Mission Impossible. Lalo Schifrin composed the theme song for that TV show, and the title is the perfect description of how I feel about reviewing a musician of his fame and versatility. Schifrin was born in Argentina where he trained as a classical pianist and composer. Jazz appealed to him early on and in the 1950s that led to his best known jazz gig with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet. Since then he has written classical pieces, popular songs and the sound tracks for over 100 films. Among other awards he has four Grammys and six Oscar nominations.
But does he still have his jazz chops?
Lalo Schifrin and Friends is a painless way to find out, especially when friends like James Moody, Dennis Budimir and James Morrison take turns filling out a quartet always anchored by Schifrin’s piano trio. Six of the nine tunes were written for this album by the leader (who is celebrating his 75th birthday). The other three are jazz standards. Although the tempos vary, the mood is on the relaxed side the genial mood you’d expect when friends get together to play because they enjoy doing it.
"Besame Mucho" kicks things off. It is a strong track that gives James Morrison a chance to show off his Gillespie-like technique. The arrangement even quotes briefly from "Manteca" to drive home the point. The Latin standard has Peruvian drummer Alex Acuña at home in a creative groove, while Schifrin’s solo could sometimes be mistaken for that of one of the great Cuban players. "Tin Tin Daeo" is an even more direct reminder of Gillespie, although guitarist Budimir takes the lead in a softer treatment than Dizzy fans will remember.
The originals are worthy of a famous pop composer. Any of them would slide easily into a movie soundtrack and perhaps compete for yet another award. They work for a jazz quartet as well, especially when played by these solid pros. Schifrin’s "Winter Landscape" is the lone pure-trio track and, with its less-expected harmonies, the most memorable of the album’s ballads.
Musicianship is outstanding throughout. Budimir, a versatile first-call studio guitarist, plays at the edge of soft jazz on his three tracks. Morrison shows he’s at home on trombone in the jaunty "Free Parking," switching back to trumpet for the closing chorus. Moody sticks to his dry, light-vibrato, boppish tenor for all of his solos.
Acuña’s drum work is light and musical, and the bass of Brian Bromberg is crisp, always solidly on beat and in tune whether he is soloing or providing a firm foundation for the quartet.
So yes, even if the fingers aren’t quite as nimble at fast tempos as they were 50 years ago, Lalo Schifrin remains a credible jazz player.
And he has some great friends. Fans of mainstream jazz won’t be disappointed.