Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

fishing in the 3rd stream

there was a whole lalo schifrin goin' on…

February 26, 2009

I know. I know. I’m sorry; I just couldn’t help myself… That old saw paraphrases a Lalo Schifrin album title from 1968, an LP which has not been released on CD. The album title, incidentally, was originally attributed to Gary Owens of the old Laugh-In television show.

As you well know by now, this past weekend was another red-letter one for LA’s favorite Argentinean transplant, Boris Claudio “Lalo” Schifrin. The brilliant Taiwanese-American violinist Cho-Liang Lin (better known to his many friends as Jimmy Lin) performed the U.S. première of a violin concerto by Schifrin entitled Tangos Concertantes before appreciative Alex and Royce Hall audiences on Saturday and Sunday evenings. LACO can take pride in two premières and two commissions on the concert schedule: David Shostac’s Carmen Fantasy (after Bizet/Borne) and the Schifrin composition, commissioned in partnership with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (where the piece received its world première in 2008), Aspen Music Festival and School, and The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, where Jimmy Lin currently teaches.

It is inconceivable to me that the Los Angeles Times did not deign the concerts worthy of review, which to my mind says more about the LA Times than it does about the LACO concerts. It was not my intent, however, to write a review in this setting. Suffice to say that Shostac’s rendering of Bizet’s timeless Carmen themes was characteristically stunning and virtuosic, if their arrangements seemed a bit pedestrian and beneath LACO’s usual level of musicianship; Lin’s dazzling technique and ebullient personality sparkled through the complexity of Schifrin’s challenging but imminently accessible composition (I heard several LACO patrons comment that it still sounded like “a film score,” doubtless due to its rich harmonic textures, replete with seventh chords); while the seldom-heard Haydn “Oxford” Symphony (No. 92 in G major) shone with wit and good humor, its brisk Presto finale giving attendees something lovely and lively to hum all the way home.

Christine Gengaro has provided us with a fine thumbnail sketch of Lalo Schifrin and his remarkable career, and I do not intend to duplicate it. Because of Schifrin’s pivotal role in the music of Los Angeles, however, I did want to take this opportunity to highlight his contributions to the Third Stream and to introduce you to a segment of his discography with which you may be unfamiliar.

As Schifrin informed attendees at Concert Preludes an hour before Sunday’s Royce Hall concert, when he was first exposed to jazz, he was electrified by its rhythms, harmonies and complexity, and this fascination has never abated. He worked hard to develop the skills and understanding necessary to play, arrange and write jazz music, and his success was subsequently validated in a number of ways:

1) While studying on scholarship at the Paris Conservatoire, Schifrin earned his living playing jazz in Paris clubs and, at age 23, represented his country in the International Jazz Festival;

2) When he returned home to Argentina, he formed Latin America’s first jazz orchestra, a 16-piece band that became part of a popular weekly variety show on Buenos Aires TV;

3) In 1956, on one of his State Department tours, Dizzy Gillespie accepted Schifrin’s offer to write an extended work for Gillespie’s big band, Gillespiana, which Schifrin completed in 1958, the same year he won Argentina’s Academy Award for his score to the film El Jefe;

4) In 1960, while in New York, working as an arranger for Xavier Cugat’s popular dance orchestra, Schifrin again met Gillespie, who had by this time disbanded his big band for financial reasons. Gillespie invited Schifrin to fill the vacant piano chair in his quintet; Schifrin immediately accepted and relocated with his wife to New York City.

Gillespiana was recorded live in Carnegie Hall in November 1960 and has gathered notable attention from critics and jazz fans alike. It is actually a concerto grosso in form; it was performed the last week in October 2004 here at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Los Angeles by a jazz quintet—Tom Scott (saxophone and flute), Jon Faddis (trumpet), Lalo Schifrin (piano), the late Dave Carpenter (bass), and Alex Acuña (drums)—accompanied by a 15-piece brass and percussion ensemble; I was fortunate to be in attendance.

Since the 1960s, Schifrin has produced a number of recordings that explore jazz with a symphony orchestra. In 1964 New Fantasy was one of his earliest successes in orchestral jazz, concentrating on works of Copland, Villa-Lobos, Khatchaturian, and Ellington, along with contributions by Richard Rodgers, J.J. Johnson, Jerome Richardson, Clark Terry, and Mundell Lowe. Also that year, Paul Horn’s Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts, composed and conducted by Schifrin, was a fascinating and award-winning combination of jazz and liturgical music that holds up well over forty years later; it has not yet been released on CD. Two years later, Schifrin produced Marquis de Sade (not released on CD), which remains truly one of his greatest musical achievements. Essentially a baroque take on jazz, Schifrin created his own beautiful variations on the classics, including Henry Purcell (“Aria”), Bach (“Bossa Antique”), Francis Hopkinson (“Beneath a Weeping Willow Shade”), Telemann (“Old Laces”), even Ramsey Lewis and the Rolling Stones (“The Wig”). The album was followed 35 years later by Return of the Marquis de Sade; similar in style, this sequel provides a witty marriage of baroque and renaissance music with jazz, in groups ranging from small to full orchestra, with some vocals mixed in.

