Composers Series: Vol. 1
THE MUSIC OF CLARE FISCHER & GEORGE GERSHWIN
Drawing on more than forty years of professional and academic experience, including eight years as principal director of the award-winning WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany, and thirty-five years on the jazz studies faculty of the Eastman School of Music, world-renowned educator, composer, arranger and pianist Bill Dobbins offers his take on selected works of composers whose music represents a major contribution to jazz. In this first in a series of solo piano recordings, captured live at Eastman's Kilbourn Hall, Dobbins presents his arrangements of pieces by Clare Fischer, legendary harmonic wizard and master of jazz, blues, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban idioms, and George Gershwin, consummate songwriter and the most successful of early twentieth-century composers at bringing jazz elements into symphonic writing.
01 Hoaky Blues (Fischer)
02 Prelude II/The Man I Love (Gershwin)
03 The House On Summit (Fischer)
04 ‘S Wonderful (Gershwin)
05 Brazilian Waltz (Fischer)
06 How Long Has This Been Going On (Gershwin)
07 Sleep, Sweet Child (Fischer)
08 Soon (Gershwin)
09 When Autumn Comes (Fischer)
10 Coco B. (Fischer)
[ 4.5 stars ] Jazz pianist and educator Bill Dobbins is perhaps best known as a fixture at the Eastman School of Music since 1973, with a concentration that includes lots of large-ensemble work. He is also well suited as a player of classical music. So it should come as no surprise that Dobbins’ approaches to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,(on Vol. 2) and George Gershwin and Clair Fischer (on Vol. 1) would be like wearing a familiar, comfortable jacket. Listening to Dobbins’ playing on these two recordings—solo piano recitals before live audiences on the Rochester campus—one gets a sense of the vast range inherent in his playing.
Listeners will certainly be impressed by the amount of improvisation Dobbins adds to so many of these familiar, ageless themes. Take Ellington’s “Band Call,” played as a reharmonized swinger that sheds new light on this classic from the post-swing era. But then he can go in another direction, as he does with Gershwin’s “Prelude II,” the famous solo piano piece that works like a miniature of orchestral splendor and woe.
Likewise, Fischer’s “When Autumn Comes” and Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On” are filled with charming moments of gentle, graceful uplift without the need to say everything or extemporize to the fullest. Dobbins’ patience with these songs is tangible, like he’s been living them his whole life.
— John Ephland, Downbeat May 2016,
Since returning to the Rochester, New York, and the Eastman School of Music, after living in Cologne, Germany for eight years, where I was the principal director of the WDR Big Band, I decided to present annual solo piano concerts at the school. In September 2009 I selected an entire program of pieces by Clare Fischer, partly in preparation for my participation in an international symposium on Fischer’s music, which was held in Graz, Austria in the spring of 2010. Clare’s music has been one of my strongest influences since I discovered it at the age of seventeen, and it was a thrill to get to know him and to develop a musical and personal friendship with him during the last thirty years of his life. The enthusiastic audience response to that concert and the inspiration I experienced from really delving into that repertoire gave me the idea to continue this focus on the music of a single composer in subsequent programs.
Since then I have presented solo concerts devoted to the music of numerous jazz composers whose music has a special attraction for me. I have also performed most of these programs at our annual Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival (running since 2002 for a nine-day stretch in mid June) and at numerous venues in Ohio later in the summer (I was born and raised in Akron, and have musical and personal connections from Columbus up to the Akron/Cleveland area).
Listening back to the recordings of all these programs in recent months, I was pleased to hear many pieces that immediately stood out as representing a standard of musical craft and personal expression that I wish to share with a wider audience. As the Clare Fischer program was the earliest, and my harmonic treatment and stylistic arrangements of the Gershwin material emphasized some similar musical elements, the pairing of Clare Fischer and George Gershwin seemed compatible for Volume 1 of this Composer Series. Subsequent volumes in this series will feature pairings of other composers, whose music seems to be mutually complementary,
Hoaky Blues (aka Blues In G) uses dissonances and harmonic colors that Clare associated with the boogie-woogie and blues pianist, Meade Lux Lewis. Of course, the blues is an essential ingredient of jazz, and this is one of the pieces that illustrates Clare’s personal slant on the blues tradition.
The House On Summit was inspired by a return to the house in Durand, Michigan, where Clare spent much of his childhood. By then, the house was uninhabited and in a ramshackle state, represented by the haunting opening section in a minor key. In spite of that, however, Clare eventually began to hear the voices and see the images of the children playing in and outside the house, which is heard in the joyful second theme.
In addition to jazz and blues, Clare was an expert in Brazilian music, and was among the first, along with Bud Shank, to record music mixing the samba and bossa nova with the improvisatory language of jazz. Brazilian Waltz is a brilliant example of Clare’s take on a waltz with a Brazilian groove. Just as he became immersed in the Latino community in L.A. and became fluent in Spanish while assimilating Latin and Afro-Cuban music, he became fluent in Portuguese as a part of absorbing the Brazilian musical idioms.
Sleep, Sweet Child is a lullaby written for Clare’s son, Brent, shortly after his birth. Although the melody in ¾ meter conveys the lyrical and heartfelt quality suggested by the title, the harmony illustrates Clare’s assimilation of the harmonic language of Dmitri Shostakovich. I know of no other jazz musician whose music demonstrates a deeper understanding of the common threads between jazz, blues, Latin music, funk, and classical vocabulary from Bach to Stravinsky and Shostakovich, than that of Clare Fischer.
When Autumn Comes first appeared on a 1957 recording of Donald Byrd with strings (“September Afternoon”), all arranged by Clare Fischer. This piece illustrates Clare’s awareness of the Ellington/Strayhorn legacy, as well as his adeptness at absorbing influences to the point where they ultimately contribute to unmistakably personal statements.
Coco B. was dedicated to a small energetic poodle owned by Clare’s in-laws. The playful opening theme in the AABA form is beautifully contrasted with the wistfully romantic B theme, and the rhythmic energy concludes this collection on a resoundingly positive note.
My affection for the music of George Gershwin goes back to my early adolescence, at a point at which I had been studying classical piano for about four years. When I was about thirteen years old, my father came home one day with a recording of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue and An American In Paris, featuring pianist Oscar Levant. I was so taken by Rhapsody In Blue that I went to a local store the next day and bought the version that was transcribed for solo piano. By the end of that weekend, I had memorized the entire piece.
Along with Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin was one of the few composers of “classical” music who had some real understanding of jazz. My discovery of his music came along just a year or so before I heard recordings of Erroll Garner, the Ahmad Jamal trio, the Dave Brubeck quartet and the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was shortly after hearing those groups that I decided to devote my musical life primarily to jazz.
My interpretation of Prelude II (aka Blue Lullaby), the second of Gershwin’s three Preludes for solo piano, serves as an extended introduction to the more familiar standard tune, The Man I Love. The prelude is played mostly as written, but I have enriched some of the harmonies, and extended the ending to connect with the arrangement of The Man I Love. That arrangement was developed from a two-piano version I arranged for the classical pianists, Katia and Marielle Labeque in the late 90s. The verse is treated somewhat bitonally in a manner similar to Stravinsky’s early work, but the rhythm sets up the salsa feeling that underlies the more familiar chorus section, on which the improvisation is based.
My arrangement of ‘S Wonderful was inspired by a breathtakingly beautiful recording by João Gilberto. However, I have included Gershwin’s verse here as well as the more familiar chorus. I love the feeling that the slow bossa nova groove brings to the melody.
How Long Has This Been Going On is simply one of my favorite Gershwin ballads, especially in the relationship between melody and harmony. I have included the verses in all the Gershwin songs performed here, and I tried to allow Ira Gershwin’s amazing lyrics to influence the style and pacing of my reworking of the original content of these songs.
I first became aware of Soon through a solo version on a Clare Fischer recording, The Reclamation Act of 1972. My arrangement was, once again, developed from a two-piano arrangement for the Labeque sisters. After the initial verse and chorus, the improvisation shifts from the original key of Eb to G, then alternates between these keys, one chorus at a time. The return to the theme begins in G, but then modulates to B for the second half and the ending. This completes the cycle of major third relationships, but without returning to the original key of Eb. Creative composers from Johannes Brahms through Bill Evans and John Coltrane have used such symmetrical manners of changing keys, either from phrase to phrase or from one section or chorus to the next.
I would like to thank Ray Cordello, Lou Chitty and Rich Wattie for their assistance in documenting these performances, and Jeff Penney for his interest and support in carrying this project forward. Thanks to John Nugent for his friendship and support in programming my solo programs at our summer XRIJF. I would also like to thank my wife, Daralene, for her constant support, encouragement and inspiration.