Lalo Schifrin

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by Douglas Payne

Fate brought me inevitably to the music of Lalo Schifrin. In fact, if I hadn’t stumbled rather accidentally across his music as a teenager living in Pittsburgh, it would have simply been a matter of time before I discovered the many, many joys of Lalo Schifrin.

While it’s certainly hard to categorize the entirety of this composer’s musical output over nearly half a century of accomplishments, several very distinctive features remain constant throughout a great deal of his work.

Schifrin has a particular gift for insinuating, insistent and endearing melodies; as suggestive as they are definitive. For example, consider how Schifrin’s most famous song, the theme from the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE television series, is now a part of our shared musical vocabulary. It’s such a symbolic melody that company men hum it in board rooms to make light of grueling corporate challenges. And, according to Schifrin, he just knocked the song off in a couple minutes to accompany the image of a fuse being lit.

Dig even deeper into Schifrin’s many melodic pieces and even more emerges. His music consistently offers provocative rhythms, an innate sense of persuasive percussion, a diverse sense of the world’s classic and cultural musical history and a genuine genius for lyrical orchestration that suggests the panoply of human emotion.

This is, perhaps, the essence of Lalo Schifrin’s magic. Quite simply, Lalo Schifrin is a master of feeling. He invests much feeling into what he does. He is a remarkable crafter in the sound of feelings. And, as Webmaster of the Official Lalo Schifrin Discography for the past five years, I can attest that his music has deeply affected many people throughout the world over the years.

I first came to know the music of Lalo Schifrin through his work in jazz. As a teenager in the late 1970s, I was infatuated with the sound of CTI, producer Creed Taylor’s popular jazz label. So knowing nothing about Lalo Schifrin, I bought a copy of BLACK WIDOW (CTI: 1976). The hypnotic, spellbinding title song with its alluring disco rhythm, snake-charming synthesizer, horny punctuation and sensual strings immediately obsessed me. It occurred to me that this was the man behind the catchy waltz of MANNIX, my favorite TV show as a kid.

With my fascination now properly stoked, I picked up anything with Lalo Schifrin’s name. These records included TOWERING TOCCATA (CTI: 1977), ONCE A THIEF (Verve: 1965) and THERE’S A WHOLE LALO SCHIFRIN GOIN’ ON (Dot: 1965).

It seemed strange to me during this time – the early 1980s – that I never saw any new Lalo Schifrin records in the stores. But then I’d see a movie like CAVEMAN (1982), with its bewitching dawn-of-time chant and become thrilled that Lalo Schifrin was still at it!

My passion for Lalo Schifrin’s music, though, began much later.

On a fluke in 1994, I picked up a used copy of Lalo’s first Verve LP, SAMBA PARA DOS (Verve: 1962, with Bob Brookmeyer). Schifrin’s crafty piano work on the title track immediately caught and captured my attention. This boss nova theme was an early Schifrin standard, and one he’d written for Quincy Jones's BIG BAND BOSSA NOVA album (the one with Austin Powers’s theme, "Soul Bossa Nova" – another feature for Lalo’s piano).

I was hooked. I went back to find more Lalo Schifrin. It was difficult, since so much of this music was now out of print and hadn’t made it to CD yet. Albums bearing Lalo Schifrin’s name were first: NEW FANTASY (Verve: 1964), an early blueprint for the JAZZ MEETS THE SYMPHONY series, ROCK REQUIEM (Verve, 1971), GYPSIES (Tabu: 1978), an underrated collection of pop concertos and, MARQUIS DE SADE (Verve: 1966), to this day, one of Schifrin’s greatest musical statements. Next I pursued the Dizzy Gillespie albums, offering Schifrin’s earliest American recordings and his purest jazz statements. These included the utterly brilliant suites GILLESPIANA (Verve: 1961) and THE NEW CONTINENT (Limelight: 1962). I was basking in the brilliance – and utter variety – of all this music.

