By the time a teenage Dave Fraser began his professional music career, the days of the picture palace pianist accompanying every movie had long gone. But for a decade or so, that was almost Fraser’s role in the New Zealand screen industry. Needing someone to tickle ivories beneath on your feature or documentary? Help compose a jingle? Arrange or produce a soundtrack? Then Wellington-born Fraser was your go-to guy.
Fraser’s film music was a natural extension of an already diverse and prodigious jazz and pop career. A multi-instrumentalist who played piano, vibraphone and drums, he became a professional musician as a 19-year-old jazz sticksman in 1961. Though not a student, he was part of the Victoria University Jazz Club. There, his mates included fellow music buffs Geoff Murphy, Bruno Lawrence and John Charles, all of whom would figure in his later music career.
Fraser became the drummer in the Nick Smith Trio which, after becoming a fixture at Wellington’s Sorrento lounge, headed to Sydney. Fraser eventually returned to New Zealand where he was soon a session drummer, working on recordings by Mr. Lee Grant, Kiri Te Kanawa (on her non-operatic albums), Shane, Craig Scott, Maria Dallas, The Chicks and Peter Posa, among others.
Shifting back to the piano, Fraser soon showed his music had movies in mind. Music à la carte, the 1970 debut album by his Dave Fraser Trio was dominated by jazz piano interpretations of film themes and movie songs, including 'Windmills of Your Mind' (from The Thomas Crown Affair), 'Born Free' and 'Maria' from West Side Story.
He soon added arranging to his CV. He worked with sibling admen Dale and Craig Wrightson’s January Productions as they cranked out advertising jingles and took their talents into pop production – notably Shona Laing’s 1973 hit-laden debut album Whispering Afraid, on which Fraser’s arrangements included the widescreen sound of '1905'.
Soon, the local screen industry came calling. “Like everything else I got into, it was by default,” he told National Radio’s Charles Pierard. “Perhaps there was no one else around who was as bad as me so they asked me. Or possibly I’d fooled enough people for them to think I could do it.”
Among the early filmmakers Fraser worked with were his friend Geoff Murphy for little seen kids’ series Percy the Policeman (which is included in this), and then National Film Unit director Sam Neill on some of his early documentaries. He also recorded in the studio with Blerta on music for the troupe’s self-titled television series and for Blerta-powered films Wild Man and Dagg Day Afternoon, both directed by Murphy.
The first feature Fraser composed for was Tony Williams’ 1977 feature Solo, on which he shared soundtrack duties with folk musicians Marion Arts and Robbie Laven. His first feature score on his own was the brooding, tense music behind Beyond Reasonable Doubt, John Laing’s 1980 dramatisation of the Arthur Allan Thomas case.
The work kept coming. He produced John Charles’ soundtracks for the Murphy movies Utu and The Quiet Earth as well as producing Charles’ score for Constance. He composed the soundtracks for features The Lost Tribe, and Wild Horses, and took on mid 80s television series Roche and Inside Straight. He enjoyed the lucrative and challenging screen work. “The attraction of film music is generally speaking the budgets have been fairly good so financially it was a good thing to do,” he told Pierard. “It is a very ordered discipline to get into. I enjoyed that discipline.”
In 1987 he became musical director for short-lived country music show Dixie Chicken. It was produced by Peter Muxlow who had used Fraser on Inside Straight and Roche. Fraser insisted the Avalon-shot show, which was fronted by Roche star Andy Anderson, be done live. “When Peter rang me I was keen to work with him but there were just a couple of conditions. The recording was to be live to tape and there was to be absolutely no miming,” he told The Listener in 1987.
“I’ve got very catholic tastes. If it’s not jazz and it’s not classical, you can probably call it country,” Fraser said of his apparent switch of genres. But he had drummed on country albums in the 1960s, played piano on some in the 1970s, as well as producing country singer Eddie Low. Dixie Chicken proved to be TVNZ’s last blast for live music light entertainment shows.
With the end of the 80s film boom in sight, Fraser got an attractive offer. Signing on as musical director for easy listening king Roger Whittaker, he spent six months of the year on the road in the Northern Hemisphere for much of the next decade. He had first met Whittaker when he toured in New Zealand in the early 1970s and Fraser had acted as his pick-up musical director. When Whittaker retired from touring, Fraser returned to his rural Nelson family home, where he had built a recording studio. There, he finally recorded a second Dave Fraser Trio album, Embrace, in 2000.
Talking to The Nelson Mail in 2001, Fraser said he felt fortunate about how his music career had turned out, and hoped to continue. "I've been lucky and always busy," he said. “I don't take myself seriously, but I take my music very seriously.''
David Gerald Fraser died of a brain tumour in Nelson on 23 October 2002. He was 60. Guitarist Kevin Watson, who played alongside Fraser in the 60s, remembered him as “a consummate musician – a superb, drummer, pianist and arranger.” An obituary in The Dominion Post opened: “Dave Fraser’s mark on New Zealand music is indelible.”
Profile written by Russell Baillie
Illustration of Dave Fraser at grand piano taken by Wellington's K E Niven and Co, in 1967. Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library (Glenrock Holdings Collection), Image 1/2-215042-F
Charles Peirard, '[Dave Fraser Interview]' (Radio Interview) National Radio via Ngā Taonga website. Broadcast date unknown. Accessed 30 June 2017
David Manning, 'Jazz Legend Comes Full Circle' - The Nelson Mail, 7 June 2001
Kevin Watson, 'The Story of a Session Musician in the 1960's' - Ashack.com website. Loaded arch 2012. Accessed 30June 2017
Marion McLeod, 'Broadly Country' - The Listener, 14 November 1987
Peter Kitchin, 'A lifetime spent on making Music' - The Dominion Post, 14 November 2002