How It’s Meant To Be Played: The Brent Fischer Interview

This piece began as an interview with Clare Fischer, one of my favorite arrangers whose writing I’d first heard when I was a kid listening to my dad’s Hi-Lo’s records and whose name I’d seen on album credits throughout my life. Be it big bands or vocal groups, symphonic or Brazilian music, jazz or pop artists, Clare’s indelible harmonies, voicings, rhythms, and soul never fail to move me. 

When I spoke with Clare’s son, Brent Fischer, an accomplished composer, conductor, and musician in his own right, the interview unfolded into an extraordinary story of intuitive kinship. Clare and Brent are not only father and son, but two gifted composers with a shared musical vision, two brilliant arrangers who are able to finish each other’s musical ideas, and consummate musicians who have played together for more than 30 years. Brent is Clare’s greatest champion and historian. He’s dedicated to archiving his father’s body of work, a feat that could take another five years to complete. The latest releases from the Fischer collective include definitive recordings of Clare Fischer’s compositions and arrangements, plus several of Brent’s arrangements of Clare’s compositions.

Brent  conducted, organized, produced, and played on the recordings, seeing to every detail of the process. He’s a beautiful cat who freely shared with me the inner workings of arranging and composing, and most importantly the closely intertwined musical relationship he has with his father. During our conversation, Brent told the story of Clare’s monumental meeting with Duke Ellington. After hearing it, I was speechless, and the palpable emotion that hung between Brent and I informed me that this would be the soul of this article: music as it was meant to be played. It’s the composers hope  to hear their music performed as they heard it in their minds. Clare achieved this with Duke‘s music, Brent has achieved this with Clare’s music and his own, and they inspire us to create and listen to music that is played the way it’s meant to be.

Brent Fischer: Dad got a chance to meet Duke at some point. I’m not sure what the situation was, but they were recording next door to each other in the same studio. Dad told me that as soon as he knew that Duke was in the room he started playing one of Duke’s songs and improvising with his hippest voicings. Duke noticed, came over and said, “Now that’s the way my music was meant to be played.”

Marissa Dodge: The ultimate compliment! What a golden moment for your dad!

BF: He felt the same way, and was always really happy that he got to experience that. I think that’s one of those “Ah-ha” moments in your life when you realize, “OK, we’re on the right track here.” I wonder if Duke ever heard the album that Dad arranged for Dizzy Gillespie, “Portrait Of Duke Ellington”. He may not have known that it was arranged by Clare because the arranger credit was left off the album. Clare’s arrangement credit appears on subsequent releases, but the reprinted liner notes still credit the arrangements to Dizzy.  Those are the frustrations in life that are made up for by the golden moments.

MD: Tell me about the new Clare Fischer recordings you’ve been working on.

BF: We’ve just released two new albums The first is “The Clare Fischer Voices and Sometimes Instruments”. The second is by the Clare Fischer Big Band, “Continuum.” Besides all the tracks that we’ve done in the last two or three years, there are also some tape to digital media transfers that were recorded in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, a few from each decade. The main motivation for releasing these two CD’s was that the music was written for the sheer joy of doing so. My pressing concern is to record and archive the entire music library. It’s important to me that while my dad’s still alive, he gets to hear all this music that he’s written performed by really fine musicians.

There’s one song of my dad’s on “Continuum” called “Cal’s On”.  The piece was written for Cal Tjader, but while the melody sat on Dad’s piano for years, he never did anything with it. I read through it one day and I thought it was the hippest line in the history of jazz! I couldn’t wait to hear the chord progression that went along with it, so I asked my dad if he had the entire tune worked out and he said, “Oh yeah, I’ve got it all in my head”. I said, “Please write it out because I‘d like to study it”. But he was too busy, so he didn’t get around to it. Finally out of frustration I wrote in large letters at the top of the page, “Write down the chords, damn it!” And I put it right in the middle of the piano so he’d see it. After a couple of weeks he filled in the chords. Then he wrote a couple of arrangements for it, one of which you’ll hear on the CD. I’m really looking forward to hearing what reviewers think of that line, because I still study it to this day and look to it for inspiration. That was a case where he had everything worked out in his head and it was able to exist there for years. Also, he’s told me that while he was sleeping, he’d dream that he was writing an original composition and then he’d get up and write it out in reality. I haven’t done that yet, but I look forward to it!

MD: I can’t wait to hear the new recordings, whether Clare wrote them in his sleep or not! I understand that you wrote new arrangements on a few of Clare’s originals. How difficult or easy was it to see them in a new light because you’d already heard them orchestrated by your dad?

BF: I never saw my father have a problem treating the same old material with a completely fresh approach. When I started writing myself, I just decided that I would use the creative ideas that I gained from my father to give it a different spin to songs that had been arranged many times before. So that’s never been a problem for him and it’s never been a problem for me.

