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Pianist Scott Martin Remembers Clare Fischer

Pianist, composer and arranger Fischer died Jan. 26 at 83

The first time I encountered the late Clare Fischer’s music was playing one of his big band charts as the pianist for my high school jazz band, back in 1973. I’d just gotten into the band as a sophomore and had to take the music home and basically memorize it in order to be able to play it. It was in an odd time signature and the piano part was a series of II-V, minor to dominant ninth chord arpeggios that required all of my skills to master, yet made sense and used voicings I already knew, but just in a way I’d never conceived of putting them together before. In the years since, as I’ve gotten to know Clare’s playing, writing and arranging a lot better, that original impression of his music has never changed. Clare took the building blocks and traditions of jazz, salsa, bossa nova and classical music and combined them in ways that were absolutely original and personal. In short, he developed his own harmonic language, which puts him in the company of the very greatest innovators of the jazz world.

About 10 years after learning his jazz band chart, I saw Clare perform with his band at the Baked Potato in L.A. My friend was playing percussion in the band and briefly introduced us. By that point I’d played “Pensitiva” and “Morning,” his best known compositions, and listened over and over to his work playing and arranging for the Brazilian genius Joao Gilberto. A little later, I noticed he’d written the score for Prince’s movie, Under the Cherry Moon. I also became familiar with his salsa records with Poncho Sanchez that used closely harmonized vocal arrangements he’d developed for the Hi-Los back in the ’50s combined with melodic and rhythmic devices that recalled Stravinsky. I’ve always admired the incredible range all of these various projects demonstrated. More recently, I even watched a scratchy YouTube link of him performing his own deeply moving arrangement of “America the Beautiful” on the huge pipe organ at the National Cathedral. Not many “jazz pianists” could stretch that far.

But the most indelible and valued memory I have of Clare is spending most of the day with him a few years ago while I was in L.A. for a music conference. I’d emailed him, recalling the time we’d met over 20 years before at the Baked Potato, and mentioned some of the things I’d done after that as a studio musician in N.Y.C. His wife, Donna, wrote back and said she was corresponding for Clare since he was recovering from a broken leg, but invited me to drop by when I’d be in town. I came over in the morning and Clare sat and watched the entire live DVD of my jazz band, which I’d really just brought to give him as a gift. As we sat, drank coffee and ate cake Donna had made, I learned that they’d been close in college, but both married different people and then came back together in their later years. I thought that was highly romantic. In little asides, Clare mentioned that “nobody” had ever played or recorded his songs correctly, that Brazilian music had to be felt in half-time, and that he’d really made a good living playing in the studios.

Afterwards he decided he wanted to go have lunch at his favorite Italian restaurant just down the street and insisted I join him and Donna. He joked with the waitresses and owner, who knew him well, and ordered food he wasn’t supposed to eat, reminding me a lot of my grandfather, who always did those very same things. It was clear Clare had reached that great place in his life that musicians get to where they’re content with what they’ve accomplished and spread good nature everywhere they go, without judgment or discrimination. He totally opened his door to me, basically a perfect stranger, and reinforced for me the idea that the very best musicians are often the most humble and unassuming.

After lunch he again insisted on driving me back to my hotel, about a half hour away. As we drove through Laurel Canyon, I thought about all of the incredible musicians that have lived and worked in L.A. over the past decades and how great the vibe of California has been for music for my entire life. Since then I’ve gotten the occasional emails announcing his big band playing at various L.A. spots and the release of some new and reissued records. It is such a blessing to be able to connect the music you’ve grown up with to the musicians who created it and I’ve been very lucky that way in my life. When I heard on the jazz radio station in Denver that Clare had passed away last week, and then heard the song they played to commemorate him, “Como Come,” where he plays a grooving montuno piano part that a guy born in Michigan in the 1920s has absolutely no business playing and where his ideas and harmonies jump out of every bar, I thought back to that day I spent in his company and turned up the radio even louder.

Originally Published