Live Jazz: The Clare Fischer Big Band at Typhoon

By Michael Katz

Santa Monica, CA.  Anyone who has followed the Latin jazz scene in Southern California is well acquainted with the work of Clare Fischer. The keyboardist and composer, who passed away in January, 2012, left a trove of compositions, including “Pensitiva” and “Morning” and a large jazz ensemble that his son, Brent, has been leading for the past decade. Tuesday night at Typhoon, in Santa Monica, Brent used the occasion of the band’s Grammy nomination to present an eclectic set of Latin, straight ahead and classically influenced jazz.

The Grammy nomination (Best Latin Jazz) is for Ritmo! and over two sets, the band  covered most of the tracks on the CD.  Its energy base stemmed from a pulsating rhythm section that featured Quinn Johnson on electric keyboards, providing the kinetic backdrop that Clare had contributed to the Cal Tjader sound. Billy Hulting kept things percolating on the congas and Ron Manoag was steady on the jazz drums and percussion. Brent Fischer provided splashes of support on the vibes, though he stuck mostly to gilding the basic melodic lines, and Ken Wild held forth on bass.

Brent Fischer and the Clare Fischer Big Band
Brent Fischer and the Clare Fischer Big Band

The opening numbers “Funquiado” and “Guarabe” showed off the depth of the band’s sections. The trumpets featured Rob Schaer as section leader and the veteran Ron Stout as lead soloist. Stout helped launch the evening with his work on “Funquiado,” while Josh Aguiar and Brian Mantz took the lead on “Guarabe.” The most stunning turn on that composition was by the great trombonist Francisco Torres. Torres, who has shined throughout the jazz scene here in LA, has a sound both lush and strident. His solos snapped both band and audience to attention, then melted back to the insistent beat of “Guarabe.”

Ten years ago, Brent Fischer recorded a jazz arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and the various movements were integrated into both sets Tuesday night. Brent took full advantage of a woodwind section that had all the players doubling on saxophones, clarinets and flutes.  Alex Budman, the leader of the section, excelled on alto, flute, and even piccolo. In the movement that opened up the second set, tenor sax player Tom Luer picked up his flute and bari saxist Lee Callet completed the trio on alto flute. Later, on “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” the section switched to clarinets, with Kirsten Edkins delivering some beautiful work on soprano sax.

One of the highlights of the evening was “In The Beginning,” which I would list as my favorite Clare Fischer tune that I never knew he’d written until last night.  Hubert Laws recorded it on one of his classic CTI albums, with Clare on keyboards. The frenetic lines at the song’s outset reflect the chaos of Creation, then drop slowly into the primordial ooze of a funky blues riff. Lee Callet, on baritone sax, grabbed that blues line perfectly and carried it home, handing it off to Budman and then the rest of the band as Brent Fischer led the ensemble back to its early scramble.

There were lots of moments to admire over the evening’s performance. The space itself, on the second floor of the airport’s small terminal, provided surprisingly good acoustics; all the solos were robust and clear. Trombonist Scott Whitfield had a nice scat-singing chorus as the second set opened, to go along with strong playing throughout. I especially liked the tenor sax work of Tom Luer. There’s a select few on the instrument who possess an unmistakable sound.  I wouldn’t put anyone in the class of Trane or Getz on the basis of a few solos, but Luer’s tone was reminiscent of Ernie Watts; he’s someone I’d like to hear more from.

As the second set continued to a typically diminished LA crowd, I put my pen down and floated along with the rhythms of the band’s particular West Coast Latin sound,  one that was carved out  by the likes of Cal Tjader and Clare Fischer and continues on with Poncho Sanchez and Brent Fischer. It seems particularly suited to our climate, even on a chilly February night.  The band closed with a three part medley, “Canonic Passacaglia, Blues and Vamp ’til Ready,” which featured, among others, Tom Luer again on tenor and Josh Aguiar on trumpet.  Fischer added a flourish on vibes, and that was the end of the pre-Grammy celebration.

Whether they win or not, it’s a terrific legacy to a great sound.

* * * * *

To read more reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.

Click HERE to visit Michael Katz’s new personal blog, Katz of the Day.

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