Interview: Lalo Schifrin


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The Sunday before Hurricane Sandy veered inland and flooded Northeastern coastal areas, I caught the last flight out of JFK bound for Los Angeles. I was heading west to interview Lalo Schifrin for the Wall Street Journal (go here). As the jet taxied, it seemed only fitting that my conversation with music's master of suspense should start out with real-life nail-biting drama.

Meeting Lalo was a thrill for me. One of my first exposures to jazz as a kid was Mannix, the TV detective show of the '60s. Lalo's waltz-time theme killed me every time—I couldn't get enough of it and I still love it dearly. When I arrived at his home in Beverly Hills the following day, Lalo came down the stairs to meet me wearing jeans and a vintage dress shirt that had a small blue-and-cream harlequin pattern. Very chill. His black eyeglass frames were wide and pure Hollywood studio, and his silver hair was longish—very conductor's podium. [Pictured above: Mike Connors as Joe Mannix]

Lalo is all about passion and expression, so we immediately hit it off. Despite living in the U.S. for decades, he still has a strong, endearing Argentine-French accent, but he's easy to understand because he fills with emotion quickly when he speaks. As we settled into a thick sofa in the den of his home, which once belonged to Groucho Marx, I could barely make out the questions I brought to ask him. The room was dimly lit, like one of those scenes he scores for suspense films.

For the next two hours we spoke about his growing up in Buenos Aires, his lucky departure from Fascist Argentina to study in Paris on a music scholarship, his close call on the Left Bank when he was nearly deported for working without a permit, his move back to Argentina in 1956, seeing Dizzy Gillespie perform later that year on his U.S. State Department Tour, and Gillespie asking Lalo to come to the U.S. after Lalo performed for him at a reception.

It then took Lalo two years to get a green card and another year to be able to work in New York. When Gillespie asked Lalo to write something for him, Lalo spent a weekend drafting an orchestral jazz suite. The result was Gillsepiana, which is easily on par with works by Gil Evans for Miles Davis. The 1960 album put Lalo on the map with jazz artists, and Gillespie invited Lalo to join his quintet. The group toured Europe in 1961.

Let me have Lalo talk a bit...

“Before I left with Dizzy, I met Clarence Avant [pictured above] at the airport. Clarence was Jimmy Smith's personal manager, and Jimmy was also part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. Clarence said, “You arranged Gillespiana, didn't you?" I said yes. Clarence said, “What do you want to do?" I told him I wanted to write for the movies." I wanted a bigger platform for the music I was writing.

“Clarence put me in touch with Creed Taylor [pictured above], who signed me to Verve, which at the time was owned by MGM. Arnold Maxim, the head of the label and a member of the MGM board came to New York often. He loved my Piano Strings and Bossa Nova album for MGM. Arnold said he had heard I wanted to write for the movies and was able to get me assigned to Rhino! This was 1963, when I moved to Los Angeles."

From then on, Lalo was unstoppable and has had one of the most extraordinary careers in music. Over the past 50 years, he has operates like a music factory, managing six different product lines. He composed and conducted more than 100 movie scores; he recorded about a dozen superb bossa nova albums; he wrote music for TV, composing perhaps the medium's greatest theme of all for Mission: Impossible (winning two Grammys); he recorded dozens of jazz albums (winning another two Grammys); he composed and conducted classical albums; and he worked with the Three Tenors.

And through it all, Lalo has remained upbeat—excited about life and thrilled by jazz. In fact, over dinner two nights later (I was stranded in L.A. after all return flights were cancelled), we must have spent a half hour alone just throwing out the names of artists and talking about favorite jazz albums as his wife Donna and publicist Beth Krakower looked on. We easily could have been there a few more hours.

Before I left for Lalo's, I had taken my cellphone into the New York subway and shot about two minutes of random video: The subway pulling in, boarding the crowded car, more people pouring in and so on. To keep people from freaking out, I held up the phone and pretended I was trying to hear a caller.

I rode a stop, disembarked and climbed the stairs to the street. That's where I viewed what I had captured. It was perfect. In this mini movie, a woman boarded the subway and looked around nervously as she put down her bag.

