Composer Profile: Clare Fischer

            I have long been an admirer of Clare Fischer’s music. Fischer is perhaps one of the most influential yet least well-known arrangers of the twentieth century. His influence is wide and far-reaching and he has made significant contributions not only to modern arranging techniques, but also to Latin jazz, and jazz piano harmony (Jazz Times 2012) (Martin, 4) (Farris 1964, 46).
            While his contributions to jazz are far reaching, this study will focus on his contributions as an arranger. Fischer’s greatest asset as a composer was his sophisticated uses of both vertical and horizontal conceptions of harmony. This can be seen in a multitude of his works for big band, vocal groups, chamber groups, Latin jazz groups, solo piano or jazz small groups.
             Fischer's style can be characterized as a mixture of early Gil Evans techniques and the larger arena of the midcentury west coast aesthetic. This is hardly surprising since one came out of the other (Gioa 1998, 176). Fischer prefers woodwinds, particularly cohorts of mixed groups. This can be heard both through the lens of Gil Evans and Igor Stravinsky. He is also partial to conical bore brass instruments such as the french horn and tuba, and avoids traditional writing styles for cylindrical bore brass instruments such as the trumpet and trombone. Fischer's use of French horn and Tuba achieves a more orchestral sound typical of both the Gil Evans projects of the period as well as the various Stan Kenton ensembles for which Fischer was occasionally a part (Cook 2006, 740).
            As we will see, Fischer takes care to balance the intervals within individual voicings. For example intervals in upper structures of a voicing are typically balanced with consonant intervals in lower structures and vice versa. Bill Dobbins and Martin Morretto have hailed Fischer’s harmonic approach not only for its economy, but for his ability to use harmony to aid the expression of music (Moretto 2013, 38) (Fischer 2000, 11). The care with which Fischer crafted his voicings enabled him to utilize techniques from classical music such as polytonality, dissonant intervals of major sevenths and minor ninths, and chromatic parallelism.
            Not only are Fischer’s vertical constructions sophisticated, but his approach to them is as well. Fischer never truly abandons functional harmony, but uses suspension, contrary motion and chromatic parallelism to create counterpoint that is painstakingly constructed to obscure the tonal center (Moretto 2013, 26).
            This paper will identify some of the basic ways Fischer is able to create such a unique contrapuntal and harmonic texture. I will be looking particularly at his arrangements from the 1957 album Donald Byrd with Strings, the 1960 Dizzy Gillespie album A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Fischer’s 1963 album Extension, and his 1969 album Thesaurus.


            Clare Fischer was born in 1928 in Durand, Michgan. Fischer’s high school band director encouraged him to learn multiple instruments. This would later give Fischer keen insight into orchestration (Stein 1993, 24). From 1937-1955 Fischer attended the University of Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in theory and composition. This was interrupted by a brief stint in the army where Fischer arranged for the Military Acadamy Band at Westpoint.
            Fischer’s time in college had a profound impact on him. In addition to mastering harmony and orchestration techniques, he was introduced to Caribbean and Brazilian music. This would spark an interest that would later help shape his career (Farris 1964, 46).
       After leaving college in 1955, Fischer moved to California and began working as a studio musician and arranger. In 1957 Fischer began his first significant work as an arranger, with the vocal group the Hi-Lo’s. Fischer’s voice can be heard clearly when comparing his arrangements to earlier Hi-Lo offerings. For instance, the Hi-Lo’s 1953 recording of “April in Fairbanks” could hardly be considered jazz or even influenced by jazz. Yet, by 1959, Fischer’s arrangements for the group such as “Mayforth” are not only imitating the techniques of Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Stan Kenton and others, but also anticipate the sound made famous by groups such as Take Six, The King’s Singers and the Manhattan Transfer. Fischer’s work with the Hi-Lo’s garnered acclaim and helped to influence jazz harmonic trends in the 1950’s and 1960s. Herbie Hancock cites his study of Fischer’s work with the Hi-Lo’s as a significant step in his own harmonic development (Jazz Times 2012).

