Lalo Schifrin Flashes His Classical Side


SCHIFRIN: Mission: Impossible Main Theme. Tango: Main Theme. Pampas. Jazz Piano Sonata. Danza de los Montes. Theme and 10 Variations on an Original Theme. Tango à Borges. La Calle y la Luna. Lullaby for Jack / Mirian Conti, pn / Grand Piano GP776

Back in the mid-1960s, we Americans first heard of Lalo Schifrin as the composer of the Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts for jazz musician Paul Horn, but he didn’t really break through in a big way until the hit TV show Mission: Impossible came around. That’s when all of America got to know at least this one piece of music by the Argentinian pianist-composer.

But pianist Mirian Conti, who is also Argentinian, was an avid fan of Schifrin’s classical works. She had premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2, “The Americas” in Los Angeles with Schifrin conducting, and now wanted to make a complete CD of his solo piano music. She called him on the phone and asked, Do you have enough pieces to fill out a full disc? Schifrin’s answer was, “Not too much, but I could write some.” Thus this CD was born. Every work here, including the piano version of the first piece, are premiere recordings except the Lullaby for Jack.

We start out with two themes Schifrin wrote for visual media, the Mission: Impossible theme and the main theme from the film Tango. He has added some interesting keyboard fills and counterpoint to the first, which still has its fascination after all these years, and the second, which runs over six minutes, is in my estimation a better piece that most of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos. That is because the counterpoint is more interesting and complex. Pampas is a wholly original work “reflecting the flatlands in Argentina.” It is a bit ruminative by nature, but an effective mood piece.

Schifrin and Conti at his studio

Schifrin and Conti at his studio, 2016

Then there is the Jazz Sonata, originally written in 1963 (a couple of years before he broke through with the Jazz Suite) but revised for Conti in 2016. Schifrin told her, “When passages feel too fast, just relax the performance. My suggestion is that you listen to Donna Lee by Charlie Parker. It is based on the harmonies of Indiana. He plays it very fast, but that would be a good idea for you to get the feeling of a natural interpretation even though he plays it prestissimo.” Conti herself makes a very strong and important (to my mind) statement regarding Schifrin’s accomplishment here: “George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Gunther Schuller all tried to make excursions into the jazz idiom but they didn’t fully understand how to approach it because they were not jazz musicians. On the other hand, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane were experts. This is the foundation of the Jazz Sonata.”

The music is rather denser in chording and less flashy in the right hand than the many jazz-based sonatas of Nikolai Kapustin. Schifrin evidently appreciated pianists who played with a more chorded style; Conti also suggests that his use of harmonies here reflect his studies with Olivier Messiaen, and I agree. The music is largely tonal and accessible but not melodic in a conventional way. The odd and slightly irregular beat drives the music from the left hand like a steamroller. But more importantly, Conti has a good feel for the rhythm of this music. She’s not stiff or ungainly in playing it, as so many very fine classical pianists would be. And I do get the feeling that in some passages she relaxed the performance just a bit to allow the music more breathing room. The frequent progression of dense, two-handed chords, particularly in the first movement, sometimes impedes swinging—this is not easy music to play by any means!—but for the most part Conti has a good feel for the music. The second movement, an “Andante,” has the least jazz content, sounding to my ears almost strictly classical in both form and rhythm, but Schifrin ‘s remarkable ear also includes some single-note passages in the right hand that double the tempo and are played as a series of triplets against the steady beat in the left. Later on in the movement, said triplets are slowed down from eighths to quarter notes.

The last movement almost sounds like a Latin-jazz-classical fusion. A strong series of single notes in the left hand dominate, and they fluctuate subtly in rhythmic placement as the movement progresses. The upper line here is a bit more melodic than the rest of the sonata, but not really a tune that one could hum or remember upon the work’s conclusion. There are rumbling arpeggios in the left-hand part, too, as well as choppy right-hand chords played against a “walking bass.” This is truly extraordinary music!

In a way, I felt that the Danza de los Montes was nearly as good in its own way: vigorous and continually inventive, one could play this piece in a recital without revealing the composer’s name and everyone would want to know who wrote it. That’s how good it is. Likewise, the Theme and 10 Variations on an Original Theme is a strictly classical piece on a par with similar works by Bach and Beethoven. Indeed, I felt very strongly that Schifrin was channeling his inner Bach here, although the first variant (“Andantino”) was clearly based on the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and the sixth is subtitled “Jazz Meets Chopin.” This work is almost a term paper mapping out Schifrin’s musical mind and influences; he is so easily conversant in each of them that for him the term “crossover” is almost meaningless. He just “thinks” in terms of music, all music, and what he produces is so fluent in all styles that it just blends without the feeling of pretentiousness. This is music that you instinctively like, even if you’re an amateur listener without any knowledge, without questioning why you like it.

The Tango a Borges once again contains more counterpoint, harmonic complexity and rhythmic variation than any of Piazzolla’s pieces. At one point Schifrin has the left hand play a running bass line while the right pours out a stream of notes; then he reverts to his favored “chunky” style of two-handed chords, followed by a free fantasia section. Later we get an almost boogie-woogie tango for the rideout. Fascinating, excellent music, almost beyond description! By contrast, La Calle y la luna is a more relaxed and less dense piece, yet still retaining a strong sense of coherence in its structure, no matter how ruminative the performance becomes. It sounds like the kind of piece that the composer simply made up at the piano while improvising, very similar to the piano album that jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus made back in the 1960s.

The Lullaby for Jack, written for Schifrin’s infant grandson, is a lovely piece with a nice melodic line. Typical of Schifrin, however, it is not an uninteresting piece. There are some very nice passages where he plays with both tempo and time, subtly shifting the length of the notes played in the right hand against the steadier beat in the left.

This CD, due out in mid-November, is a must-have for anyone interested in jazz-classical fusion in general or Lalo Schifrin in particular. It’s an ear-opener.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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