At Lalo's house during our first meeting, I asked if he'd write theme music for the mini thriller I had filmed. Cautiously, he said, “We'll see." As I played him the video, he looked at the woman and announced, “I don't trust her—she looks like a terrorist." Poor woman, I thought. She's probably a lovely lady. “So can you do it?" I asked. Lalo said, “I will just write music for her—not for the train coming in. You don't have to—it doesn't need music."

Now you're talking, I thought. Lalo got up from the sofa and went over to his piano in the living room and began creating a dark, rumbling theme for her that signaled she was sinister, nefarious and dangerous. It was astonishing to watch the process—from our viewing of the film to listenng to him create a minute or so of score.

At the end, Lalo looked up and said something fascinating: “Suspense is in the quiet spaces. Silence makes you anxious because you aren't sure what's coming next. You're concerned." And that's suspense in a nutshell. It's the anticipation, and the music needs to capture that—with dissonant scales and chords and sudden silence.

Then he played the Mannix theme for me (yeah, I told him what I told you above). It was breathtaking. Talk about closure. “You know," he said, “when I was in Vienna recently to receive the Max Steiner Film Music Achievement Award, that's the song everyone wanted me to play—Mannix." Then we both laughed. “No, really," he said, as though I might have thought he was pulling my leg. As Mike Connors probably knows well, the request makes perfect sense.

JazzWax tracks: Wow, where do I begin. As you know, I do enormous amounts of research before conducting interviews for the Wall Street Journal. In this case, that meant listening to hours and hours of Lalo's bossa nova, jazz and film music. I know, I know—but that's just the way I am. One can't expect to sit down with someone like Lalo unless you are thoroughly versed in his art.

Before I list my favorites, you should know about a four-disc boxed set of his music that was just released. My Life in Music (Aleph) touches on all of his music and is the perfect introduction to his work. You'll find the boxed set here.

OK, here we go...

Bossa nova

Lalo recorded about a dozen bossa nova albums. My favorites:

  • New Brazilian Jazz (1962)
  • Piano, Strings and Bossa Nova (1962)
  • Samba pra Dos (1963) featuring Bob Brookmeyer
  • Bossa Nova (1962), featuring Eddie Harris.

Lalo won Grammys for arranging two jazz albums: Jimmy Smith's The Cat and Paul Horn's Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts. Here are must-owns...

  • Gillespiana—recorded in 1960, this remains a masterpiece. It featured all of the greats of the day plus Dizzy Gillespie soloing. Go here.
  • Dizzy Gillespie: Legends Live—newly released album from Gillepsie's 1961 tour stop in Frankfurt, Germany. Go here.
  • Conga Soul—recorded in 1961 with Candido Camero.
  • The New Continent—with Dizzy Gillespie in 1962. Go here.
  • Johnny Hodges with Lalo Schifrin (1963). Schifrin in a Basie groove with Ellington's main alto. Go here.
  • Several Shades of Jade (1963), with Cal Tjader. Go here.
  • Sarah Vaughan's Sweet and Sassy (1963). Go here
  • Stan Getz's Reflections (1963). Go here.
  • Jimmy Smith's The Cat (1964). Go here.
  • The Dissection And Reconstruction Of Music - A Tribute To The Memory Of The Marquis De Sade (1966).
  • Ins and Outs (1982) and Live at the Blue Note (2002). Go here.
  • And, of course, the entire Jazz Meets the Symphony series. Go here.
Film (soundtracks)

  • Les Felins (1964)
  • The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
  • The Liquidator (1965)
  • Murderer's Row (1966)
  • Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  • Mission Impossible (1967)
  • Sol Madrid (1968)
  • Bullitt (1968)
  • THX1138 (1970)
  • And dozens of others.
JazzWax clips: A few tracks:

Here's Iris from The Liquidator...


Here's On the Way to San Mateo from Bullitt...

On The Way To San Mateo

And here's Mannix from Lalo's new boxed set My Life in Music...

Theme From Mannix (1999)

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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