Since it was difficult to find so many of these old records, I finally began to consider listening to Lalo Schifrin’s film music. I started with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (MCA: 1966-68). Indeed, I was stunned that I had eluded such awesome music so long. From here, I picked up the soundtracks to THE CINCINNATI KID (MGM: 1965), SOL MADRID (MGM: 1968) and CHE! (Tetragrammoton: 1969).

Eventually I discovered that Lalo Schifrin was an amazing film composer. The concept of film music never meant anything to me until I heard Schifrin’s music. I began to watch more films simply to hear the music. I studied how music and sound was used in films. This is what led me to such great Schifrin scores as COOL HAND LUKE (Dot, 1967), BULLITT (Warner Bros., 1968), DIRTY HARRY (Warner Bros, 1971), ENTER THE DRAGON (Warner Bros., 1973), THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (Label X, 1974) and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (AIP, 1979).

It also helped me discover the music of such composers as Jerry Goldsmith and two of Schifrin’s most influential predecessors (and, later, friends), Bernard Herrmann and Henry Mancini. Naturally, I tended to favor film composers like John Barry, Roy Budd, Bill Conti and Hans Zimmer (composer of a terrific score for the recent MISSION-IMPOSSBILE 2) who, like Schifrin, bring the feeling of jazz or a strong sense of melody into their film music.

The sheer diversity of Schifrin’s music is amazing. Schifrin dabbled definitively in jazz, avant-garde, baroque, popular and rock music, even elucidating suspense and tension with his own brand of "crime jazz" (the true Schifrin signature). He orchestrates a feeling, a mood or a sensation provocatively -- with one instrument, a little combo or an entire orchestra. Even more astonishing to me is the seeming ease with which Schifrin travels from the blues of the deep south to the harmonic minor scales of the Middle East and the oriental fusions of the Far East to every variation of Latin forms imaginable.

Somewhere back in 1995 it occurred to me that if there was a whole world of Lalo Schifrin’s music I knew nothing about, than others might not be aware of the diversity this man has brought to recorded sound. I set about researching the complete discography of Lalo Schifrin, buying every record and CD I could find, going through old jazz and film magazines at the Library of Congress and watching all the movies I could get. Even I was surprised how little I had known.

Lalo Schifrin has recorded nearly 100 jazz, pop and classical albums under his own name (nearly 20 have been issued in the last few years on his own Aleph label), scored more than 100 films and television series, worked with dozens of artists as diverse as Al Hirt and Jose Carreras, and has been commissioned for dozens of works that haven’t even been recorded yet! That’s quite a curriculum vita. Of all these works, I have since gathered some 40 Lalo Schifrin LPs, 60 CDs and scores of videos featuring a Schifrin score or a Schifrin performance.

Once the first draft of my discography was completed, I shared it with the Maestro himself. Truly one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever encountered, Lalo Schifrin praised what I had done and helped me out with a lot of the information I needed. He still helps out, when he’s not traveling to his next performance, ensconced in his newest commission or busy working out details for another set of studio dates.

Now my discography (which amounts to 75 pages of text!) is all on the Internet ( and, unexpectedly, I’ve become something of a Lalo Schifrin authority for other discographers, researchers, writers, fans and musicians.

One of the most rewarding results of my Lalo Schifrin research, is hearing from all the many Schifrin fans worldwide, who like me, are still discovering more and more of this genius’s music. A number of people I hear from regularly are the musicians who have recorded or performed with Lalo Schifrin. Consistently, they tell me what an honor it is to work for Schifrin, a man who knows precisely what his music should achieve, yet who encourages musicians to put themselves and their own talents into his music.

It’s a pleasure for me to collect and help celebrate the many accomplishments of Lalo Schifrin. I hope more people who think of him merely as "the guy who wrote ‘Mission: Impossible," will also discover the wonders of GILLESPIANA or JAZZ MASS. By the same token, I hope fans of JAZZ MEETS THE SYMPHONY also discover Schifrin’s beautiful guitar concertos or the brilliance of film scores as unique and diverse as BULLITT or TANGO

This is renaissance music by a truly renaissance talent.