Drawing new ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’
Name an area of musical imagination and Clare Fischer’s probably been there, from jazz and classical to pop, rock and R&B.; Everything the veteran composer/arranger/pianist does blends skillful craftsmanship with musical credibility, but for jazz fans he has done some of his most compelling work for big bands. Although Fischer, 78, has had some health problems recently, his work schedule continues unabated via a creative partnership with his son, Brent Fischer.
On Monday at the Jazz Bakery, Brent, with his father watching from the sidelines, led an assembly of the Southland’s A-list large ensemble players in a performance of the Fischers’ contemporary jazz take on Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Commissioned by Germany’s HR Big Band, the work is a virtuosic reimagining of one of the best-known compositions in the classical lexicon.
Other non-classical adaptations have surfaced over the years -- from arrangers Allyn Ferguson and Ralph Burns and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, among others -- but none has been as effective at retaining the character of the original within the framework of a jazz environment.
The Fischers’ decision to approach the work as a kind of concerto for big jazz band surrounding individual solo showcases was apparent from the start of the “Gnomus” portrait, which alternated passages by the full trombone section and the six-piece sax section. “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” was a technically demanding, fast-fingered romp for the saxophone and woodwind players recalling, oddly, John Williams’ “Cantina” music from the “Star Wars” score.
“The Hut of Baba-Yaga” delivered an explosive dose of brass surrounding shimmering woodwinds. And the final “Great Gate of Kiev” recapitulated the work’s insistently memorable principal theme with massive chording juxtaposed against one of trumpeter Steve Huffsteter’s characteristically cool-toned solos.
Other solo moments included the colorful trombone expressions of Les Benedict, swinging piano impromptus from Allen Steinberger and the always inventive alto saxophone of Gary Foster. Drummer Kendall Kay did a solid job of holding the disparate pieces of the complex scoring together while urging the rhythm forward.
Understandably, given the technical demands of the music and the paucity of rehearsal time, there were passages that were, to put it kindly, a bit out of sync. (A recording by the HR Big Band, available at www.clare fischer.com, is performed in more concise ensemble manner.) If anything, the performance underscored the need for an established L.A. jazz orchestra. If we can have a Philharmonic, why not a repertory jazz ensemble?