Lalo Schifrin

Written by John Seetoo

Hailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, composer Lalo Schifrin has had an incredibly diverse career over the past six decades.  With numerous classical and jazz compositions inspired by South American music and his iconic film and television scores, from Mission: Impossible and Mannix to Enter the Dragon, Bullitt, The Amityville Horror, and Dirty Harry to the Rush Hour trilogy, Schifrin’s body of work is impressive by any measure. In completion of the Copper retrospective look at the Audio Fidelity label, and its pioneering efforts to introduce the American music industry to Bossa Nova, we are happy to present an email interview with one of Audio Fidelity’s most prestigious artists, whose fame has only grown since those years: Lalo Schifrin.

J.S.: Growing up in Argentina, what was your musical training like, since your father was already a well established musician?  Enrique Barenboim (father of pianist Daniel Barenboim) was one of your early teachers?

L.S.: Enrique Barenboim was my teacher when I was 5 years old.

J.S.:  What were the circumstances and influences that led you to shift from your classical training into jazz and other kinds of music, such as bossa nova?  Given your ascendance in the Argentinian classical music world, was this a politically or artistically risky move for you at the time during the 1950’s?

L.S. : My choice of Jazz was to express my needs to search for new horizons.  The Bossa Nova was the Brazilian form of Jazz.

J.S.: What was it like to play with Astor Piazzolla?  Were there any performances or anecdotes of note that you recall?

L.S.: I only conducted the “Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra” after Piazzolla.  It was an honor for me to be asked by him to do so.  Besides, we were very good friends and we shared a similar sense of humor.

J.S.:  Later on, you moved to the USA and worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges.  Can you tell us what those experiences were like?

L.S.: Dizzy Gillespie discovered me in Buenos Aires and brought me to the United States as a composer, arranger and pianist.  For me, this was a dream come true, because he was my idol since I was a teenager.  Needless to say, the experience was amazing and I learned a lot from him.  I do not know if you are aware that I had a scholarship for the Paris Conservatory and I learned composition from Olivier Messier, orchestration from Charles Koechlin, and great masters in other fields like, harmony, counter-point, fugue, etc.  However, my greatest master was Dizzy Gillespie, because he had an incredible approach to the construction and functions of the vertical structure of music.

J.S.:  You have written some of the most memorable American television theme song scores in history, such as Mission: Impossible and Mannix.  Your use of 5/4 in Mission: Impossible has practically defined that time signature for most contemporary musicians.  What influences and inspirations led to those compositions, and what were those recording sessions like?

L.S.: I would like to remind you that I was a great connoisseur of not only classical music (the use of different time signatures, rhythms like Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.), but also the folk music of the Basques, who danced their popular music to a rhythm they called “Zorzico” (Ethno-musicology appeals a great deal to me).

J.S.:  You have also composed scores for a number of famous movies from the 1970’s such as Enter The Dragon, Cool Hand Luke and The Exorcist.  Can you tell us some recollections on those projects?  Do you have a particular process in working on movie scores?  For example, some composers are inspired from the screenplay, while others need to view footage in order to get ideas.

L.S.: Opera and Ballet were the influences that I got to write music for movies and television.  These genres represent what I call “audio-visual counter-point” and that appealed to me very early on.

J.S.: You have worked with Clint Eastwood on a number of his films.  What is that relationship like?  Does Clint’s own background as a musician make your working relationship different from your other film projects, and in what ways? Do you have any favorite scores from your film work?

L.S.: Since Clint Eastwood heard my scores for his movies, he became interested in my music and he hired me to compose some of the scores for his films.  We became very close to each other and we have a warm relationship.

J.S.: This interview is being linked to a few other articles about the Audio Fidelity label and some of its groundbreaking audiophile releases.  As one of their most prominent artists, what was your relationship with Audio Fidelity like?  How would you describe your relationship with Sid Frey?

L.S.: You bring very old, but pleasant memories of my relationship with Audio Fidelity.  Sid Frey was a great guy; he knew how to delineate my path in such a foretelling way.

J.S.:  Can you take us through some of your recording experience recollections for your Audio Fidelity releases?  Were there any particularly memorable or humorous anecdotes from those days?

L.S.: Unfortunately I do not have memories about those releases.

J.S.:  What is your ideal recording setup, if budget is not an issue, and why?

L.S.: The sound engineer is my best guide for an ideal recording set up.  I like to work with first class engineers and I blindly trust them.

J.S.:  Given your diversity of music genre works, what kind of music is on Lalo Schifrin’s current playlist?

L.S.:  My current projects are a “Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra”, which will be premiered on March 3, 2018 in Los Angeles.  A “Concerto for Mandolin Orchestra”, the world premiere will take place this year in Marseilles, France.  Another, “Concerto for Guitar and Choir” on which I am currently working.

J.S.:  Why do you think that a number of jazz musicians have become successful in film-scoring? Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones, Terence Blanchard and Carter Burwell are just a few who come to mind, besides you.

L.S.: I cannot answer for those musicians you mentioned.  I have been close friends with some of them, but we all follow our own path.

J.S.: Despite your achievements in many areas of music and dozens of film scores, your name is always associated with Mission : Impossible. Does that ever frustrate you?

L.S.: Why should my association with Mission : Impossible be frustrating to me?  On the contrary, it was and is a positive walk into my future and I am very proud of it.

J.S.: Do you feel your work as a pianist has ever been properly acknowledged, or has that been overshadowed by your work as a composer, arranger, and conductor?

L.S.: As a musician I don’t see any differences between being a composer, arranger, conductor and pianist.  These activities reflect on my total musical needs.

J.S.:  What areas of music do you still hope to explore?

L.S.: The answer is in #11 (the upcoming Concertos)

J.S.:  Is there any single performer you’ve most enjoyed working with?

L.S.: Dizzy Gillespie and Placido Domingo.

J.S.:  Is there any single composer who has most influenced you?

L.S.: Igor Stravinsky and Thelonious Monk.

(Special thanks to Jeri TeMaat, Mr. Schifrin’s assistant, for her help in making time in Mr. Schifrin’s busy schedule to answer these questions prior to the public premier of his latest composition, “A Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra”. Header photo: William Claxton).

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