I’m continually amazed by my father’s writing and I expect that will be the case for the rest of my life. There are so many levels of complexity in every single aspect, both the emotional and the analytical side. I don’t think anybody can ever fully appreciate it in their lifetime. I think one thing that a lot of people often overlook in Clare’s writing are his intricate rhythm patterns. The rhythms he uses are very unusual. I’m not talking about polyrhythms like 5 against 3, but an unusual combination of ordinary rhythmical figures. The rhythms are quite intricate, but not done for the sake of showing, “Look at this strange rhythm that I came up with here.” It’s all an outgrowth of the emotional development of the material.

For example, there are two new arrangements of dad’s standard, “Morning” on the new vocal CD. The reason I wrote them is that the translations of the original English lyric into Spanish and Portuguese had never been recorded by anybody and we noticed that other people were writing their own translations and recording them without permission. We wanted to set the record straight, so I wrote those arrangements to feature the official authorized translations of the lyrics. We used the same Latin groove— kind of a guajira—for both the English and the Spanish version, but for the Brazilian version with the Portuguese lyric, I wrote it as a Bossa and it came out completely different. If I’m asked to write five more arrangements of “Morning” in the next two years, I can’t tell you that I won’t have a difficult time coming up with five fresh new treatments after already doing it twice, but I certainly wouldn’t back down from the challenge. I think it’d be great!

MD: What makes your father’s composition style stand out from other writers, and how much of that do you use when you write?

BF: There are two hallmarks of my father’s style that I use in my arrangements. One is the use of unusual wind instruments. When Dad and I think about flutes, we don’t just think about C flute, we also involve alto flute, or bass flute, and the same thing goes with the entire clarinet and saxophone family, all of the valve bugles. For instance the Clare Fischer Jazz Corps, which is his thirty piece instrumental group, incorporates all the instruments from big band plus French horns, the entire family of valve bugles from soprano to contrabass, and other unusual instruments. We’ve got brass players who have helicon tubas, valve alto trombones, etc., so every time we get an opportunity to write for something like that, we take it. That’s the fun part!

The other hallmark is a unique harmonic approach influenced partially by orchestral composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bartok, Webern, Berg, and Dutilleux. Of course, there are also jazz influences, not just Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn but also the boogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis. Lewis would play simple pentatonic blues riffs in his right hand, and he’d go through the entire song playing chords in his left hand and keep the blues riffs going based on that pentatonic scale. That resulted in very unusual harmonies when he got to the IV and V chords. I’m not sure if  Lewis was consciously thinking about that back in the 30’s, but Clare Fischer took them literally and expanded upon them in a polytonal nature. So part of that is from taking these literal things that Lewis did and combining it with some things that Shostakovich did–using a chord with a major 7th and a minor 7th a major 7th above it, for example (from bottom up) C, E, G#, B, Eb, Bb.  The Bb is the minor 7th of the chord and it is a major 7th above the B natural.  I would either list this as a Cma7+5+9(add mi7) or Bma7/C+. This provides extensions that can be found in both styles. Clare blended them in a way that I think nobody else has been able to do.

MD: Thanks to my parents, I grew up surrounded by great music. My first impression of your dad was when I was about 4 years old, my dad used to play the Hi-Lo’s and I remember being amazed by the details of what I heard. I heard more colors and saw a bigger picture of the music. I gravitated toward Ellington for that reason too. I know you’ve been around your dad’s music your whole life, but do you remember the first composition of your dad’s that had an impact on you?

BF: It’s hard to choose just one. I can’t remember a song that my dad has written that I didn’t like. I‘m editing Volume 3 of the Clare Fischer Songbook right now and by the time we get done, we‘re probably going to have 150 original pieces of music. I guess some of my earliest memories revolve around the making of the “Thesaurus” album and especially the song, “The Duke.”

You and I have similar backgrounds in that we were always surrounded by great music, and that’s a total contrast to my dad’s background. He discovered all of this music on his own. One day, I found scores of Shostakovich string quartets in my father’s handwriting, and I asked him about it. He said, “Oh, yeah, I didn’t have the money during the Depression to buy a score from a store, but I had the record so I transcribed it and I wrote out the entire quartet so I could study it.” While he had almost no support for at home, his high school and college music teachers recognized his talent right away and helped him to develop as a composer. He was very that the teachers recognized and encouraged his virtuosity.

MD: When I listen to someone it’s all about “feel” – that deep “soulfulness,” and your dad has really got that unexplainable sensual feel in addition to all of the other elements. I think that sets him apart. Where do you think his feel came from?

BF: He spent a lot of time in jazz clubs from age 15 or so, got to play with a lot of different musicians, traveled at a young age, and experienced a lot of things and these all effected how he approached music. The emotional content was already there in his being, whereas it was just a question of releasing it expressively through music. When you watch a live performance of his, you’ll always see him close his eyes and turn his head up, what he’s trying to do is disassociate his conscious self. The conscious self has been put together through the academic training, and that’s all necessary. When he or I teach a student, we try to fill in the holes of their musical knowledge. When you fill in those gaps, you can feel comfortable with letting go of your conscious self and relying on your intuition. That’s something my dad’s always been able to do, and as his bass player, I was always conscious of that too. It’s important to listen carefully to what the other musicians are playing and being really aware of everybody’s contribution in the moment.

