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Courtesy of Carl Fischer
Not many people who go to major concerts give a lot of thought to the “backing band,” but take a moment to consider the show without them. Unless the artist is putting on an acoustic set, the music might seem pretty empty. When Billy Joel comes to St. Louis this weekend, his backup band will be packed full of highly skilled musicians, including trumpet player, Carl Fischer. Fischer is a hard-working musician, primarily known for his work on trumpet and flugelhorn. You may not immediately recognize his name, but if you’ve gone to a Billy Joel concert in the last eight years, you’ve definitely enjoyed his playing. Fischer has played and toured with bands such as the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra, and Maynard Ferguson, and currently he is touring with Billy Joel, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Diana Ross. Despite his busy schedule, I was able to catch up with Fischer by phone during some downtime while he was in Florida.
How long have you been playing trumpet?
I started playing when I was five, and I’m 42 now. Being an improviser and a creative person, I’m horrible at math. [he laughs] So whatever five minus 42 is what we get. My dad was a great trumpet player, and so was my grandfather, but I really wasn’t serious about the trumpet, I’d say, until I was probably in 6th to 7th grade. That was the time when I really buckled down. Between 7th and 8th grade, I was practicing 3 to 4 hours a day, in middle school. I don’t know how I did it, being a young kid and going to school, but I couldn’t get enough of it.
What made you want to be a professional musician?
It wasn’t one thing in particular. It was almost the perfect storm of instantaneous music, and meeting people, and going out to hear music. It was a whole bunch of stuff. One thing was having my dad being a professional musician, going out every weekend. He did a lot of weekend work, obviously, because that’s the nature of the beast. Being a musician, it seems like you’re always working weekends. I remember my dad saying when I was a kid, “I’m going to play. I’m not going to work,” and that stuck with me. As far as me getting into the professional scene, I was very lucky again, with my father introducing me to a lot of great musicians and trumpet players. Growing up in New York, I was a half hour from Manhattan, in Long Island. There was a plethora of great players I got to see, and became friends with, through my father and just through being in New York.
How did you break into the professional scene?
When I was 15 or 16, I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. My parents retired and I went to a performing arts high school down here. I guess the final straw was when after three years of living in Florida I got a belly full of school and thought I was going to be a trumpet player and joined a circus band. I traveled for about four months with the circus band, and I think I was 17 years old. I jumped with both feet. It was an opportunity for me to be a professional, to go out on the road for professional experience and that was my first travel, pro-gig when I was 17.
How did you start working with Billy Joel?
I started in December of 2005. The way that came about is the same scenario as me becoming a professional trumpet player back in the day. It’s who I knew, and who I was working with at the time. There was a Broadway show in New York called Movin’ Out. Billy Joel did the music, and Twyla Tharp was the choreographer. It was a Broadway show that ran three years. I was a sub on it for the first two years, and I became principal trumpet player for the last year. Since it was a Billy Joel show, occasionally Billy would come and sit in, which was always exciting. It was very rare, but exciting. When the show was happening, the music director was Tommy Byrnes, and he was also Billy Joel’s band director. So I got to know Tommy through Movin’ Out.
Long story short: our show was closing at the end of December, and Billy was in rehearsal starting in December, and Tommy mentioned to me over a beverage that Billy might be wanting to play this one particular trumpet feature. It was a tune he recorded on his album, 52nd Street, called “Zanzibar.” Freddie Hubbard had played the solo and absolutely crushed it. He asked me if I’d be interested in showing up at the rehearsal and doing it. I said, “Absolutely.” He said he’d call me, he didn’t know when, but to have it together.
I was fortunate enough that I had just played three years of Billy Joel horn section music, so I had a lot of the stuff in my head and under my fingers. So I really dived into the catalogue, obviously I learned the Freddie Hubbard solo on “Zanzibar,” and I just went through his catalogue and made myself cliff notes on every Billy Joel horn tune available. I just did my homework so when I got that call to show up and play “Zanzibar,” I would have a leg up, so to speak.
Finally, I’ll never forget it, I got a call around 10:30 at night saying, “We’re going to do ‘Zanzibar’ tomorrow. We’d like you to come, and by the way it’s not in the original key; it’s a half-step down.” I was like, “Oh my god…” I’d had everything memorized. So anyway, I was good, and I did my homework. I went in the next day and played the solo, Billy got up from the piano and walked out. I thought, “Oh, man, I guess he didn’t like it. This is bad.” Then, as he was walking out, Billy turned around and said, “Man, we sound like grownups,” and left. Everybody was laughing and very positive, and I asked Tommy, “What’s going on?” He said, “Billy equates sounding like grownups as a good thing. It’s a really good thing. It’s all positive.”
So we finished the rehearsal, they asked me back the next day, I played the solo again and we started playing tunes that I’d written myself cliff notes on, so I started playing with the section. It evolved over the next few rehearsals, as a very organic thing. Originally I was only supposed to play Madison Square Garden gigs, but just before we started going in to the Garden they asked if I was free to travel, so it just kept evolving.
