Frank Foster died yesterday morning, in his sleep, at 82. I spent the afternoon working on the NY Times obituary, which hits major points of interest, starting with the obvious: his indispensable contribution to the Count Basie Orchestra, in its New Testament and legacy editions.
A handful of things had to be left out, including the kinship between Foster and his fellow arranger-bandleader and Basie alumnus Thad Jones. For space reasons, there also wasn’t anything about Foster’s time in Detroit, after college but before Basie. And I didn’t touch on a recent development regarding his publishing rights, which involves the filmmaker Brian Grady and a team of law students at Rutgers.
But after filing and editing the obituary, I saw that others had filled in some of those gaps, notably Felix Contreras and Patrick Jarenwattananon at NPR. Their coverage, on Morning Edition and A Blog Supreme, is heartfelt and thorough; Contreras in particular had written about Foster a number of times over the years.
While we’re here: don’t sleep on Manhattan Fever, a fully realized album that holds up well, despite its Age of Aquarius undertones. Opening with a boogaloo called “Little Miss No Nose” — a song for his daughter, playing on a comment by Nancy Wilson — the album features a small-to-midsize group that often sounds bigger, thanks to Foster’s canny arranging. Hear it for that band sound, and for Mickey Roker’s drumming, and for the title track, which Foster proudly cited, decades later, as one of his most forward-thinking.
Another plug: Foster’s work on ¡Viva! Vaughan, released in 1965. The album, which apparently languished in obscurity for years before its 2001 reissue on Verve, impeccably captures that era’s vision of urbane sophistication, with flute, trombones and percussion, and a bossa nova undertow. It features some primo Sarah, and some excellent pop-minded arrangements by Foster. (Its producer, Quincy Jones, may or may not have had some influence there.) It also features a slinky lite-mambo version of “Shiny Stockings,” with Ella Fitzgerald’s lyrics and Willie Bobo’s congas.
Finally, Foster’s 1998 interview (PDF) with William Brower, Jr., for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, is an engrossing read — not only for the road stories and reminiscences, but also for Foster’s thoughts on arranging, and on his own stylistic fluctuation. Here’s just one excerpt, obviously too inside-baseball for a mainstream readership, but probably, dear reader, just inside-baseball enough for you:
As far as harmony and orchestration is concerned, I really wanted to go beyond Basie. In the Basie format ninths, elevens and thirteenths, the extensions, are used quite a bit, especially in the modern era with Ernie Wilkins, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, and Neil Hefti, but there were always for the most part conventional harmonic structural arrangements. I wanted to get beyond that and deal with modes. I became aware of modes about the time I was observing John Coltrane and his sheets of sound approach. I wanted to incorporate that sheets of sound format into my arranging and harmonizations. Those sheets of sound that were referred to by critics or writers or whoever talked about that effect, consisted mostly of certain placements of notes that formed certain scales or modes from the bottom of the horn to the top of the horn and back down again. I began incorporating these modal harmonizations into my writing, in that I wouldn’t just be 1-3-5-7-9 in my approach to harmony in building chords in thirds, in conventional thirds. I started using more cluster writing, like 1-2-3-4-5. Instead of 1-3-5-7-9, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. I would have these very clashy kind of harmonies very often inserted into my arrangements.
P.S.-- on a wildly different note, a Foster-related observation that may remind you of Christmas in July: that Tony Bennett record is tops.