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Lalo Schifrin
Edited by Richard Palmer

July 28, 2008: Lalo Schifrin’s life in music has been an extraordinary journey from the jazz clubs of Paris to some of Hollywood’s most memorable films. Born into a musical family (his father was concertmaster of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic), Schifrin took to the piano at a young age and naturally gravitated away from law to music early in his studies.

He has gone on to create a large body of work that stands tall in fields as diverse as jazz, classical, tango and, of course, film music. He is a musical chameleon who can don tux and tails to conduct prestigious symphony orchestras or sit at the piano in a small, dark jazz club and spin out a bluesy yarn.  

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: MY LIFE IN MUSIC represents the composer, pianist, arranger and conductor’s first foray into autobiography and, amazingly, the first book in English devoted to his music (a French book on Schifrin by Georges Michel was published in 2005).

At 76, he’s led quite the exciting life, crossing paths with many of the names that made twentieth century music what it was. But, sadly, this is about all that one takes away from this skimpy volume of reflections.

Written beautifully by Schifrin and feebly edited by jazz-music scholar Richard Palmer (who has also written notes for three of Schifrin’s recent jazz-oriented CDs), MISSION IMPOSSIBLE purports to explore Schifrin’s half century in music. But while Schifrin’s prose is, like the man himself, erudite and engaging, the book itself is little more than a number of vignettes strung together in a somewhat jazz-like fashion.

There are 34 extremely brief “chapters” over some 177 pages of text that are anecdotal at best. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Schifrin will probably have come across many of these stories in widely published interviews, liner notes and concert programs.

A good deal of the text is given over to Schifrin’s jazz experience. This prompts a fair warning that the book is part of Edward Berger and Dan Morgenstern’s “Studies in Jazz” series. So any expectations outside of jazz are probably unfair, but one wonders whether Lalo Schifrin is best served by any study in a single musical genre.

Even so, very little detail is provided about Schifrin’s jazz. Clearly, the author has high regard for his time with Dizzy Gillespie (surprisingly only a few years, from 1960 to 1962) and his Jazz Meets the Symphony concept.

But Schifrin’s jazz work outside of the deservedly brilliant SCHIFRIN/SADE gets no attention whatsoever. Albums such as THE NEW CONTINENT, THERE’S A WHOLE LALO SCHIFRIN GOIN’ ON, ROCK REQUIEM, BLACK WIDOW and GYPSIES aren’t even mentioned.

The book’s greatest deficiency, though, is the lack of attention devoted to Schifrin’s work in films. Only ten pages even cover Schifrin’s Hollywood career, which began in the early 1960s and continues, rather too sporadically, through today.

For a book that bears the title of not only one of Schifrin’s best-known songs but one of the most known theme songs of all time, the author doesn’t even bother to talk about how the song was created or what made him do what he did with this or the show’s other well-known theme, the militaristic “The Plot”.

While that’s something of a quibble, Schifrin rather uncharacteristically spends more time talking about a score that didn’t happen (for THE EXORCIST) instead of expounding upon or elucidating any of those that did happen.

Schifrin brings up work he did for ONCE A THIEF, MURDERER’S ROW and THE CINCINNATI KID but does not discuss arguably more important work on BULLITT, COOL HAND LUKE, KELLY’S HEROES, DIRTY HARRY, ENTER THE DRAGON or even the tepid RUSH HOUR series – not to mention any of the other of Schifrin’s one hundred plus film or TV scores and themes.

Several chapters are given over to Schifrin’s work in the classical world and despite the author’s always interesting voice clearly at the fore, these chapters seldom go beyond their press release style, although it is refreshing to hear the composer discuss how he thought he failed in two early concert works.

There was a better story here and one that would have been better served by a writer other than Schifrin himself. Schifrin’s opening chapters about his life in Argentina could have come from no one but the artist himself. Indeed, these are the most compelling words in the whole book.

But as soon as the author escapes the unfortunate Peron regime, there is little that would satisfy any of his fans or instruct anyone desiring to learn about the man or his music.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: MY LIFE IN MUSIC includes 30 pages of pictures (including the lead sheet for the eponymous song), a filmography, a rather incomplete and inaccurate discography and a 72-minute CD of nine Schifrin tunes – mostly in a jazz groove – recorded between 1982 and 2005 for Schifrin’s Aleph label.