Composer’s Spotlight: Frank Foster

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Whenever one is asked to define jazz, it is tempting to cite great jazz improvisers, such as Bird, Trane, Hawk, Brecker, and countless others, yet such a view would seem to be shortsighted. Developing out of Western harmony and African rhythms, jazz reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s with the advent of the jazz orchestra, known know as the big band. In this genre, many great arrangers and composers (borrowing from the classical tradition) ushered in a tradition of extended forms, orchestration, and solo sections that helped to shape the sound of jazz.

Biography

Saxophonist and composer Frank Foster was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 13, 1928. After graduating from college, Foster began gigging on the Detroit jazz scene in 1949, before being drafted into the army in 1951. After serving in the 7th Infantry Division in Korea, Foster joined the Count Basie Big Band in 1953, where he contributed arrangements and original compositions, while playing woodwinds. “Shiny Stockings,” “Blues in Hoss Flat,” “Discommotion,” “Back to the Apple,” and “Down for the Count” ranked among Foster’s most well-known compositions for Basie, and Basie’s Easin’ It album featured Foster’s compositions and arrangements exclusively.

Foster released several albums as a bandleader, performed with Elvin Jones during the 1970s, and was a regular member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. Foster also taught from the 1970s onward at New England Conservatory, the New York City Public School System, and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Foster succeeded Thad Jones as the leader of the Count Basie Big Band in 1986, and remained in that role until 1995. Foster was an active performed until suffering a stroke in 2001, but remained active compositionally until his death on July 26, 2011. Foster’s arrangements are some of the most well-known and loved in the big band genre, and he continues to inspire and influence composers and arrangers today.

Musically Speaking

“Easin’ It” shows Foster’s intimate knowledge of the Basie band and style. The piece begins with just rhythm section, featuring Basie on piano, before Foster brings in the melody on muted trumpet, in unison. Coming out of the tradition of call and response, the main melodic figure is repeated several times in unison before it is harmonized. Foster then harmonizes the trumpets, creates a response in muted trombones, and brings the saxophones in as background voices, thickening the texture of the piece. The main melodic riff is played in unison by the saxophones as a background for the trombone soloists, before Foster creates some call and response between the saxophone and trumpet sections. Foster creates new lines as backgrounds underneath the trumpet solos, and allows the texture to gradually thicken once again, leading into the climax of the piece. The climax is reached as Foster uses the saxophones to play the melody, with the trumpets playing a lead or descant line on top of the melody (unmuted, for the first time in the piece) and the trombones echo the melody.  The texture then reaches its thickest point before being stripped down for a classic Basie piano ending.

Notice that “Shiny Stockings” really uses a similar template to “Easin’ It.” The intro is primarily between the piano and the bass, before muted trumpets come in with the melody. The full band comes in on the bridge, accompanied by a pedal point in the rhythm section, both of which serve to create suspense and anticipation for the first solo of the piece beneath slightly more active, syncopated saxophone backgrounds. After the piano solo, there is a sparse soli section, which builds into the famous shout chorus — one of the most famous ever written. The shout chorus is able to achieve its climax because of its large, spread voicings, rhythmic unison in the horns, and space for the drummer to play fills. Then, just as quickly as he escalated the intensity of the piece, Foster brings the piece back down to a light, syncopated melody before ending the piece with another classic big band ending.

Frank Foster’s music helped define the classic Count Basie sound of the 1950s and ‘60s, but Foster’s writing did not stop there; his compositions and arrangements have been performed by George Benson, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, and many others, while Foster’s style remains an influence on modern writers trying to capture some of the charm of the big band era.

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          February 10, 2018