Fast-forward to now, and this December will begin my ninth year, which is pretty amazing. It’s evolved to where I play tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone, trombone, trumpet and flugelhorn. I play parts, and I have three little solos throughout the night depending on what we play. Billy’s very cognizant right now about changing the set list. He likes changing it up, and playing some different tunes out of his catalogue. He’s got such a great, diverse catalogue and it keeps everybody on their toes. It’s great for the listeners. So that’s how I am still here after all of these years.
How did you begin to play saxophone for Billy Joel?
Billy Joel’s band had two tenor players. We had Mark Rivera, who’s been on the band for 30-plus years. He’s been Billy Joel’s tenor player for ages. We had Crystal Taliefero who plays percussion, sings and plays alto, and we had another tenor player out with us for a short time, and myself. That tenor player left, and there was a void there. I didn’t say anything, but what basically happened was I was joking around saying, “I played tenor 25 years ago,” and they told me to go get a tenor and practice.
The one thing I was worried about, and I want to stress this a lot, is I didn’t want to take the gig away from anybody. If there was a position open, I didn’t want it. I’m very happy playing trumpet; I’m a trumpet player. That’s what I love to do. So I told them, “If you’re going to want another tenor player; hire a tenor player.” They said they didn’t want another tenor player; they wanted me, and they said, “See what you can do.” The next day Mark Rivera was very helpful in getting me a tenor, and for the next few weeks I went over to Mark’s house, and he really helped me out quite a bit.
No one questioned the trumpet player doubling on Saxophone?
Actually, this is a funny anecdote with Billy. Billy Joel and I have a lot of the same interests. We’re Long Island guys, we’re into boats, we’re into fishing, and motorcycles, and my conversations with Billy always talk about that. I don’t know if it’s a Long Island thing or what, but I never talk to him about music. I’ll never forget, this was when this whole thing was going on, and I was at lunch with Billy one day. We were off the road, and he kind of looked at me and says, “So. Tenor saxophone, huh?” and then he looks at me. So I said, “Billy, I’m not going to get on stage and make a fool out of myself playing tenor saxophone, and I’m not going to get on stage and make a fool out of you. So if I sound bad—I’m going to look stupid anyway—but if I sound bad, if I embarrass you, please do me a favor and fire me right away.” He said, “That’s all I wanted to hear.” Two weeks later, I went to rehearsal, I played three songs, they gave me a high-five and a week later I was in Europe playing saxophone, trumpet, and trombone.
What does it mean to you to be a sideman?
You support the artist that you’re playing for. The way I look at a sideman is the way I look at a baseball team or any professional sports team: it’s a team effort. You’re all supporting, and you all come together as one to make a product happen, or to win a game. The only difference between being a sports team and being a sideman is that you are supporting the artist or whoever is playing the lead at that time. And the lead could be the lead trumpet in a jazz orchestra, or Billy Joel singing a song, or many different things. Being a sideman is basically is supporting the artist, giving them the right vibe, and being consistent, and playing the music on a high level as you perform nightly.
What is the hardest part of working on the road as a sideman?
For me right now, the hardest job, honestly, is having a schedule with different artists that is chock-full and busy. So, being able to make the gig [he laughs], but the other part is to wear the right hat on the right gig. For instance, with Billy I’m the multi-tasker. I have to play a lot of horns, I have to play proficiently, and I have to get it right, right away. I get to solo and that part of the job is getting to blow an improvised solo every night in front of 20,000 people, so I need to keep that fresh. Those are two things that I think about, but then the next day, like I did last week, I fly out to L.A. and play with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Now I’m lead trumpet player in a horn band that’s playing horn-driven rock and roll. Being able to change my phrasing and play my role in that, I need to be proficient there also. Then maybe a month later, I’m playing in an R&B horn section, and being able to phrase that way is very different from being able to phrase with the Billy Joel band. It’s just putting on different hats musically and stylistically and really just keeping everything straight and filling my role in each group. It’s hard and it’s challenging, but it keeps me happy. No day is the same day.
What is best part of the gig as a sideman?
The best reward as a sideman for me happens a lot, getting close to the end of the gig. Whether it’s Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden or a Blood, Sweat & Tears gig in an intimate theater, seeing everyone’s faces being happy… I know it sounds tongue-in-cheek and kind of soupy, but being able to come in as a band and being a part of that team as a side man, going out for two hours and at the end of that gig, seeing people on their feet, smiling and giving them a night out, giving them something to hear and see, is really rewarding to me. For me it’s not if I hit a high note or I’m soloing and I play a double A. That doesn’t really reward me; that’s only a piece of the puzzle. For me, it’s at the end of the gig when everybody’s happy. I have a purpose and my purpose was executed, and we’re going to live to do this another day. You’re only as good as your last gig.
Billy Joel plays the Scottrade Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 11. The Scottrade Center is located at 1401 Clark. For more information about the concert, visit billyjoel.com. Fischer is currently working on the release of a new single. His rendition of “Pure Imagination” made popular by the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory will soon be available through his website fischmusic.com and iTunes. He plans to donate a portion of the proceeds from the single sales to charity. “I’m really excited and passionate about this,” says Fischer. “It’s time to give back to the community.”