The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra will break out unorthodox colours and textures to paint a fresh portrait of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition May 13 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The piano suite by the Russian classical composer is one of the most recorded pieces of music, with many classical versions, as well as a 1971 recording by British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Germany's HR Big Band commissioned this jazz version in 2003 from Clare Fischer, an American composer, arranger, pianist and big band leader.
"The HR Big Band loved it and recorded it," says Fischer's son Brent, who worked closely with his father as a composer and arranger. The German orchestra "said they could hear Clare Fischer's writing in every bar" and spoke of "his uncommon harmonic vocabulary."
The thing is, it was Fischer the younger who actually wrote it. He and his father worked in tandem on many projects, with one writing some music during the day, say, and the other at night for a seamless composition.
"As a team, we were like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn; we could finish each other's phrases," Fischer says of working with his dad, who died in January at 83.
When the two got the final mix from HR, they saw the band had credited Clare, Fischer says, but it was changed to include both names.
Pictures closes the WJO season.
"You'll hear a lot of unusual woodwind instruments," Fischer says of the Pictures jazz arrangement, "that give a unique colour not often associated with a big band." Instruments such as bassoon, contrabassoon, alto clarinet, alto flute and piccolo, for instance, give it a much richer texture, he says.
Fischer's Pictures also includes the bass saxophone, "a fantastic-sounding instrument that holds its own against the electric bass," the composer says.
The full makeup of the band will be determined by which instruments WJO members have available or can find, he says. "There's a lot of music to prepare, different parts, but it's not insurmountable."
Pictures "is one aspect of my writing I was especially proud of," Fischer adds. His Grammy-winning father "listened to it all the way along."
Fischer started working with his father 32 years ago and continues making music "in the tradition started by my father."
Fischer's main instrument is the electric bass, but he plays many others. He is director of the Clare Fischer bands and has worked as a session player, conductor, band director and clinician, as well as arranger and composer.
"When I looked at the (Pictures) full orchestral score, I saw much that could be translated into a big band setting. All 10 movements and five interludes are included; they may stray a little from the original intent, but they originally weren't that clear-cut.
"It could be considered an original work based on the Mussorgsky original," Fischer says.
Mussorgsky created his signature work in 1874 based on 10 drawings and watercolours by the recently deceased architect and artist Victor Hartmann.
Fischer's arrangement will be the centrepiece of the concerts, but the WJO will also perform music by Ellington and Wayne Shorter.
The WJO closes out its season on May 13 by performing Pictures at an Exhibition at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Tickets $29.50 (students $15) available at winnipegjazzorchestra.com, 632-5299, and McNally Robinson Booksellers.