Lalo Schifrin, from 'Mission Impossible' to Jazz

Lalo Schifrin has been one of Hollywood's top composers for decades. He started in television, scoring the series The Man From Uncle and the theme for Mission Impossible. Schifrin has also had a long career in the worlds of classical music and jazz. He talks to Liane Hansen about his latest jazz release, Lalo Schifrin and Friends, and about working with opera great Luciano Pavarotti.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Lalo Schifrin is best known as a composer of film and TV scores. His works include the music for "Cool Hand Luke," "Dirty Harry," "Bullet," and "Mannix," and this little jam.

(Soundbite of "Mission: Impossible" score)

HANSEN: What you may not know about Lalo Schifrin is that he's also an accomplished jazz pianist. When he's not working on a movie or TV score, Schifrin often goes into the studio to record a jazz album. As he once told pianist Oscar Peterson, once a jazz musician, always a jazz musician.

Lalo Schifrin's jazz chops are very much in evidence on his new CD. It's called Lalo Schifrin and Friends. And the album includes this Oscar Peterson tune, "Hymn to Freedom."

(Soundbite of "Hymn to Freedom")

HANSEN: Lalo Schifrin is in the studios of NPR West.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. LALO SCHIFRIN (Composer, Jazz Pianist): Oh, it's great to be here.

HANSEN: It's wonderful to have you. That tune we played was the final track on your CD, as well as the final track on Oscar Peterson's Night Train album, which is more than 40 years old. Why did you want to include it on this?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Well, mainly because I liked it. And also, I like the message it bring.

HANSEN: And what is that message?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Well, the title says "Hymn to Freedom." I believe in freedom, that they are so part of the human condition.

HANSEN: Hmm. And the music must have appealed to you too.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Oh, yeah, the music, of course. I mean, I am not a politician or social scientist. So the main thing that appealed to me was the music itself.

HANSEN: Yeah. And now, did you join Dizzy Gillespie's quintet in 1959?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Right. Dizzy Gillespie and his big band. It was the State Department band.

HANSEN: The State Department band.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Yes. The State Department send Dizzy all over the world as a musical ambassador. Let me tell you, his band was a band of all-star. Like Quincy Jones was playing for trumpet in his band.

HANSEN: Huh.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: You know, it was the All Stars, the best American musicians of New York at that time. He came to Argentina, somebody made a party for him in a big place. So I was asked to play with my band a few numbers. So we played for them. So after we finished, Dizzy came to me and said, did you write all these charts? And I said, yes. Would you like to come to United States? I thought he was joking. He wasn't.

HANSEN: No.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I wouldn't be here had not been for that moment.

HANSEN: Yeah. You said you've had many teachers but only one master, and that's Dizzy Gillespie.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Yeah.

HANSEN: Why do you consider him the master?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: They made an interview to him about me. He said I didn't have anything to teach him about me. He learned everything from records, from the recordings I've done before. And it's true.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You cover one of his tunes on this recording, "Tin Tin Deo."

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Yes.

HANSEN: Of all his tunes, why this one?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Because I never played it with him.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: While I was with him, I played many of his compositions but never I played it with him, and I like it.

HANSEN: You're classical trained. Your father was a concert master.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: In the Buenos Aires Philharmonic.

HANSEN: He once said to you that jazz wasn't music because you can't read it or write it. So this was when you were a teenager, he didn't like the fact that you played jazz. I wonder if you think your own love of the music in some way was a rebellion or sort.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: No, it was not a rebellion. It's that - I feel sorry for my father and for all those classical musicians who take that attitude because they don't know what they're missing. Jazz is as good music as any of the good classical music.

HANSEN: Were you ever able to convince your father that jazz was important music?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I didn't have to convince him. When he saw that I was successful, like any father, he became proud of me.

HANSEN: You have done a lot of work in classical music. In fact, you composed and you arranged music for the Three Tenors, one of whom was Luciano Pavarotti, who just passed away.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Yes. Yes.

HANSEN: What can you tell us about working with him?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: You know, it was fantastic. Once, I had a meeting with him in New Year's Eve in his penthouse. All of a sudden, in the middle of the meeting, show a German, a young soprano singer that came with a gentleman. Luciano said to me, oh, I'm sorry. I have to interrupt this meeting with you because I forgot I promised to audition her because there's a Luciano Pavarotti international opera competition. So he asked, is he your pianist? No, he's my boyfriend. Okay. Do you have any music? She didn't have a pianist. And she wanted to sing some (unintelligible). So I said, well, I'll accompany her. So -she was terrible. She was very, very bad. She sang out of tune and she couldn't maintain the voice. And so after a while, Luciano said to her, come to my desk. And he had an enormous desk with that big, big equestrian statue. Said, do you see the details of the muscles of the horse? Do you see all these details? Yes. Do you think that the one who made this statue was a good sculptor? Oh, absolutely. Well, you know, he has something to start with. He had the marble. I'm sorry to tell you this but you don't have the marble.

HANSEN: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I was there so I remember it.

HANSEN: Oh, my.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Well, he had to be honest.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Well, I was 10 years in terms of my classical. There's a news that I like to give you. I just signed a contract from Austria. They had commissioned me to commemorate the second bicentennial of Joseph Haydn's death. And I have to write something on his homage.

HANSEN: Wow.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I'm writing elegy to the memory of Joseph Haydn.

HANSEN: My goodness. You do so much. I mean, you've been going from - I mean, doing scores for movies like "Rush" to doing this, to doing, you know, something, an homage, you know, to Haydn. You seem to be able to switch gears effortlessly. How do you do it?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Because I'm a chameleon.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: I'd think that music is musical(ph) and I was fortunate enough to study it, to study different kinds of music. And the main thing I am fortunate is to understand the essence of their music.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: So because you don't see any borders between the genres, then it all is of a piece to you? It's all music?

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHIFRIN: They said that in music, in general, that it's dramatic. And drama, in Greek, means theater. There's something theatrical about music. The human condition, the human mind, the human heart, is responding constantly to elements of joy, to elements of sadness, to elements of - well, everything that's going on. Unless we are robots, we have to feel something. And the same thing applies to music.

HANSEN: Composer, arranger and pianist Lalo Schifrin. His new CD is called "Lalo Schifrin and Friends," and he joined us from the studios of NPR West.

Thank you so much and good luck.

Mr. SCHIFRIN: Thank you.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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