CD REVIEW: Jean-Michel Bernard – Plays Lalo Schifrin

Jean-Michel Bernard – Plays Lalo Schifrin
(Varèse Sarabande 302 067 523 8. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)

Boris Claudio Schifrin — universally known by his nickname ‘Lalo’ — was born in Buenos Aries. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen, gigging in the city’s jazz clubs at night. He met Dizzy Gillespie when the trumpeter’s big band visited Argentina in the 1950s and then his destiny was set. Coming to America to arrange and play piano for Gillespie, he soon moved into film and television scoring with great success, notably his unforgettable Mission: Impossible theme. Schifrin’s simultaneous background in jazz, classical and Latin forms made him a triple-threat and led to the creation of a formidable body of work in numerous genres. He has always kept one foot in jazz, though, and is now an elder statesmen of the music.

This tribute to Lalo Schifrin is a fascinating undertaking. French keyboard player Jean-Michel Bernard has previously worked with the composer on concerts in France and he is steeped in Schifrin’s music — his love for it is palpable. The CD began as a recreation of one of these concerts but expanded in scope and ambition far beyond that. Bernard is an outstanding keyboard player and he has surrounded himself with top-flight French jazz players, supplemented by some American virtuosi (the sessions were recorded in Rochefort, Paris and then Los Angeles).

The selections here are particularly intriguing. A few began life purely as jazz themes, but the great majority are drawn from Lalo Schifrin’s film and television work. Some have become standards — the song Down Here on the Ground from the Cool Hand Luke theme has been covered by the likes of George Benson and Wes Montgomery. But some of the tunes have seldom or never been interpreted by other artists, and to my knowledge no one has ever attempted a complete album of Schifrin covers. But in case anyone is worried by the dominance of soundtrack material here, the whole CD is suffused with a true jazz sensibility.

Mannix, Schifrin’s jazziest TV theme commences with punchy, tumbling percussion and rolling piano before close-ensemble horn playing seems to bring the California sun through the speakers. The trumpet is by Eric Giausserand, who’s worked with Barney Willand. Quebecois Charles Papasoff plays baritone sax. The piano — by Bernard, of course — elegantly elaborates on the original, with the sort of respectful enhancement by way of improvisation which is at the heart of jazz. The modest ensemble does a remarkable job of inducing a sweetly sweeping big band sound

Bullitt is one of Schifrin’s greatest achievements. Here Bernard has given it an icy modernist veneer which begins to swiftly defrost under the impact of the irresistible percussion by Daniel Ciampolini and the fat, fleet electric bass played by Philippe Chayeb, aka ‘Fifi’ — “un vrai monstre de la basse”. Tremendous electric guitar, by either Jean-Marie Ecay or Philippe Hervouët, stabbing Hammond B3 by Bernard and trumpet and baritone by Giausserand and Papasoff keep the piece surging until it vanishes down the road. A magnificently funky elaboration of a classic original.

Bernard’s version of Cool Hand Luke — a prolonged and meditative excursion on the piano — sounds as though Bill Evans had decided to explore the possibilities of this film score. An impression confirmed by Schifrin’s own comments on this track in the CD booklet (“It’s as if Bill Evans was still alive!”). At first the music from Dirty Harry, memorably described at the time of the film’s release as a “kinky jazz score”, sounds disconcerting stripped of its eerie female voices. But the presence of the electric guitar by Hervouët and — very appropriately — Kyle Eastwood on electric bass give it new sinews. And the electronic keyboards by Bernard provide a science-fiction shimmer. Papasoff’s baritone has a warm, husky buzz-saw sound.

Lalo’s Bossa Nova is utterly infectious and light hearted. That Night, a song from The Fox features superlative brushwork by François Laizeau on drums and Kimiko Ono’s clarity of diction on the vocal decodes decades of puzzlement about the actual lyrics. The Plot, the second most memorable theme from Mission: Impossible, is a tour de force of percussion by Ciampolini with tight military drumming by Laizeau. And while Duke Ellington used to joke about Ray Nance’s “Strad”, when he played the violin, on Tango del Atardecer (Sunset Tango) Laurent Korcia actually does play a Stradivarius, giving vigorous, insistent nuance to the piece.

Jean-Michel Bernard has approached this project with a sheer joy which is contagious. The album is a revelation and a wonderful starting point for anyone who’s intrigued by the music of Lalo Schifrin — or indeed has simply seen a car commercial scored with the super-cool Bullitt theme, or found Mission: Impossible chugging addictively through their head. But it also breathes fresh life into these beloved pieces so that even the most hardcore Schifrin fan (including yours truly) can discover them anew. It’s a sumptuous and generous package and is an ideal treat for Christmas stockings everywhere.

Categories: miscellaneous

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