Much the way the composers of the past received commissions from absent patrons, Clare Fischer made a lot of money last year writing orchestrations for a man he's never met: Prince.
"I've talked to him on the phone, received notes through the mail but I've never seen him face to face," Fischer said. "I sent him my last LP ("Free Fall"--Discovery) and I understand that he turned his head away as he took the disc out, saying, 'I don't want to see what he looks like. I have this image (of Fischer) and I don't want to destroy it.'
"So there's a certain amount of mystery involved. I suppose if he knew I were a gray-haired, older guy with a big paunch, he might say, 'Oh, that ruins it.' "
Few people are versed in as many musical worlds as the 58-year-old pianist/composer/arranger, who exhibits a much younger man's zest. A devotee of Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, Art Tatum and Bud Powell, Fischer has written for everyone from the Jacksons to Dizzy Gillespie, and is also renowned exponent of Latin and Brazilian jazz styles. He appears with his Latin/jazz band Friday and Saturday at LeCafe.
Fischer contributed extensively to Prince's "Parade" (music from the soundtrack for "Under the Cherry Moon") and "Sign 'O' the Times" LPs. "I've been adding 50-piece orchestras," he said, "using as many as 28 strings." Fischer works from completed tapes that Prince sends him.
The pop star gives Fischer fairly free rein, only occasionally offering suggestions. "On one piece, he said, 'I want New Wave Beethoven,' " Fischer said, "so I added pipe organ along with a symphony orchestra. On another, he asked for 'Something Duke Ellington,' so I hired 10 saxes."
For Fischer, who holds a master's degree in music from Michigan State University, writing " 'string sweeteners' pays the rent," but it's playing Latin/jazz that fulfills his heart's desires.
Though he was introduced to Latin music in college ("My roommates were Latins") and he arranged Latin dates for Bud Shank and Cal Tjader (and was briefly the vibist's accompanist) in the '60s, it was another stint with Tjader about 12 years ago that really got Fischer enthused about Latin sounds.
"Playing that music delivered me from the pressures of my life," Fischer recalled. "I played with my eyes closed and found that my backaches ceased and my headaches would go. The response to that rhythm was 'My God, this makes me feel good.' I never really remembered having that much fun with it before or thought about jazz making me feel good. But, at 46, it suddenly dawned on me that my body had priorities that my mind didn't allow, and I decided to (play Latin/jazz) for myself and started having a helluva fine time."
It hasn't all been sweet. Earlier this year, Fischer's singing group, 2 Plus 2, won a Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Performance, Duo or Group. But Fischer didn't. Instead, he received two certificates, for arranging and producing. "In all the preliminary voting, it was "Clare Fischer's 2 Plus 2," " he said. "On the final balloting, it said '2 Plus 2' and underneath in parenthesis, 'Clare Fischer's Latin/jazz sextet.'
"They disenfranchised me. It's like giving an award to Woody Herman's sax section, but not Woody, for 'Early Autumn.' My singers don't exist outside my group. Since I often write the songs, arrangements and lyrics, I think of them as part of my group."
This injustice might have driven others bonkers but Fischer takes it in stride, and even laughs at the predicament. "How else can you get through life?" he asked, smiling. "If I didn't have a sense of humor, I would have been dead and ulcerated long ago."
Before his Latin/jazz career, Fischer made his living as a keyboardist for the film and television studios. While the occupation was financially lucrative, it was less than artistically satisfying.
"You don't ever get a chance to play what you really do," he said, "and if you do, you notice that you can't play, because you haven't been.
"And often I'd be asked to play like somebody else, like Joe Sample. I'd say, 'I can't play like him. He's an original.' I'd be asked to try and the producers would love it, but I'd feel rotten. Then one time I ran into Joe and he told me, 'Man, I'm tired of people asking me to play like you.' My jaw dropped. Then I found out this (style-copying) is a common practice."
Fischer says of his multifariousness, "I relate to everything. I'm not just jazz, Latin or classical. I really am a fusion of all of those, not today's fusion, but my fusion."