April in Fairbanks (1953) (Not Clare a Fischer Arrangement)

Mayforth (1959)

           Another important project of 1957 was Fischer’s work on Donald Byrd’s album, Donald Byrd with Strings. This venture showcases Fischer’s early combinations of jazz, midcentury commercial, and classical elements. Open listenings to “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “The Touch of Your Lips” from this album, reveal the influence of classical composers such Stravinsky and Shostakovich, often times oscillating between almost cliché commercial techniques and the bleeding edge of primitivism inside a few measures. Even though this project was not released until the mid 1980’s, it is not only an excellent example of Fischer’s early orchestral writing, but it also led to his collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie on the 1960 album “A Portrait of Duke Ellington” (Moretto 2013, 4).

I Get Along Without You Very Well (1957)

The Touch of Your Lips (1957)


             Fischer’s 1960 collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie on A Portrait of Duke Ellington would have represented Fischer’s first major success as an arranger in a strictly jazz context, but due to an omission by Verve, Fischer was left uncredited on the record and was largely unacknowledged for his work. (Geiske 1960) Still, Fischer’s work on this album is striking; particularly in that his scoring for woodwinds and brass is so similar in nature to textures used by Stravinsky in Historie du soldat. Indeed, Fischer’s approach here is nearly as far removed from traditional big band writing as it is possible to be.
         Fischer’s study of Latin rhythm is particularly apparent on this project, as heard on his arrangement of “Caravan”. Fischer combines traditional swing interpretations with Stravinskyesque woodwind interruptions. Halfway through his arrangement in m. 126 there is a brief woodwind interlude followed by a break by Gillespie. When the band comes back in Fischer has changed the style of the arrangement to a 12/8 afro Cuban feel which continues until m. 183. Not only is this a shrewd choice for the piece as it is often done as a Cha-Cha or Mambo, but it also fits Gillespie’s personal aesthetic.
Caravan (1960)


           In 1960 Fischer also began to produce important offerings in the realm of Latin music. This would continue for the rest of his career. His work with Bud Shank and Cal Tjader would produce many important recordings such as Manteca! and Salsa Picante. These would vary from the thinly veiled jazz interpretations such as Bud Shank’s “Samba da Borboleta” to more authentic offerings such as Fischer’s “Morning” and Tjader’s “Funquiado” which features Fischer on Hammond organ.

Samba da Borboleta (1963)

Morning (1960)

Funquiado (1978)

                   Fischer’s 1963 project Extension is his first for jazz orchestra. Unlike his 1969 big band album Thesaurus, Extension can be seen as a continuation of his approaches used in A Portrait of Duke Ellington. While Fischer’s orchestra is much closer in formation to that of big bands such as the Kenton orchestra, big band moments seem few and far between. Fischer avoids this particular sound in his forces, tuba and French horns diffuse typical brass section tropes and his woodwind writing smacks of classical chamber ensembles. This can be heard on his Stravinsky tribute “Igor” as well as on “Soloette/Passacaglia”.

Igor (1963)

Soloette/Passacaglia (1963)

             Throughout the 1960s Fischer would continue to work as a composer and arranger, although during this time he became more active as a keyboardist. Fischer wrote for many groups throughout the decade. His contributions the Stan Kenton Neophonic Orchestra were particularly good, but his next significant project would not be until his 1969 release of his big band album Thesaurus.
            Thesaurus is unique in Fischer’s discography because of its conformity to traditional big band composition methods. Almost the polar opposite of Extension, Thesaurus is different from most of Fischer’s work in its far-reaching conservatism. This can be heard in Fischer’s treatment of form, orchestration, and improvisation.
            For example, Fischer’s arrangement of Ellington’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” features all of the hallmarks of traditional big band writing. The piece begins with a brief introduction. The trombones play hits in plunger mutes over a Db pedal given to the bass, bari saxophone and tuba. Cup mutted trumpets come in with the melody in the fifth measure and maintain the melody in unison throughout the entire form. The trombones and saxes take turns supporting the melody with hits but don’t break into cohorts the way they do throughout Extension. After the melody, Fischer takes a one-chorus piano solo. Fischer uses woodwinds for the backgrounds to the piano solo, and while this could have been an instance of Fischer’s nascent classicism shining through, he avoids those kind of figures and instead scores typical woodwind lines for the backgrounds.
            Fischer’s arrangement subtly alters the form by inserting a brief woodwind interlude at the end of Fischer’s piano solo. This interlude develops the Db pedal and the trombone material heard during the beginning of the arrangement. The piano briefly comes back in after the interlude, continuing the Db pedal as a send off into the two-chorus tenor solo.
            Fischer brings the melody back after the tenor solo splitting it between unison trombones, saxophones in octaves and piano improvisation. Conte Condoli comes in with a brief trumpet solo stating the melody on the bridge. He is supported by the saxophone section, and is propelled by brass into the last A of the form. The final A is the shout section and features the brass and flutes working cross-purposes. (It is unclear that the type of writing heard in the shout chorus would be as effective live as it was in the studio due to the overpowering nature of the brass with the flutes.)
            It is important to point out that not all of the music heard on Thesaurus is strictly conservative. The exception is Fischer’s“In Memorium” dedicated to the lives of John F. and Robert Kennedy. Here we hear more familiar Fischer conceptions, albeit still in a big band setting.

