Skelton Skinner All Stars / Clare Fischer Big Band / Ron Carter's Great Big Band
In his long and celebrated career as a composer, arranger, bandleader and musician, Clare Fischer has done it all. That includes recording more than fifty albums, the most recent of which is Continuum, showcasing the Clare Fischer Big Band and (on one track) the thirty-member Clare Fischer Jazz Corps. The band is now conducted by Clare's son, Brent Fischer, who composed and arranged "Step Up" (performed by the Jazz Corps). The elder Fischer arranged the other numbers, wrote everything save Moacir Santos' "Coisa Numero Dois" and Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," and solos on electric piano on "In the Beginning" and "Cal's On."
The atmospheric "Coisa" is one of two extended numbers (more than ten minutes long); the other is Fischer's "Man Is No Damn Good," described by Brent as "an epic discourse on the ills of commercial society" that "blends influences from Charles Ives, Bela Bartok and Lee Konitz in the grand Fischer tradition." There is one short piece, "For Steve" (1:19), a tender homage written by the elder Fischer in memory of his friend, the late Steve Bohannon. The more extended "Blue Requiem" was inspired by Fischer's attendance at the funeral of drummer Jeff Porcaro, while "Stoltz" was written for another close friend, the world-class clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.
The album's even-tempered opener, "City by the Lake," commissioned by the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, embodies a typically nimble solo by trumpeter Carl Saunders, and is followed by "In the Beginning," a big-band treatment of a theme originally written for flutist Hubert Laws' album of that name (solos by Fischer on piano, Lee Callet on baritone, Rob Verdi on "slide sax" [which sounds like an alto], Scott Whitfield on muted trombone, Bob Sheppard on alto sax and Alex Budman on alto clarinet). "Step Up," a bright-hued swinger, provides blowing space for alto Don Shelton, bass trombonist Bill Reichenbach, trombonist Whitfield, pianist Alan Steinberger, bassist Dave Stone, trumpeter Steve Huffsteter and Verdi on contrabass sax whose timbre is so low only bears can hear it, while "Coisa" enfolds weighty solos by tenor Rob Hardt and keyboardist Quinn Johnson.
The lively "Cal's On," writes Brent Fischer, lay for years on his dad's piano as a single intriguing melody line on a piece of paper until Brent finally "persuaded" Clare to "write down the chords, dammit!" It's good that he did, as this is one of the album's sundry highlights, taped perhaps twenty or more years ago with Clare on keyboards and Brent on vibes. Although "No Damn Good" strays at times from the lineal road (there's even a brief bow to Brahms' lullaby), it houses perceptive solos by Stout, Budman and trombonist Andy Martin. The dirge-like "Blue Requiem," also taped some years ago, precedes the buoyant finale, "Stoltz," a well-built vehicle for Budman's clarinet and Reichenbach's valve trombone.
Even though not all the music on Continuum is fresh from the oven, that doesn't mean it is any less appetizing than today's main courses. There's an abundance of meat on this frame, and most of it is Grade A, thanks to Clare Fischer's exemplary compositions and arrangements and his capacity to enlist the finest musicians southern California has to offer. Fischer, now in his eighty-third year, may be slowing down a bit (his health has not been good) but as Continuum shows, he's not yet ready to throw in the towel or wave a white flag.
Ron Carter's Great Big Band
Ron Carter Big Band
Even with a name as well-known as bassist Ron Carter's, if you plan to build your first album as leader of your own big band around such enduring themes as "Caravan," "St. Louis Blues," "Opus One," "Con Alma," "Sail Away" and "Line for Lyons," you'd better have something fresh and exciting to bring to the table. Luckily, that poses no problem for Carter's Great Big Band, which relies for the most part on superior musicianship and listener-friendly arrangements by music director Robert Freedman to frame its musical blueprint.