MD: When did you start composing?

I was sixteen when I started assisting my dad with his projects, including all the string arrangements he did for pop and R&B artists. Almost none of them knew how to write music, so they would send us a tape and it would be my job to transcribe it note for note. The approach Dad takes when he’s writing an orchestral arrangement to preexisting tracks is like piecing together a giant jigsaw puzzle. He gets some of the pieces from the rhythm and vocal tracks and it’s up to him to put the rest of the pieces in there, so he wants to know in great detail exactly what’s there. So I’d write the chord voicings, the background singer harmonies, guitar solos, and unusual rhythms that the drummer was playing, if necessary. They were very detailed transcriptions and dad would use that as the basis for filling in his score. That experience of working together got me interesting in writing. When he needed help making a deadline, I’d either orchestrate something that he’d written or we would do, for lack of a better term, tag team arranging. He’d write something all day and then go to bed and I’d come over after I’d slept all day and sit at the piano and fill in the same score and continue where he left off, then I’d go to bed, and when he got up in the morning he’d pick up where I had left off. That worked really well because my style was so similar to his, I didn’t have to worry about finishing a phrase and neither did he. When we couldn’t stay awake any longer, we’d just put the pencil down wherever we were in the middle of that idea and it was finished by the other person the next day. That was a wonderful experience. Then finally at some point I had to ghost write arrangements for him while he was out of town and he couldn’t get back in time for a recording date.

MD: What a beautiful and intuitive bond to have with you dad! Sharing music is enough of a gift, but to have that unspoken communication of knowing what the other person is going to write or play is remarkable.

BF: Thank you! Yeah, when he first looked at something I had ghost written for him, he said, “You know, these are all the ideas you’ve heard me use over the years, you’ve just constructed them in your own way.” A lot of the unusual motifs that he’s consistently used over the years, I use too and I try to find new ways to use them as well, so there will be a continuity.

MD: Are there ever times when you’re listening to something and you forget who wrote what?

BF: No, I can tell right away.

MD: I was just thinking about of Ellington and Strayhorn and how they seemed to finish each other’s musical sentences – ghost write or however they did it – there’s always been that speculation as to who wrote what and what happened behind the scenes. Can you tell when it’s Strayhorn and when it’s Ellington?

BF: (Laughs) It’s never been important enough to me to try and make that distinction, but I just like them both so much that I’ve never tried to figure out what was a Duke idea or a Strayhorn idea.

MD: The reason I ask is because internally we know what we’ve written and what we’ve played, and we usually know where the idea comes from, but I wonder if other people who listen to Fischer arrangements can pick out which is which. It seems like you’re the only two who know the real deal.

BF: Here’s a concrete example of that: In 2004, Dad got a commission from a big band in Germany to write a full big band arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition”. Actually the assignment was, “We don’t even have to recognize that this is Mussorgsky, we just want an original Clare Fischer work where the inspiration came from Mussorgsky’s piece”. He started contemplating what he was going to do, he hadn’t really gotten anything more than a sketch down on paper when his diabetes flared up. We went through a long time of seeing all the different medical specialists and they finally found the right combination of medications to get everything back to normal. Meanwhile, we had the deadline approaching and I took it upon myself to write the arrangement. My idea was to treat every one of the ten movements, including the five interludes, as a big band piece in and of itself. My goal was that it would be done very creatively but also something that would pay tribute to my father. I was really proud because the first email we got after sending the music was from the director who said, “One can hear Clare Fischer’s writing in every bar”. That really made both of us proud. We called them when they were getting ready to release the CD and told them what had happened. Dad was listed as “co-arranger,” because I checked everything with him. I was at his house in the writing studio so when he’d wake up, I’d show him an entire section, and he’d either approve it or make a comment. I’d been working with him over twenty years, so it was really easy to write something that he was happy with.

One of the comments I’ve gotten from people who have just heard original works of mine is “You can definitely hear the Clare Fischer influence, but it’s still Brent.” And that’s what my goal is on every one of these arrangements or compositions, even when I’m working on one from scratch. I want to continue the musical traditions that were conceptualized by my father, because I don’t hear that many people out there doing anything like this. It’s important to me to carry it on, because when they hear something composed and arranged by Brent Fischer in the year 2025, it might remind them of Clare Fischer and they’ll go back and re-listen to his music.

MD: It’s great to talk with you and it’s been a pleasure to hear your dad’s music throughout my life. There hasn’t been one note I haven’t enjoyed. I look forward to all the music yet to come from both of you. 

BF: Thank you! Wonderful to talk to you too.


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