When a studio or TV network didn't feel a soundtrack album was worth the time and effort, they sometimes commissioned a single, and these short works of ephemera were eventually forgotten in piles of old 45s, or ended up as minor footnotes in a composer's discography.
Lalo Schifrin's early years had the composer writing for TV and film, and a number of his early themes were represented on 45's - some of which have been collected on this must-have compilation album from Germany label Motor.
Compiled and annotated by Frank Jastfelder and Stefan Kassel - authors of the 1997 graphic retrospective, The Album Cover Art of Soundtracks - Mission Impossible... and More! The Best of Lalo Schifrin (1962-1972) assembles some previously released tracks from the sixties TV show, including the titular theme and "Jim on the Move" (both from the 1967 Dot Records LP/One Way Records CD), "Danube Incident" (More Mission: Impossible from the Paramount LP/Once Way CD) plus tracks from Bullitt ("Main Title" and "On the Way to San Mateo") and a bevy of material previously unavailable on CD.
After the obligatory Mission nods, we're treated to four cuts from the 1962 album, Insensatez, recorded and released by Verve as the bossa nova craze was in full swing. "The Wave" begins with a repeated bass figure on piano, which is gradually surrounded by small percussion, strings, and dreamy harp. Schifrin improvs for a lengthy periods, and the track is a marvelous demonstration of shifting colours: the piano carryies the hard rhythm and bittersweet melodic lines, and the strings erupt in a huge wave, carrying the melody in one giant sweep, without any piano accompaniment.
"Lalo's Bossa Nova (Samba Para Dos)" offers a more carnival atmosphere, with smaller percussion in the peripherals, a lofty melody, and Schifrin's quirky writing for strings, which has the violins playing in high registers, twisting and stretching notes like rubber strips. It's one of the composer's most identifiable stylistic trademarks, and was more interestingly applied to female vocals in his Magnum Force theme.
The success of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story spawned a number of best-selling albums during the sixties - Andre Previn and Shelly Manne did combo versions for Contemporary Records - so it's no surprise "Maria" would fall into Schifrin's hands - but in a weirdly arranged version. Given the bossa nova spin, the cue begins with panicked strings and subtle percussion before a dissonant bridge establishes the theme's intro bars. Piano takes over the melody, and the cue basically trades specific bars between piano and strings. It's almost as nutty as Pete Jolly's samba version of Elmer Bernstein's To Kill a Mockingbird theme, and shows a composer having some fun with a popular style, knowing the hit song was being beaten to death by the music industry.
"Rio After Dark" evokes a waterside stroll at night, with the harp plucking a repeated four note spiral, and piano and strings trading longer melodic chunks. As with prior excerpts from the Insensatez album, each cue's second half allots some improv space for Schifrin, but the length of each cut - timed for radio play - basically reduces the tracks to less than 3 minute vignettes.
"Lalo's Bossa Nova" could easily be stretched into one marathon cut, and it's a pity Verve's populist albums of the period tended to favour short and sweet; their Jazz at the Philharmonic concert LPs were much longer but those albums clearly aimed at jazz connoisseurs, while works such as Walt Dickerson's dense Patch of Blue LP - based on themes from Jerry Goldsmith's titular score - had tracks that couldn't be arranged or chopped down to under two minutes.
Schifrin's TV output is also represented by "The Man from THRUSH," taken from the 1965 album, Once a Thief and Other Themes." A kind of swinging burlesque, the track uses low-key percussion for the intro and largely engages in a smooth, stereo dialogue between the trumpet & sax on the right side, and trombones on the left. Schifrin's piano breaks up the silky strut, and the track's tone of subdued finesses - with a raucous conclusion - recalls similar cues in Bullitt, particularly "On the Way to San Mateo."
Also from the Thief album is a bopping version of "The Cat," from Joy House / Les Felins . With Freddie Hubbard improvising on trumpet, it's a more jazz-rock version, and the performances are in line with Lee Morgan's post- Sidewinder compositions: a screaming declaration, an addictive rhythm, and long stretches of improv (though here it's obviously compacted into a 2:39 cue).
"Bachianas Brasileiras #5" has Schifrin folding a classical theme into a subdued jazz format, with an easy tempo, muted brass, brushes on drums, soulful flute, and Mundell Lowe's soft guitar. The cue originates from the 1964 Verve album, New Fantasy.
One of Schifrin's best themes was for The Venetian Affair (1966), and lucky for us it was recorded as a single. Re-channeled into bogus stereo and plopped onto MGM's 1970 compilation album, Medical Center and Other Great Themes, the track uses a thick electric bass, tapping percussion, and repeated theme on concertina.
What's special about this cue is the instrumentation that presages the urban jazz sound of Dirty Harry. Schifrin establishes his bass line (quite similar to Bullitt), adds the two-part melody (the curious hook, and danger-laden second half), and keeps alternating his instrumental colours - including what's best characterized as a liquid bass that dances with the percussion during the theme's B-section. The track closes with some improv on organ, recalling the instrument's heavy use in Schifrin's 1966 score, Murderers Row.
Arguably the best cue on Motor's CD is "Theme from Dirty Harry," which presages the rock-jazz style of his Starsky and Hutch theme. A big emphasis on percussion, brass, and keyboards basically repeat the theme's bass line before drums, funky guitar and wordless vocals take over the main theme. Being a single, this amazing track fades out just as it gets going, leaving us, well, kind of cheated by the awfully short time limit. (With the orchestra and band present, one wishes the composer could have sneaked in a 10 min. jam session, just for posterity.)
Less successful is the funked up Medical Center theme, also taken from a single and plopped onto the MGM compilation album. An early synth keyboard - ah, those sharp, clinical tones - plays the melodic line, but there's some nice, wild organ work in the track's mid-section. The use of synth is intriguing, though, as Schifrin has it start up like a hand-cranked siren before it reaches full volume and plays actual whole notes.
From Jimmy Smith's 1968 Verve album, Livin' It Up, it's the organist's own slick version of the Mission theme. Typically smooth improvs from Smith, with notes grooving an noodling in long, focused sections, while brass accents and strings shoot from the sides, and bongos keep the track's beat steady. It's the perfect closer for Motor's exemplary CD, and jazz fans will like two previously unreleased tracks - "Anpacondra Soul" and "The 'In' Crowd." (Both were unearthed from the same 1965 recording session, with the latter a light rendition of the tune made famous by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, and the former a funny tune that has a band member regularly shouting "Hey!")
Motor's CD comes with a fat black booklet with detailed liner notes and bio material (German only), lots of stills, and superb art direction from Stefan Kassel. What's disheartening is how so much of Schifrin's Verve and MGM albums remains unavailable on CD. Polygram's jazz reissues in the 1990s finally brought out Walt Dickerson's Impressions of A Patch of Blue (limited edition only) and the Stan Getz/Eddie Sauter Mickey One, but none of Schifrin's film-related albums were part of the series, so fans will have to wait, and hope that Aleph's steady slate of CDs will bring more of the composer's lost and neglected work back into circulation.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan