Clare Fischer






Add an exclamation mark to an album title, and excitement ensues. That serious Jazz pianist, organist, clarinetist and composer Douglas Clare Fischer (1928–2012) succumbs to such a ploy or lets the marketing people at Pacific Jazz Records get away with this coup de main does not degrade the interesting duality of Manteca!, released on said label in 1965. Spanning nine Latin tracks in total, with three of them written by Clare Fischer himself for this particular album, this work is actually divided into two parts, with even the most desultory or half-hearted listener being able to spot the following difference: side A features the talent of a 13-piece ensemble, whereas side B is played by a sextet.


Many musicians reprise their roles on side B, but this one feels much more humble and joyously reduced without functioning as an appendix. Side A bursts and tumbles due to the amount of seven dedicated brass players. Percussion-wise, the biggest impact is probably embodied by a very raspy and echoey guiro played by Rudy Calzado. Although it does only transparently appear on two tracks, its hyper-echoey, hollow afterglow is unheard of in Exotica, and will probably keep this status ad inifinitum, depending on whether one is willed to count Manteca! to the Exotica canon or not; I myself place it in that genre due to the percussion thicket. The two congueros Carlos Vidal and Adolfo “Chino” Valdes meet timbales player Nicholas “Cuco” Martinez and erect towering constructions as well as riverbeds in fluxion. Here is a closer look at the nine tracks of Manteca! and the constant pondering which side is the more convincing one.


A little bit of post-Prohibition Era flavor, a scent of Crime Jazz, lots of congas and timbales, and there it is, the opener Manteca sans exclamation mark, one of the blueprints of Afro-Cuban Jazz, originally co-written by Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller in 1947. Clare Fischer and his band create a thicket of maracas and an extremely reverberated whiplash-like guiro as played by Rudy Calzado and thus allow an aura of dubious danger. Albums like Don Ralke’s The Savage And The Sensuous Bongos or Hugo Montenegro’s Bongos And Brass (both 1960) come to mind, everything feels fiery and heated. The ardor is soon gleefully ridiculed when Fischer’s thin organ coils are embroidered. Their concrete jungle texture is quite misplaced in this brass-heavy concoction of the tropics, but is nevertheless tastefully interwoven. Four trumpeters and three trombonists make sure that the big band flavor is eminently maintained. Through all the brass stabs and effulgently gleaming horns, the congas are always shimmering through, the arrangement is particularly hollow and sports a great plasticity.


Mongo Santamaria’s following El Toro surprises with a strongly silkened aura, despite its name. A midtempo tune with comparably laid-back conga coppices, euphonious brass layers whose sinews are perfectly in order rather than criss-cross, and last but not least Fischer’s emaciated car horn organ embody a twilight state of prowess and soothingness with an interim climax in the middle of the tune.


Clare Fischer’s own Morning sees the tempo level decrease once more; now everything is truly easygoing, with the congas and maraca shakers schlepping themselves forward in the hammock-friendly mildness. The organ tumbles to sky-high frequency ranges, glistening cowbells illumine the setting, Ralph Peña’s double bass runlet is audible throughout the arrangement. There is again a Latin climax in the middle of the tune which then returns to almost Lounge-like realms, albeit drowsy and mellifluous ones, as the bar is naturally closed in the morning. A prominent use of show tune-like horn formations rounds off the tune and leads to Mongo Santamaria’s second tune, the well-known Afro Blue which is ameliorated with distantly cacophonous organ flumes and brass layers that break free of their corset and fire away much more vividly. The ubiquitous oscillation between fleshed out organ layers and thin counterparts in tandem with staccato brass blebs make the cowbell-driven Afro Blue a great endpoint of side A.


Side B features five additional songs, but a completely different atmosphere. Latinisms remain few and far between, but two prominent alterations come to mind immediately: the omission of both the organ and all brass instruments. What remains is a superb skeleton of percussion spines and Fischer’s piano as their medulla. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Favela kicks off side B with piano movements in that archetypical Latin style. Sizzling maracas and cautious bass protrusions are used to create "one of those tunes," as the adage goes, but Nicholas Martinez’s timbales eruptions in the middle rev up the energy level of an otherwise designedly appealing cocktail hymn. Clare Fischer’s own Margeruite then succumbs to the Cha Cha Cha and spawns that terrifically echoey guiro (which already enchanted the opener), cowbell bulbs and the sudden change in characteristics of the respective segues. The percussion either immediately stops or elbows its way into the scenery again, letting Margeruite seem more of a schizophrenic person than a woman to suspire, but throughout the piece, every chord sequence is veiled and mellow, resulting in a loveable concoction nonetheless.


While Fischer’s last unique composition Dulzura finally makes use of strongly spiraling piano cascades which may not be overly catchy but carry the whole conga-interspersed timbale structure regardless, Norman Gimbel’s and Pablo Beltrán Ruiz’s Sway (Quien Sera) moulds Fischer’s previously bubbling piano work into imperturbably nonchalant structures, with the three C’s – frizzling cymbals, a cowbell galore and conga beats – rounding off some enchanted evening.


The finale, Rudy Calzado’s Negrita, sparkles and gleams thanks to the use of maracas and coruscating piano tones, both of which were admittedly featured throughout side B, but not in this freely flowing form. Here, Clare Fischer gets the balance just right and propitiates the fan of eclectic Latin corkers with the equally targeted group of Easy Listening aficionados who want their Exotica tunes to be a tad more melodious and accessible, no matter how stale the aftertaste of such adjectives undoubtedly is. The piano twirls along and is therefore resemblant to Dulzura, but the tone sequences themselves are loftier, more translucent and embrace the listener with their chords in major. The presence of the two congueros is audible enough to let fans of exotic music equally enjoy this piece. 


Granted, there are albums whose duality is better carved out than Manteca!‘s, for instance the many releases which dedicate a whole side for a suite – such as Morton Gould‘s Jungle Drums (1957) – or a long-winded long-form piece as found on Preston EppsBongo Bongo Bongo (1960) or Pérez Prado’s Concierto Para Bongó (1975), but Clare Fischer does offer two very distinct takes on Latinisms that make it worth even an Exotica listener’s while: side A features brass infusions and organs en masse, a mixture that is definitely not overly common and more related to Space-Age than Latin music per se, while side B throws these instances away and turns the attention even more to the percussion side and Clare Fischer’s piano, incidentally the only classic instrument.


That side B does not feel like an afterthought is quite a feat, for the brass stabs and turbulent horn helixes do carry all of the arrangements of side A, so the clefts they leave once they are mute have to be covered. Fischer manages the balance between sounding less gimmicky (whatever that means to each listener) by augmenting the percussion. Fans of Crime Jazz, secret agent dramas or the pressure of car chases will get the most of side A, whereas side B is reserved for stereotyped Latin tonalities as well as friendlier and loftier timbres. There is no aesthetic ravine, let alone a tiny fissure in-between the two sides, and both are equally important and impressive, although the interplay between the musicians as well as their greater amount on side A showcases their skills admittedly better than it is the case in the reduced setup. Something has to give; when a 13-piece band turns to a sextet, the effect is realized immediately. Favorites include the titular Manteca as well as the warmhearted Sway. Clare Fischer’s Manteca! is available on vinyl and as a download version on Amazon MP3, iTunes and other stores.


Exotica Review 280: Clare Fischer – Manteca! (1965). Originally published on Nov. 9, 2013 at