Upper Manhattan Medical Group (1969)


 The 1970’s saw Fischer become more heavily involved in commercial music. Long an advocate for electric instruments, Fischer’s foray’s into the Hammond organ and various synthesizers paid off when many jazz artists went electric in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of Fischer’s projects during this time featured these instruments.
            Perhaps the most important of Fischer’s contributions during the 1970’s was his arrangements for the disco record Rufus: Featuring Chaka Khan. While not perhaps the most important record of the 1970’s, this outing led to a longstanding collaboration with Prince who held this record in high regard.

Please Pardon Me (1975)

Christopher Tracy’s Parade (1980)


             Fischer continued to work as a soloist and composer and arranger both commercially and for his own projects. In addition to his busy career as a soloist Fischer composed and arranged for Usher,  Natalie Cole, The Manhattan Transfer, Rob McConnell, and Diane Schuur. Fischer continued to compose for Orchestral jazz, as evidenced by his albums, Music for Strings, Percussion, and the Rest, The Clare Fischer Big Band: Continuum, and Roseanna Vitro.


            Clare Fischer described his sound as a product of voicings (Jackson 1986). This has been well articulated by authors such as Bill Dobbins, and Martin Morretto. (Dobbins 2001) (Moretto 2013) While many of Fischer’s chords and voicings sound dissonant on an initial listening, Moretto points out that most of Fischer’s chords remain inside functional harmony and rely instead on creative use of dissonance—particularly intervals of diminished and augmented fifths, major sevenths and minor ninths—to create harmonic tension. (Moretto 2013, 9)
Hoaky Blues

            “Hoaky Blues” is representative of Fischer’s harmonic idiom (Moretto 2013, 13). Altered fifths are common intervals in Fischer’s chords, as seen in the G7#9 voicing on the & of four in the first measure. In this chord Fischer voices the major 3rd and the sharp 9 using a major third to create a tension in the interval. Fischer resolves this dissonance through contrary motion on beat two of the second measure. The use of counterpoint to resolve dissonance is a hallmark of his harmonic style.
            Additionally, on the & of four in the first measure, Fischer uses the interval of a major tenth in the left hand, and continues this voicing throughout this excerpt. This is a boiler plate technique for Fischer and can be heard in virtually all of his works (Moretto 2013, 13). Fischer’s wide spacing on this voicing adds depth to its sound, but more importantly, sets up a situation for contrary motion in the next measure.
            Fischer continues to use dissonant intervals throughout this excerpt. Just as the major seventh is resolved from m. 1, a minor ninth is heard on beat two of the second bar between the F# and G (Fischer 2000).


            Fischer favors a polytonal approach to harmony that is heavily influenced by Igor Stravinsky. (Fischer 2000) This can be seen in his compositions “Ill Wind”, “Baroque”, and “Igor”. We will ex amine this briefly in his composition, “Igor”.