In 1992 Schifrin produced the first of his series of CDs entitled Jazz Meets the Symphony. As an orchestrator, Schifrin attempted to break the barriers which too often prevent jazz and the classics to interact. The first of six sets (so far) was perhaps the least successful, although Schifrin’s own “Bach to the Blues” and the fascinating “Brush Strokes” provided the high points of the album. The album was a Grammy Award winner. The following year, More Jazz Meets the Symphony rose dramatically above the odds against its success. Two long suites provided superb tributes to Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, with exciting and resonant orchestrations. Other selections sound familiar, yet Schifrin’s arrangements dress them up in a new and fascinating manner.

In January 1995 the third CD in the series, Firebird, honored Fats Waller and, in an especially well-conceived suite, Charlie Parker and Charles Ives. The gems on the album were the less weighty tunes, however: Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland,” a take of “Mission: Impossible” wedded to the world’s second most famous 5/4 tune, “Take Five,” and the baroque swing of “Eine Kleine Jazz Musik” (an instrumental version of Schifrin’s cool “Beneath A Weeping Willow Shade”). Firebird” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1997.

Metamorphosis, the fourth CD in the series, was produced in 1998. Again featuring the London Philharmonic, this disc is the moodiest of the set but arguably the best since the More… album of 1993. Jazz tributes this time out include a fascinating, highly-orchestrated Monk medley (peppered with Schifrin’s surprisingly Monk-like piano) and a lovely Gershwin-like memorial to Bix Beiderbecke (“Rhapsody for Bix”) featuring Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison. The two Schifrin originals (the pretty Latin shuffle of “Sanctuary” and the filmic “Invisible City”) are beauties. On Intersections from November 2000 the large group revisits Schifrin’s arrangements of Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues” (originally for Cal Tjader), “Basin Street Blues” (Jimmy Smith) and the composer’s own “Bossa Antique” from Marquis de Sade. The real revelations, however, come from the darting title piece (truly an exercise in interactive soloist-with-orchestra dynamics), “Donna’s Dream” and, most especially, the Schifrin-esque “Scherazade Fantasy” (based on a theme by Rimsky-Korsakov).

Finally, in 2005’s Kaleidoscope, Schifrin revisits much of the ground he covered on his 1964 album New Fantasy; fully five of its eight titles (Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5”, “Peanut Vendor”, Copland’s “El Salón Mexico”, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” and Gershwin’s “Prelude No. 2”) are reconsidered and improved upon, with the wisdom gained in the intervening four decades. Schifrin again has outstanding support from trumpeter James Morrison (occasionally blowing in the obligatory Dizzy role), bassist Christian McBride (outstanding in the Ray Brown role), Sydney-based drummer Gordon Rytmeister, the Sydney Symphony and, most gratifyingly of all, the arranger and conductor himself on piano, on every track. Other tracks include a surprisingly graceful orchestral version of his theme from “The Cincinnati Kid” (no doubt in honor of original singer Ray Charles, who passed away only several months before this recording) and “Paraphrase,” a virtual book of Schifrin quotes from “The Cat,” “Kelly’s Heroes” and Rock Requiem done up New Orleans style (another reflection from “The Cincinnati Kid”). But the real treats here are found in the delicious “Jazzette,” “Peanut Vendor” and “To Be Or Not To Bop.” Schifrin’s “Jazzette” is one of his most exciting themes in a long time, offering a wondrous mix of low brass and high strings and excellent solos from the pianist and the bassist. Schifrin recasts the wicked “Peanut Vendor” in a dark “Mission Impossible”-like ostinato, completely unlike the 1964 arrangement, and solos the devil out of McBride’s entrancing vamp on piano, which launches Morrison into a trombone solo that begs to dance with that very same devil. “To Be Or Not To Bop,” the name of Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography, is pretty much “Gillespiana, part 2,” Schifrin’s amazingly imaginative journey through nearly every idea Diz bopped his way through during the 1940s and 1950s. Overall, Kaleidoscope is one of Lalo Schifrin’s strongest musical statements in some time and certainly ranks high among the best of the Jazz Meets the Symphony series.

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