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Lalo Schifrin Swings 

How an Argentinean became the ultimate American musician

Thursday, May 22 2003
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Slapped in the middle of an omnibus mall complex that makes you wish you were in hell instead, the incongruously beautiful Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts is the jewel of a community renowned for its car lots. Cerritos wants to gentrify the image established in years past through late-night TV commercials starring the late, great Ernest, and that’s why Lalo Schifrin is here on a windy Sunday in February, bringing his Jazz Meets the Symphony program to celebrate the hall’s 10th anniversary. Subscribers fill every luxurious floor seat and opera box, in tribute to the man who wrote the Mission: Impossible theme yet also represents wider vistas of artistic enrichment.

There is a certain air of obligation. At intermission, two guys in their 30s get up and trot for the door. “That’s enough culture for today,” says one.

The boors will miss something, and not just culture. They’ll miss a chance to soak up the vibe of a man, a very rare one, who can give the people not only what they want, but what he wants. That’s American genius.

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The show turns out to be a clinic in Schifrin methodology. For every barracks blowjob like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” there’s a gossamer masterwork like Schifrin’s own “Invisible City.” For every maudlin excess like Bill Evans’ “Letter to Evan,” there’s a brilliant, mile-deep arrangement like “Miraculous Monk.” For every gallery-grabber like James Morrison’s circus switchbacks between trumpet and trombone, there’s a harmonically thrilling, light-fingered piano solo by Schifrin.

“I have a lot of respect for the public,” says Schifrin in his Beverly Hills home’s music room, which is crammed with books and awards and antique music scores and a large collection of pipes collected in his travels. His manner is solicitous, his voice low and inflected with the vowel and consonant sounds of his native Argentina. “If the message is not being understood, it’s a waste of time. I don’t want to write too strange.”

Actually, Schifrin does write some pretty strange stuff. He just knows how to get away with it. Through all his 100-plus scores for movies and TV (Dirty Harry, Tango, Mannix), all his classical/jazz performances and recordings (Stravinsky, Gershwin, Ellington), all his work as a bandleader and jazz sideman/arranger (Count Basie, Stan Getz), all his specialty projects (Jazz Mass, Latin Jazz Suite), he has combined vast musical knowledge with a trait he admires in Monk and Bartók — what he calls “economy of means.”

This is not to say that Schifrin thinks small. In films, whether alternating real jazz with his self-invented brand of go-go Jazz Cheez on the soundtrack for Bullitt (1968) or piling up over-the-top Chinese effects on the Rush Hour score (1998), he always goes for the knockout and usually comes armed with an orchestra. What’s amazing is the way he can take 90 musicians and focus their energies. You don’t think lush, you think punchy.

Schifrin’s technique is especially impressive when he uses an orchestra to play jazz. We’ve all cringed at the bricklike cadences that usually result when a classical conductor attempts Ellington. You might guess classical musicians just can’t swing, but no.

“These people can play Luciano Berio and Stockhausen and Boulez and Stravinsky, music that has very complex rhythms. So I say, why can’t they swing?” says Schifrin, who realizes that symphonic tuxters don’t naturally lilt the eighth notes the way Basie’s band did. “I devised a notation for the orchestra — threes, fives, sevens. And all the musicians, they play exactly what I have written, and they look and they say, ‘Oh — we are swinging!’”

In other words, Schifrin knows how to get results. And that ability, not his trademark name, is why he always has work, and why he’s become one of the Appropriation Generation’s most sampled artists. (His last film score was for the Steve Martin–Queen Latifah vehicle Bringing Down the House.)

Most Americans appreciate subtlety to some degree. We may know our wines, our roses or our foreign films. But even the biggest American snob has at least one coarse self-indulgence, whether it’s pulp fiction, pop music or fast food. Few of us consistently tolerate art that makes us disoriented or uneasy. Just as we desire, Schifrin yanks our cranks, while delivering, just below the glossy surface, that strange harmony, that exotic timbre, that rhythmic surprise.

 

When it comes to locking in on American tastes, you can’t beat some foreigners — think Paul Verhoeven, Georges Marciano or Julio Iglesias. Lalo Schifrin grew up in Buenos Aires under circumstances that predisposed him to crossing bridges. His mother was Catholic, his father Jewish, so as a youth he attended services in both religions, confused about why worshipping one God required two rituals. His father was concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, and Lalo loved classical music, but jazz hit him “like a religious conversion. The moment I heard Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller — and later on Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell — it was the road to Damascus.”

That avocation marked Schifrin as a double outsider under the regime of Nazi sympathizer Juan Perón, who viewed Jews and jazz with equal suspicion. Schifrin eventually found friendlier pastures in Paris, where he studied music, including African drumming, and where he met bebop founder Dizzy Gillespie, who encouraged his move to New York and installed him in his band for three years.

Schifrin’s jazz career brought him in contact with most of the major jazz figures of the 20th century’s second half. He has amazing memories: Gillespie jumping onto the stage on New Year’s Eve when he heard how Thelonious Monk was re-harmonizing “Auld Lang Syne”; John Coltrane confiding insecurities about negative responses to his half-hour solos.

But in 1963, when he had a chance to raise his profile and fill his coffers by scoring movies, Schifrin moved to Los Angeles, becoming a citizen in 1969. “I rented a house in Coldwater Canyon,” he remembers. “The first morning when I opened the windows, I saw a deer staring at me. And I said, ‘This is not a place to work, it’s a resort.’”

Yet work he did. Schifrin admits that not working has always been harder for him. His concentration has sometimes consumed him to the point that he has walked absently down the street, his mind wrapped in his music, and friends have thought he was snubbing them. Even now, his wife, Donna, won’t let him behind the wheel of a car when he’s beginning a project: “If I’m making a movie, when the ideas are coming I start driving at the speed of the chase scene.”

Films are one thing, but Schifrin’s soul pours out when he plays jazz. He’s just released Ins and Outs and Lalo Live at the Blue Note, half of which was recorded in 1982 with an L.A. quintet, the other half in New York last year on the occasion of his 70th birthday with Grady Tate, Jon Faddis, Dick Oates and Ray Drummond. In his piano playing, you hear his obsession with melody and concision — everything registers, nothing is wasted. You hear his dense, holistic harmonies, which unobtrusively utilize all 12 notes. You hear Latin roots, jazz and blues, all together. And always you hear the swing, which is his essence. He’ll stop swinging only when he stops breathing.

The ultimate professional, Schifrin is also genuinely humble: “When I am told that I am gifted, where is that gift coming from? Somebody gave it to me, and that Somebody is with a capital S.” In a way, perfection is his enemy. “Beethoven, before he died, he didn’t like the first eight symphonies, he only liked the last,” Schifrin observes, speculating that you have to be near death to understand that kind of rigor. “And I hope I’m not there yet. I don’t want to be that perfect.”

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