guys from Texas. Jaco Pastorius was with the group at that time, and so Fischer says that it was a real thrill for him and the entire band to meet and hang out with some of the great innovators of the genre.
The bass tradition in fusion is storied and in many ways the bassist helped define the genre, and in turn the genre’s popularity brought players like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Alphonse Johnson to a higher profile. Fischer says that back in the day he felt no undue pressure coping with that legacy. “I started on electric and moved to acoustic when I went to college. I don’t remember ever consciously thinking about all that. I do remember thinking that I don’t want to sound like someone else. Everyone strives to develop a signature of some sort. I’ve always heard melody real well. I hear all the parts of the music, not just the bass part. I’ve always been a composer in my approach to music. I think Mingus was that way. You hear it in his playing. I’d like to hope that people hear that compositional nature in my playing.”
Shortly after Fischer moved to Los Angeles in 1979, he was hired to play with the Crusaders. “My first concert with them was at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic behind us. I’m 26 years old and my first concert with them was playing with them at the Hollywood Bowl with Noel Pointer as conductor. Alphonse Johnson played a tune with us. I walk out on stage and look out at this crowd of 20,000 people and I wondered, how did this happen. We played that first tune and the crowd came alive, clapping and stomping their feet. Talk about connecting with an audience. That’s when it hit me how important the groove is. I’ve never lost sight of that even when I’m playing with jazz.”
And that appreciation for the groove was one of the factors that connected Fischer and Chancler. “When you’re playing fusion, it becomes about the groove. It’s not like my favorite bebop drummers don’t have a groove, it’s just a different kind of groove. When Ndugu and I play bebop, it’s a different kind of groove. This group High Time evolved from that desire to play that kind of groove with him. When I told him, he said, let’s do it. I introduced him to Pat [Coil] and Fred [Hamilton].” And a new fusion band was formed, this time with older and presumably wiser members.
Fischer decided to bring the group together for the festival he oversees each year: the Capital University Jazz & World Music Festival, held in April of every year. “I said, ‘Let’s just go into the studio and see what happens.’ And magic happened.” The group did not recycle old material from earlier projects, but rather performed all new material. “Each guy brought three pieces to the session and we listened to them all and did the ones we could. We basically went into the studio from 10 am until about 4 pm and did half of them, did a gig that night at the festival and then came back the next day and recorded for a full day.”
And what’s with the groovy band names—High Rise and now High Time? You know, making references to the effect of illicit substances that were cool in the 70s doesn’t seem like such a good idea for a bunch of middle-aged guys with mortgages, jobs and grown children. Fischer says that I got it all wrong. “We were kicking around a lot of titles. I liked the title ‘High Time,’ because I thought it’s high time we revisit our roots. It’s high time we pulled this together. I miss it.”
Fischer says that the group was also encouraged by the response from the students who attended the festival. “The students around here loved the group. The music was fresh.” Perhaps one of the reasons for that response was because it was fresh to the players themselves who didn’t have the luxury of endless rehearsals and did the recording and performance somewhat on the spot. “The beauty of the album is the music is original. It was fresh to everyone; nobody knew it but the composer. We talked for five or ten minutes about the song and then recorded it. It’s not like we took the group out on a tour for six or eight months. But I often felt that with fusion you sometimes fell into that trap where the improvisational elements weren’t there any more. It became programmatic. This music is totally improvisational, even though, just like bebop, there’s a framework you’re working with. “
Fischer is having a good time, but it’s not like he’s planning to quit his day job as educator and hop back into the van like it’s 1978 all over again. They all are, after all, men of a certain age. However, he’s open to the group doing shows when it can work for all concerned. “We’re all educators. We all travel around doing festivals. If we can get some gigs playing together doing this, then that will be even more fun. Mainly we did it just because we had the urge to do it.”
One of the misconceptions about jazz educators that they live in a protective bubble obsessed with pedagogy and the past, but in fact those educators are exposed to younger audiences a lot more than most jazz musicians. As a jazz educator, Fischer deals with young audiences all the time. What do they think of 70s era fusion? “What they really do react to is groove-based material,” he answers. “They’ll all react to the mix of the record. They can hear the differences between early and late Weather Report. And Heavy Weather still sounds good. Though the drum sound has changed. What they gravitate to is the energy level. And that energy level is one of the reasons those groups were so powerful. If the groove or vibe is there, it’s going to capture people.”
In the jazz program at Capital, Fischer says they try to expose the kids to virtually every genre of jazz that’s out there. He thinks it’s critical for their long-term success. “I find that our students embrace all the different things that we unfold before them. We have a fusion band, a world music band, a MIDI band, a jazz percussion ensembles, a rock ensemble. We have all these ensembles because we purposely want to make sure that the musicians when they leave here can survive in the industry. You might think you know what you want to do when you’re in college, but you don’t.”
Fischer says he speaks from experience, having gone from Woody Herman to fusion to the Crusaders to LA session work to teaching at a university with plenty of starts and stops in-between. Yet looking back, he retains a certain fondness for that fusion period, as much because it was a time of experimentation. “When we did the fusion thing, we didn’t really care if we got paid or not. We did it because we wanted to do something new and unique and we were searching. I think jazz picks people. It picks individuals for the most part that are intuitive and inquisitive. This music is very selective in who it picks. I really believe this music picks you, not the other way around.”