As Carl Fischer’s jazz band performs a 10-minute version of Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster Alexa,” Fischer plays trumpet solos, gives the band cues, checks the sound system and jokes with the crowd, seemingly all at the same time.
Despite the fact that this is the band’s first attempt at the song, Fischer manages to lead them through it – after all, his other gig is touring with the piano man himself. Fischer, a Baldwin resident, has been playing with Joel for three years, most recently at the last two concerts ever at Shea Stadium. “It was amazing,” Fischer said of the shows at Shea. “We once played a show at the Colosseum in Rome. The streets were packed with people, and that was amazing-looking. I didn’t think anything was gonna beat that. But when we came back to New York, playing the last shows at Shea and having the other artists” – which included Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney – “come out was a life-changing experience. I don’t know how it’s going to be topped.”
Fischer got his big break in December of 2005, while playing in the band for the Broadway musical “Movin’ Out,” which features Joel’s music. Tommy Byrnes, a resident of Oceanside, was the show’s music director and was touring with Joel. Byrnes, who is now Joel’s music director, recalled that Joel needed someone to play the trumpet on his song “Zanzibar,” and Byrnes asked Fischer if he was up to the challenge. On Dec. 13, Fischer’s birthday, he auditioned for Joel and the rest of the band. Fischer remembers Joel getting up from the piano and walking away, saying, “Wow, we sound like grownups.” Fischer was nervous at first, thinking he wouldn’t get the job. But as he later learned, Joel attributed “sounding like grownups” to jazz, or “growing-up” music. Fischer got the job. Originally, Joel planned to use Fischer only for shows at Madison Square Garden, but after the success of “Zanzibar,” Fischer was repeatedly invited back. According to Fischer, the band now plays “Zanzibar” every night, and he is a permanent part of the band, playing trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and tenor saxophone.
In 2006 Joel released a double album, “12 Gardens Live,” featuring 12 of his shows recorded at the Garden. The album features Fischer’s “Zanzibar” solo. ”I’ve been very fortunate to be with him,” Fischer said of Joel. “It’s a great honor for me to have that gig. It’s the best of the best.”
Fischer first picked up the trumpet at age 5, inspired by his father and grandfather, who were talented trumpet players themselves. He began his music career in the Funk Philharmonic and toured with the renowned jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. Listening to Ferguson play and learning his unique style, Fischer found a mentor. Ferguson eventually asked Fischer to open shows for him, the first time in Ferguson’s 40 years of touring that he had a trumpet player open for him. Fischer said that the Billy Joel band is a very close group, because most are local guys who enjoy fishing and the Long Island lifestyle, as well as playing music that reaches all generations of fans. He added that Joel keeps good people close to him, and that everyone who works on the show, from the headliner himself to the last roadie, is a “class act.” ”We’re Long Island guys and we have the same passions,” said Fischer. “I think I’ve talked music with Billy maybe twice.”
When not touring with Joel, Fischer substitutes for Broadway musicians and works with a jazz band of his own, Carl Fischer & Organic Groove Ensemble. The band released an eponymous first album in 2003, and is currently working on a new album. Fischer and the band played two sets, including Joel’s “The Downeaster Alexa” and Miles Davis’s “Tutu,” for a small audience at a Westbury eatery on July 30. Most of the songs were Fischer’s own compositions. The five-member band grooved together nicely, sharing the spotlight during solos, and kept the atmosphere light, joking with the crowd and one another throughout the performance.
The band is a member of Artist Share, a unique online organization that seeks to circumvent the issue of illegal file-sharing that cuts into artists’ profits. The organization allows fans to have access to the recording process, including the ability to download MP3 files, VIP access to recording sessions and even credit listing on an album in exchange for fan funding of the artist. “This is a really new business model,” said Fischer. “[The fans] will really have a say in the recording process.” Fischer went to both elementary and middle school in Baldwin before moving to Florida for four years with his parents, where he attended a performing arts high school. Afterward he returned to Baldwin, and has been on the road, touring the world with one band or another, ever since.
He recently bought a house in Freeport, where he hopes to do a lot of fishing and boating. With Carl Fischer & Organic Groove Ensemble, Fischer says he is not looking for fame and fortune. He is happy just being able to play jazz and have people come out and enjoy it. “We just want to play some music and have a good time,” said Fischer, adding that he feels blessed to have made a living making music. “I don’t go to work, I go to play.”