Fire and Ice: Lalo Schifrin Live…

Lalo Schifrin at the Barbican – April 10th 2008

A rare appearance by a music legend went down a storm last night at London’s Barbican Centre. The city’s Latin Music Festival, ‘La Linea’, welcomed Lalo Schifrin for its showcase event, which became a night of wonderful paradoxes. The 76 year old composer performed piano and presided over not just the members of his jazz quartet, but the mighty London Symphony Orchestra who, together, created magic as the idioms of Jazz and Symphonic music collided in what really was one of the most thrilling concerts I think I’ve had the privilege to attend.

Why paradoxes? Well at 76 Mr. Schifrin is of course no spring chicken and his movements across the stage, and between podium and piano, were understandably less than sprightly. His playing though, not to mention his fine head of hair, belied that motional frailty as his fingers nimbly navigated the ivories throughout the night, many times to cheers and much applause from the enthusiastic crowd. Then of course the music, the stunningly agile, at times hair-raisingly rhythmic music, spoke for itself and for the man behind it.

Schifrin of course brought to London his showcase of ‘Jazz Meets The Symphony’, a title which made many wonder what to expect. Essentially we were treated to two and a half hours of music by not just Schifrin, but jazz greats, both Latin and otherwise, as well as the likes of Cole Porter and Aaron Copland. This wasn’t your average compilation though, as the music presented was all arranged by Lalo Schifrin and as such was given his mark. Melodies we knew were turned on their heads, or spiced up, as he playfully noted, ‘with a dash of Tabasco’. Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’, Moises Simon’s ‘Peanut Vendor’, Copland’s ‘El Salon Mexico’ and Gill Evans’ ‘La Nevada’ were all given the Schifrin treatment. The latter saw Schifrin adapt Evans’ composition with a delightfully infectious Afro-Latin rhythm, while Villa Lobos’ ‘Bachinas Brasilleiras No. 5’ (translated for us by Lalo as ‘what Bach would have written if he were Brazillian’), exhibited Schifrin’s deft keyboard skills in what was actually an enchanting piece.

Throughout these heady moments, Schifrin’s soloists had chances to shine and one member in particular absolutely dazzled. Australian trumpeter James Morrison almost stole the show (almost, but not quite) with his performances on not just trumpet, but trombone and flugelhorn too. He seemed able to get so much emotion out of the instruments, instruments which can sometimes be judged by those not in the know as noisy and unwieldy. Morrison’s dexterity and passion came through in spades, reaching ear splitting levels that were so red-hot he could have turned sand to glass. It was in Simon’s ‘Peanut Vendor’ though that he blew our socks off as he held a trumpet and trombone in each hand, performing both in turn, seemingly jamming with himself! Quite a feat and one for which the packed house just went nuts (no pun intended).

Aside from the Latin Jazz arrangements of other people’s work, we were treated to some of the composer’s original compositions. Opening the first half with his tribute to Latin Jazz’s founding father Chano Pozo, ‘Chano’ was a laid-back opener, whetting our appetites with a piano-led Salsa rhythm, while in the second half his original pieces ‘Around the Day in Eighty Worlds’ (yes, you read that right) and ‘El Dorado’ proffered some truly enjoyable moments from Lalo on the piano and Morrison on brass. Their official closing statement, ‘Dizzy Gillespie Fireworks’, was a lengthy medley of differing styles and colours. Lalo spoke warmly of his late friend, the man with whom he worked for many years as pianist and arranger. The piece saw some recognisable Gillespie moments, brought to life of course by Morrison, but was also a loving musical tribute by Schifrin, with a lot of orchestral shimmer and sparkle in places.

Of course no Lalo Schifrin concert would be complete without at least a nod to his work in Hollywood and as such each half had a film piece or two. A jazzified arrangement of music from The Fox (which he scored for Mark Rydell in 1967) opened the second half, with Lalo once again on piano. That piece, while very enjoyable, was overshadowed in the extreme by the other two score entries. The first half saw a suite from Dirty Harry, which took in music from that film and Magnum Force and served to knock us for six as Schifrin’s brash themes swayed and swaggered through the orchestra and band. If we thought that was good then the selection from Enter the Dragon in the second half had the potential to induce heart failure. The piece was just a stunning display of Schifrin at his finest; rhythmic, exciting and powerful it exhibited the composer’s inimitable style and all the musical trademarks that rightfully earn him the title of ‘composer of cool’.

Thunderous applause and a lengthy standing ovation brought about two encores; the first, Mission: Impossible, was almost too predictable but went down very well, particularly as it wasn’t the usual concert arrangement. Schifrin and Morrison provided improvised moments in the middle, while the orchestra chipped away at the rhythm and rendered ‘The Plot’ in counterpoint. Lalo, surprised at the audiences unending enthusiasm, hadn’t prepared a second encore for the orchestra, so the LSO sat back and joined us in appreciating the Jazz quartet as they performed the lengthy ‘Millennium Blues’. Part of a larger work commissioned from the composer at the turn of the century, it showcased each member of the band, who ‘showed off’ their skills with very fine solos, baiting each other to do better.

And so with rhythm in our step and jazz in our souls, we made our way into the London night, exhausted but completely satisfied. Lalo Schifrin and the LSO managed to set the stage on fire with the hottest Latin sounds, but all the while retaining an air of super cool – and there lies the other paradox…


Originally published at Music from the, April 2008.