The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a change in the approach to big band arranging. Voicings and colorings became more luxuriant, and the palettes began to include more pastels; classical harmonies began to creep in to charts.
Gil Evans brought the arranging prowess he developed in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and the the Birth of the Cool recordings of 1949-50 (compiled and released on Columbia Records in 1957) to his partnership with trumpeter Miles Davis for three masterful large ensemble albums that redefined the genreMiles Ahead (1957); Porgy and Bess (1958) and Sketches of Spain (1960), all released on Columbia Records. Spinning off the success of these sets was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's Perceptions ( Verve Records, 1961), featuring charts from trombonist/arranger J.J. Johnson, Gillespiana (Verve Records, 1961), with a young Lalo Schifrin given the writing and arranging duties; and finallyagain from Gillespiethe marvelous A Portrait of Duke Ellington (Verve Records, 1960), featuring arrangements by the relatively unknownand unacknowledged on the original album coverClare Fischer, who had previously been best known as the accompanist/arranger for the vocal group the Hi-Lo's.
Extension, by the Clare Fischer Orchestra, was originally released in 1963 on Pacific Jazz Recordings. The disc's 2012 reissue is superbly produced by Jonathan Horwich. In that late 50s/early 60s heyday of change and exploration in large ensemble jazz writing, it is a masterpiece of the genre.
The previously-mentioned Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie recordings were "soloist-fronting-and interacting-with-a-big-band" affairs. Extension is much more an ensemble outing, with reedman Jerry Coker and Fischeron organ and piano getting a bit more chance to shine on brief, concise soloing, on a set of eight compact tunes running in the three to six minute time frame. Also, with the occasional Gil Evans similarityEvans, like Fischer, used the unusual (for the time) French horns in his ensembles, as well as a tubaFischer sounded like no one else.
"Orithhardy" opens with the gentle surge of Fischer's raspy organ. Horn and reed harmonies, laid out with a light touch, ebb and flow, and Coker lays down a tight tenor sax solo that gives way to breezy ensemble interplay. "Quiet Dawn" floats on a sea of reeds, Fischer's delicate piano touch, and splash of vibes with Coker's bass clarinet casting cloud shadows in the background. "Bittersweet" is majestic, classically influenced, featuring gorgeous and sophisticated harmonies, and "Igor" (for Igor Stravinsky?) is brash, tinted with the atonal, with a pair of very jazzy piano/bass/drums interludes.
The disc's title tune shifts form dreamy big band avant- garde interludes when all the horns and reeds are engaged, to swinging bop when Coker and the rhythm section step out front; and not enough can be said about Fischer's use of the organ for harmonic enhancement, swinging the sound out of the concert hall in the direction of the bar room.
Clare Fischer, who passed away in 2012, had a long and successful music career, though jazz was only a part of it. There was work in Latin jazz and Bossa Nova; he also wrote arrangements to season and enhance the records of popular artists Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Prince and many others. This release of his jazz masterpiece Extension for the first time on CD puts this great music back out where it can be heard again.
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