Less than a month after suffering cardiac arrest at his Los Angeles home, two-time Grammy winning composer/arranger and pianist Clare Fischer died Thursday in Burbank at the age of 83. Fischer had been a highly regarded figure in jazz since backing the group the Hi-Lo's in the 1950s, and in later years became an arranger for pop luminaries including Prince, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney and many others.
Fischer began his own recording career in 1962. He was one of the early jazz arrangers to fully embrace Latin music, and recorded a number of albums under his own name, one of which included the now-classic jazz standard Pentislava. In the early 1970s, he joined the band of vibraphonist Cal Tjader, and subsequently developed his own Latin ensemble, Salsa Picante. He added a vocal group called 2+2 to the ensemble, and their first recording, 2+2, won Fischer his first Grammy award in 1981, with a second following in 1986 for Freefall.
Along the way, Fischer's wide-ranging musical interests and abilities led him to play and/or arrange on more than 100 albums for various artists, 50 of which were under his leadership. An encounter with a high school drum and bugle corp inspired Fischer to create the Clare Fischer Jazz Corps, for which he purchased all the instruments and hired top L.A. jazz studio musicians as players. He also wrote extensively for solo piano, a clarinet choir, and created his own symphonic works.
In the 1970s, Fischer began doing arrangements for R&B superstar Chaka Khan, which earned him a following of other R&B artists including The Jacksons and DeBarge. Appreciation for those arrangements led to even greater demand from popular music icons including Prince, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Santana, Celine Dion and numerous others.
Veteran L.A. studio trumpeter Carl Saunders was a fan of Fischer from the age of 14 growing up in Las Vegas. “I wore out the local record store's copy of the Hi-Lo's Love Nest until they kicked me out. Years later I found out the track I still listen to from that record, “Yesterdays,” was one that Clare arranged,” he said over the phone this weekend. Saunders has been a fixture for years in Fischer's big bands, including the 2011 Grammy-nominated Continuum for Best Instrumental Arrangement. A decade ago, he recruited Fischer to arrange for his own recording Eclecticism.
Even as Fischer's son Brent assumed leadership of the band in recent years, the ensemble's twice-monthly rehearsals were still under Clare's watchful eye in the den of his Laurel Canyon home. Saunders, who has worked with many of the greatest arrangers in jazz history, said, “Clare Fischer was in a class by himself — his voicings and harmonies were totally unique. He found things no one else heard.”
Saunders described Fischer as “demanding and a perfectionist,” a view echoed by longtime L.A. jazz club owner Don Randi of the Baked Potato in Studio City, where Fischer was a regular headliner in the 1970s and '80s. Randi said Fischer was especially hard on his then-teenage son Brent while the two were rehearsing for performances at the club.
Brent was only 16 when he joined a band of all-star musicians in 1980. “My dad was demanding of me, and all the other musicians that worked for him, but only because he wanted his music played as well as it could possibly be played,” Brent said via phone Sunday. When he was 12, his 48-year-old father told him he had been diagnosed with heart issues. “I'm in the autumn of my life,” he recalls his father saying. Brent went on to assume a larger role in his father's music over the next three decades. “I was incredibly lucky that autumn lasted 35 years,” he says.
Brent plans to record and release his father's music for the next several years, and hopes to obtain a grant to establish a permanent archive of his father's work at a leading institution. He will also continue to schedule live performances of the band.
Fischer is survived by his wife, Donna, three children, two stepchildren, three grandchildren and a brother, Stewart “Dirk” Fischer, a jazz educator and arranger. Funeral services, which are open to the public, have been set for Saturday, Feb. 4, at 11 a.m. at the Hall Of Liberty at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.