Composer, pianist and conductor BORIS CLAUDIO "LALO" SCHIFRIN has made significant contributions to American creative music. While best known for his film and television music, the composer and pianist has also had historic impact in the jazz and classical worlds.
He was born on June 21, 1932, in Buenos Aires to a musical household. His father, Luis, led the second violin section of Argentina's foremost orchestra at the Teatro Colon for three decades.
It was at the age of six that the young Schifrin began a six-year course of study on piano with Enrique Barenboim (d. 1998), father of pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim. For four years Schifrin pursued self study. Then at 16, Schifrin began studying piano with Russian expatriate Andreas Karalis, former head of the Kiev Conservatory, additionally immersing himself in a five-year study of harmony with Argentinean composer Juan-Carlos Paz (1901-72). His fascination for jazz flowered during this time too and he still found time to successfully pursue the study sociology and law at the University of Buenos Aires.
But it was music that clearly swayed Schifrin's attention. At age 20, he applied for a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire. While there, he attended Oliver Messiaen's classes and formally studied with Charles Koechlin, a heralded disciple of Maurice Ravel. At night, he'd earn his living playing jazz in the Paris clubs. In 1955, at age 23, pianist Schifrin represented his country in the International Jazz Festival in Paris.
Returning home to Argentina, Schifrin formed Latin America's first jazz orchestra, a 16-piece band that became part of a popular weekly variety show on Buenos Aires TV. Lalo began accepting other film, television and radio assignments as well. In 1956, Schifrin met Dizzy Gillespie during one of the trumpet legend's State Department tours and the composer offered to write an extended work for Gillespie's big band. Schifrin completed the work, Gillespiana, in 1958, the same year he won Argentina's Academy award for his score to the film El Jefe.
Later that year Schifrin began working as an arranger for Xavier Cugat's popular dance orchestra. While in New York in 1960, Schifrin again met Gillespie, who had by this time disbanded his big band for financial reasons. Gillespie invited Schifrin to fill the vacant piano chair in his quintet. Schifrin immediately accepted and relocated with his wife to New York City.
The Gillespiana suite was recorded in New York City during 1960 -- and gathered notable attention from critics and jazz fans alike. Schifrin quickly ascended to become Gillespie's musical director and the group played festivals and toured Europe as part of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic program. Schifrin, who had already debuted under his own name on records, was recorded frequently with Gillespie through 1962.
The composer provided Gillespie with another brilliant suite in 1962, The New Continent (released in 1965), before leaving the trumpeter's successful organization. Schifrin sought to relieve himself of Gillespie's hectic touring schedule and concentrate on writing for others like Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, singer Pat Thomas and Cal Tjader. He also began accepting commissions for such extended compositions as his highly-regarded The Ritual Of Sound (1963).
In 1963, M-G-M, which had Schifrin under contract, offered the composer his first Hollywood film assignment with the African adventure, Rhino!. Schifrin and his wife relocated to Hollywood in November of that year and immediately set upon an active career in film. In the spring of 1964, he returned to Paris to score Rene Clement's excellent feature film, Joy House (1964). Upon returning to Hollywood, he embarked on his first American TV production, See How They Run (1964), and wrote and arranged two award-winning jazz albums: The Cat for Jimmy Smith and Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts for Paul Horn.
Schifrin worked steadily in Hollywood. But his talents were first recognized by television audiences for his provocative and exceedingly memorable music in shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The C.A.T. and, most notably, Mission: Impossible. His music was so strong, in fact, that it effectively established the character of the shows it was enhancing (much the way Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn" music had several years before). The composer would go on to score other television hits like Medical Center, Starsky & Hutch, Planet of The Apes and, more significantly, the fondly-remembered private-eye show, Mannix.
During this period, Schifrin was actively working in film, producing some of his most notable music ever. The best of his film scores often employed elements of jazz (and jazz musicians) and were most effectively set to action thrillers: Once A Thief (1965), Murderer's Row (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Liquidator (1965), Bullitt (1968), Cool Hand Luke (1968), Kelly's Heroes (1970), Dirty Harry (1971) and Enter the Dragon (1973).
Schifrin has an astute talent to lure a viewer's attention during moments of tension and suspense (whether seriously or comically) is one of his least-discussed gifts and becomes especially evident in these pictures.
Several of Schifrin's orchestral scores, especially The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Amityville Horror (1979), stand out as provocative reminders of his compositional gifts. His orchestral work, while often quite appealing, is surprisingly complex. It is in these classically-oriented works that Schifrin, who often involves intriguing percussive elements in his orchestrations, quite often combines historic musical erudition with accessible motifs that can be enjoyed repeatedly by even casual listeners.
In addition to scores for more than 100 films and television programs, Schifrin has recorded infrequently under his own name -- and not always in jazz. His most notable records include the baroque jazz of Schifrin/Sade (Verve--1966), the rock opera, Rock Requiem (Verve--1971), the disco jazz of Black Widow (CTI--1975) and the swinging orchestral sounds of his recent Jazz Meets The Symphony series. Additionally, Schifrin has written many concertos, operas, cantatas, ballets and theater works as well.
Schifrin, much like Andre Previn (whose unusually similar career does not account for Schifrin's stature as a composer), now spends much of his time in the classical world; conducting and recording with such prestigious orchestras as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. He's also written and arranged for Placido Domingo, Jose Carerras, Angel Romero and Julia Mignes.
Today, Schifrin has extended his popularity with his significant role as principle arranger for the Three Tenors and the Christmas in Vienna series and in occasional scores for such diverse films as the Grammy-nominated Rush Hour (1998), Tango (1998) and Jack of All Trades (2000).
Aleph Records, the independent label wife Donna organized in 1997, has allowed Schifrin more time to devote to his diverse solo recording career. Recent Aleph releases have included Jazz Goes To Hollywood and the Grammy nominated Latin Jazz Suite, new recordings of his classic Gillespiana, Mannix and The Fox scores and reissues of his original music for the Dirty Harry, The Osterman Weekend and The Eagle Has Landed films.
Schifrin, a most gifted composer and musician, currently lives with his wife in Beverly Hills, occupying Groucho Marx's former mansion. Of his three children -- William (40), Frances (35) and Ryan (29) - none have followed in Lalo's musical footsteps (although Ryan has recently been credited as Schifrin's musical consultant). But Lalo Schifrin, at age 69, continues to maintain a hectic pace; conducting world-class orchestras, accepting a variety of commissions, scoring internationally renowned films and exploring a wide diversity of musical genres.
He is a true renaissance artist whose gifts have contributed significantly to the musical vocabulary of the 20th century. And, surely, Lalo Schifrin remains poised to share his remarkable talents well into the new century as well.
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