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.
Maria Schneider kicked off her heels within the first few
minutes of the early set at Birdland on Tuesday night. I mean literally,
as in: she conducted her band barefoot. This small, seemingly extraneous detail
struck me as noteworthy, though I thought twice about commenting on it, for fear
of dredging up some bad
associations, or seeming unduly focused on Schneider’s image, rather than
Here’s the thing: the notion of conducting barefoot is emblematic of Schneider’s modus operandi as a bandleader. Much has been
made of the flowing, intuitive feeling of her music, a feeling that tends to
get coded (by critics and, I suspect, no less by audiences) as somehow
essentially female. That’s hogwash, of course, but it shouldn’t preclude talk of intuition -- and yes, even comfort -- in Schneider’s work. Her compositions reflect a deeply
analytical perspective, but they’re always mediated by discernable human
emotion. That’s a rare gift of communication, shared by few composers in jazz,
and the only reason it gets gendered in conversations about Schneider is, well,
I hadn’t intended on approaching Schneider’s Birdland run from the angle of “women in music,” which both honors and reduces
her art. What brought me to that angle here was a worthy
feature currently underway at NPR. For the
record, I believe the Maria Schneider Orchestra to be our best large jazz ensemble, period. (This is hardly a minority opinion.) It occurred to me, halfway
through Tuesday’s set, that the MSO also fits the bill of an excellent
The new column,
about big bands and innovation, is now up at JazzTimes. You may recall that this subject had the jazz
blogosphere abuzz not long ago. (If you don’t recall, just trust me, or start here and work your way
back.) Alas, the online serve-and-volley transpired after the magazine had gone
to print, or I would have incorporated it.
I also had to file just a few days before the NEA Jazz
Masters concert, which began with the awesome head tripof Muhal Richard Abrams conducting the Jazz at Lincoln Center
Orchestra. (Thankfully I had heard that piece, “2000 Plus the Twelfth
Step,” in its premiere.)
So perhaps, from the standpoint of an RSS metabolism, the
column feels outdated. I’d wager that most of the people who find their way here
are well aware of the ground it covers. What interests me more in this case is
the potential to reach another segment of the JazzTimes readership, people like Irwin Kimke of Buffalo Grove,
Illinois. He has a letter in the current issue that reads as follows:
I have been a JazzTimes reader
for a long time, since back when it was a newspaper. I am disgusted. Why? I
just went over the last five issues of JT and didn’t find one single, solitary article about a big band. the
only references to big bands are in your CD reviews. I have just renewed my
yearly subscription, but unless things change that renewal will be my last.
Now, I’m not sanctioning the practice of subscriber
ultimatum. But it’s worth considering Mr. Kimke’s point of view, however far it
may fall from my own. This was one objective of the current column, and a big
reason for using Stan Kenton as the framing device. The music of Darcy James
Argue and John Hollenbeck may be formally conventional to some observers, comparatively
speaking (I refer you again to that blog dustup, above) -- but that’s hardly
true among the listening majority. Or in the case of Mr. Kimke, a vocal and
selectively well-informed minority. (I’m extrapolating here.)
The big band-related results of this year’s Grammy Awards --
covered, in a manner of speaking -- would seem to confirm my thesis. (For
the record, I have seen the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, in their hometown, and
they were great. Formally inventive, no. But that’s not the only yardstick for
success.) Anyway, there are a lot of people out there
who love big band music. Some of them may be only dimly aware of what’s
happening along the forward flank of that tradition. Perhaps they have no interest, which is fine. But with apologies to another oldfangled big band touchstone, Ya Gotta Try.