Schifrin: Piano Works
Mirian Conti, piano
Grand Piano 776
Total Time: 73:19
Recording: n/a (download)
Jean-Michel Bernard Plays Lalo Shifrin
Jean-Michel Bernard, piano
Susan Andon, flute. Kyle Eastwood, electric bass. Kimiko Ono, vocal.
Lalo Shifrin, piano.
Grand Piano 776
Total Time: 73:19
Recording: n/a (download)
Lalo Schifrin turned 85 this year and as part of the celebration two quite unique albums are celebrating the composer’s work from two somewhat similar angles but with quite differing results.
On the more classical side, there is Mirian Conti’s new release of nine “premiere recordings”. Really, these are works that come from Schifrin’s catalogue but which he has carefully reworked and adapted to highlight Conti’s style, often quite brilliantly. This includes a new piano version of Mission: Impossible from an earlier 1973 version. The album plays up Schifrin’s Argentinean connections, Conti herself being known for her exploration of unique Argentinean and other repertoire. The release includes piecs that are somewhat extensions of Ginastera or Granados with a bit of Piazzolla, jazz, and a lot of Schifrin. The 1997 film Tango is a bit of the jumping off point for three works exploring this Argentinean dance beginning with “Tango del Atardecer” from the film. Two similarly tango-infused works (“Tango a Borges”, and “La Calle y la Luna” both from 2005) appear as bookends of the more classical centerpieces. Two musical landscapes appear as well. Pampas (2009) is a more classical impressionistic depiction which incorporates folk dances and is inspired more from the country’s flatlands. The “Danza de los Montes” heads to the Northeastern part of the country for inspiration. Both feature added extended jazz harmonies and modern language of Piazzolla, allowing for Conti to explore a blend of lyricism and rhythmic accents.
At the center of the album is one of Schifrin’s earliest works, the Jazz Piano Sonata, Op. 1. Rather than go at jazz idioms from the more stylized classical approaches of Copland or Schuller, or the Tin Pan Alley styles of Gershwin’s concert music, Schifrin turned to classic jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. This infuses the music with a different idiomatic sensibility that explores elements of jazz and leads to a work that must be as “felt” as it is precise. The first movement opens with a series of block extended chords that become the pillars around a jagged motive that is then developed into some lyrical moments. The whole though feels like an improvisation around this idea with the harmony moving from more dissonant blocks to lyrical extensions that spread out these rich jazz chords. The central movement has a gentle melodic line that reaches outward against ostinato arpeggio lines. It has a rather reflective quality which seems to become more tortuous as this “Andante” moves into the central section. The Theme and 10 Variations on an Original Theme (2016) has Schifrin playing with styles further, though here it is on the more classical side with references to everyone from Mozart to Stravinsky as the composer’s variations are like a snapshot of music through time. The fun here is in recognizing the references as Schifrin’s theme is wound through them. The album closes with a touching Lullaby for Jack (2016) written for the composer’s grandson.
Conti’s performances capture well the rhythmic complexities of these works and communicate their vitality. The melodies are beautifully shaped and this is enhanced by the rich, extended jazz harmonies. The download had a quite crisp and dry acoustic.
On the other end of the spectrum, jazz pianist Jean-Michel Bernard celebrates the more popular side of the composer’s music with a retrospective of his film music in improvisational explorations. The program is drawn from a retrospective concert held earlier this year and Schifrin joins Bernard here for a couple performances. The album is in that sort of crossover between a film music release and a jazz recording and recalls those many great Schifrin releases on Verve/MGM.
The release opens with two of the composer’s funkier themes for Mannix and Bullitt. The jazz combo has some great bass here helping to push the music forward with great energy. Some gorgeous flute work appears by Susan Andon on the theme for Cool Hand Luke. It makes for a nice light contrast. This shifts to a brief combo version of music from Dirty Harry films reminiscent of the orchestral concert version and adding some funkier jazz. Kyle Eastwood pops in to play electric bass. Music from The Fox (including the song derived from the main theme, “That Night”, featuring Kimiko Ono), Les Felins, Mission: Impossible, and The Cincinnati Kid (one of the many highlights on the album!) provide a good traversal of Schifrin’s classic music. There are also several little nods to Schifrin’s classic 1960s albums with “Lalo’s Bossa Nova” and the “Tango del Atardecer”, the latter being a more classically-stylized work. Schifrin joins in for a couple duets as well. This includes a run through of “Manteca”, “Chano” and a suite Bernard pulled together of music from Che! and the Sinfonia Concertante. A rather odd blend of classical and popular tunes is a sort of free fantasy before moving directly into the popular “The Plot” from Mission: Impossible. The flow of the album works very well as we move through moments that will be quite familiar to Schifrin fans to some of the lesser known tracks. A jazz ballad version of the Mannix theme rounds things off nicely.
Bernard’s work here is stellar with some great interpretations of Schifrin’s classic themes shifting from piano to fender Rhodes and even a B3 organ (for “The Cat” from Les Felins). The album’s additional guest soloists allows for good contrast so that the album smoothly plays out without becoming to heavy in any one place. The performances are faithful to the music’s text with jazz improvisations happening quite naturally in smaller swaths but always very much in tune with Schifrin’s style. Certainly it is one of the highlights of the Varese catalogue and an obvious labor of love for all involved.
One of the interesting things about Shifrin’s career is that it included studies with the great Oliver Messiaen. This may have influenced some of the harmonics of the sonata here, and even the way color plays out in the composer’s work, but there is a lot of great rhythmic writing that has always made the composer’s film and concert work engaging. Both albums are worth tracking down to hear the great variety and craft of one of the 20th Century’s important film composers.