            Of particular interest here is the polytonal voicing borrowed from the “Rite of Spring”. In the first measure Fischer uses a C/Bb polytonal voicing. According to Martin Moretto, this is a borrowed technique from the opening figure from “The Exalted Sacrifice” scene from the “Rite of Spring”. (Moretto 2013) 
The Rite of Spring “The Exalted Sacrifice”. Piano Reduction (Moretto 2013)

            The primary difference between Fischer and Stravinsky’s voicings is in Fischer’s horizontal harmonic motion versus Stravinsky’s vertical motion. Indeed, this is a technique that sets Fischer apart and can be heard in virtually all of his compositions and arrangements.
            Further polytonal material can be seen in the seventh measure of Igor with the Cmaj7/Db moving to C7+9+11. The C7+9+11 voicing is typical of Fischer’s voicings because he prefers the interval of a fifth between the bottom two voices. In this case the diminished fifth gives the chord a darker sound. Voicing diminished and altered fifths in this register is a usual technique for Fischer and can be heard in “Hoaky Blues”, “In a Mellow Tone”, “Ill Wind”, and many other compositions and arrangements.
            While not a technique heard in Fischer’s commercial work after 1962, his use of such bitonal techneques is what sets him apart as an arranger. Nearly twenty years before Bob Brookmeyer’s foray’s into the realm of polytonality, Clare Fischer forged ahead as one of the innovators in field of jazz composition and arranging.


Byrd, Donald. 1957. “Donald Byrd With Strings”. Lone Hill Jazz LHJ10225. Compact Disc.
Cook, R.M. and Brian Morton. 2006. The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings: Eighth Edition. New York: The Penguin Group.
Farris, Robert Thompson. 1964. “Clare Fischer: The Pan American Way”, The Saturday Review. (November): 46-47.

Fischer, Clare. 1963. “Extension”. Pacific Jazz. PJ77. Compact Disc.

Fischer, Clare. 1969. “Thesaurus”. Atlantic SD1520. Compact Disc.

Fischer, Clare. 2000. The Music of Clare Fischer Volume I. Edited by Bill Dobbins. Rottenburg: Advance Music.

Gioa, Ted. 1998. West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960. Berkley, University of California Press.

Gieske, Tony. 1960. “Accent on Jazz: Trumpet Men Do Keep Blowing”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-10-15.

Gillespie, Dizzy. 1960. “A Portrait of Duke Ellington”. Verve MGV8386, 817107-2. Compact Disc.

Hi-Lo’s, The. 1958. “And All That Jazz”. Columbia CS-8077. Compact disc.

Jazz Times. 2012. “Herbie Hancock Remembers Clare Fischer.” Jazz Time Website. Accessed September 28, 2014.

Moretto, Martin. “Clare Fischer His Musical Style and Harmonic Concepts.” Master’s thesis, William Patterson University, 2013.

Rufus. 1975. “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. ABC Records ABCD-909.
Stein, Bradford J. 1993. “Clare Fischer Interview”, California Jazz Now 3 (8): 20, 24, 32.

Strunk, Steven and Barry Kernfeld. 2002“Fischer, Clare”. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 15, 2014,

Troup, Stuart. 1987. “From Gillespie to Prince, Fischer’s Arranged it All,” Newsday (October)

Selected Discography
The Hi-Lo’s. Now Hear This. Columbia CL1023. 1957.

Donald Byrd. Donald Byrd with Strings. Lone Hill Jazz LHJ10225. May 7, 1956-57.

Dizzy Gillespie. A Portrait of Duke Ellington. Verve MGV8386, 817107-2. April 27 & 28, 1960.

Clare Fischer. First Time Out. Pacific Jazz PJ52. April 12&14, 1962.

Bud Shank. Bossa Nova Jazz Samba. Pacific Jazz PJ58. September, 1962.

Cal Tjader, Sona Libre. Verve V-8531. 1963.

Clare Fischer Orchestra. Extension. Pacific Jazz. PJ77. 1963.

Clare Fischer. Easy Living. Revelation REV2. 1966.

Clare Fischer. Manteca!.  Pacific Jazz PJ10096. 1966.

Clare Fischer Big Band. Thesaurus. Atlantic SD1520. 1969.

Rufus. Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. ABC Records ABCD-909. 1975.

Clare Fischer. Salsa Picante. MPS Records (G)68209.

Clare Fischer. Free Fall. Discovery DSCD 921. 1985.

Clare Fischer. Lembrancas. Concord Picante. CCD-4404. 1990.

Richard Stolzman. American Clarinet Music. RCA Victor 1535412. 1996.
The Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band. Ritmo!. Clare Fischer Productions & Clavo Records CR 201209. 2012.

The Clare Fischer Orchestra. Music for Strings, Percussion and the Rest. Clavo Records. 2013.


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