"I'm two people. One is a teddy bear who is soft and cuddly. And the other is this guy who says, 'Don't push me.' "
Clare Fischer, the pianist/composer who'll perform with his quartet at the Hyatt Newporter tonight, is actually a lot more like the teddy bear than the guy who's not afraid of confrontations. But nearly three years ago, he experienced an in-your-face traffic encounter that brought out what he calls his "direct" side.
When Fischer was nearly forced into oncoming traffic by another driver's aggressive maneuver, he blew his horn. The response was a middle-finger salute from the driver's companion.
"I pointed to the side of the road and then I pulled over and parked," recalls Fischer, who was 60 at the time. "When the guy got out of the car he was stripped to the waist. A typical young macho stud. He put his face within two inches of mine, and he was telling me what I was and what he was going to do to me.
"So I did the natural thing. I reached in and got a headlock on him, and I had him very firmly while he thrashed around. I felt I was doing just fine because I had stopped what was going on, but his girlfriend decided that he wasn't doing very well. So she ran and jumped on us. They both fell on top of me and my head crashed into the pavement. I landed on my left ear, got a hairline fracture and concussion."
Fischer ended up in the hospital, in and out of consciousness for over two weeks. "It was like some kind of nether world," he remembers. "Most of the time I didn't know where I was. Like I'd wake up and find I.V. units in my arm, and I'd rip 'em out and say, 'What kind of a hotel is this? You tell them I'm never coming here again.' And then the nurse would come in, and I'd call her 'waitress.' "
But though he now describes the ordeal with a characteristically whimsical sense of humor, it took nearly a year before Fischer was able to return to music.
"When I came home from the hospital I was having terrible nightmares every night," he says, "sometimes to the point where I started not wanting to go to sleep. And I still have occasional migraines, dry eyes and short-term memory loss. Sometimes it takes me a minute or two to think of the names of guys I've known all my life."
Still, in the two years he's been actively--if gradually--reviving his career, Fischer has become one of the first-call orchestrators and arrangers for a remarkably diverse array of artists.
"It's funny," he says. "People come to my house because I was recommended to them to do some writing. They've never heard of me, and you can see the reticence written all over their faces. Then they look at the walls and see the platinum and gold albums and they say, 'Oh. That one's from Prince! That's from Robert Palmer! Oh my God, Paul McCartney!' And then they say, 'You're a really fine composer'--without having heard any of my music."
The fact is that Fischer has been a fine composer for nearly four decades. His activities stretch back to arranging and accompanying the seminal pop jazz vocal group the Hi-Los in the '50s, writing and conducting the orchestrations for Dizzy Gillespie's classic 1960 album "A Portrait of Duke Ellington" and providing charts for everyone from George Shearing to Spike Lee.
Warmly communicative, Fischer (whose self-described confrontational qualities rarely surface) has the manner and style of a grumpy college professor. His love of learning emerges in an eagerness to converse about his many interests, which range from what he views as the questionable English of TV anchormen, to the differing colorations of various combinations of harmony, to the accentual changes in the evolution of Spanish and Portuguese.
His most important interest at the moment, now that his recovery is virtually complete, is in resuming his live performances. Last year, he was part of the rhythm section for Natalie Cole's much-honored "Unforgettable" album. "When I did that," he says, "it suddenly occurred to me how nice it would be if I didn't have to write all the time and I could just go and earn some of that money by playing."
His performances over the last three years have been rare, though. Tonight, he'll be accompanied by woodwind specialist Don Shelton, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer John Ferraro. Fischer is particularly high on Shelton, who was a singer with the Hi-Los and Singers, Unlimited. Fischer describes him as "that greatest of rarities, a musician and singer who knows and understands something about both music and singing."
In the best of all possible scenarios for Fischer, he would continue to write arrangements, balancing that with playing and composing (a new album is in the works). But the bottom line is always music. "If I discovered anything in that strange, 10-month period of recovery," he says, "it's that music is the one thing that makes me sane."
The Clare Fischer Quartet plays tonight at 7:30 at the Hyatt Newporter, 1107 Jamboree Road, Newport Beach. $8. (714) 729-1234.