Jazz: Mission: accomplished
Tuesday 13 January 1998
BBC Big Band
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The prolific Argentinian-born jazz and film composer, Lalo Schifrin, will for ever be best known for one piece. The lolloping additive rhythm of his theme to Mission: Impossible is the perfect corollary to the tune's expert marriage of the ethereal (mysterious flutes chromatically elaborating the basic blues progression) and the visceral (the thumping bassline and brass stabs) - a joyous fusion characteristic of much of his Sunday-night concert with the BBC Big Band.
Creamy sax-and-horn harmonies over fast backings ("Street Lights") or splendidly lazy swing ("Blues For Basie") would give way in the first half's assorted pieces to huge, randy tutti, delicate false fade-outs, and several great dissonant endings. As compere and conductor, Schifrin came across like a slimmer, more cultured avatar of Julio Iglesias, with a seductive wit. Introducing the theme from Bullitt, for example, he told us sadly: "I feel responsible for the demolition of thousands of cars, because this film started the trend for car chases ..."
When he ambled over to the piano, on the other hand, it became clear why Dizzy Gillespie hired him as pianist and arranger in 1958: his playing was an inventive mix of bubbling improvisations, and polyrhythmic chordal interludes. The BBC Big Band blew consistently both expansive and breathtakingly tight, well deserving Schifrin's warm tribute: "I told my wife that for my next birthday I want this band as a gift."
The concert's main event was the second-half performance of Schifrin's five-part jazz suite, Gillespiana, composed for his old boss. The orchestration was, in Schifrin's own words, a "jazz quintet surrounded by a brass band", so off went the massed saxes and on came Australian trumpeter James Morrison and the young British musician Nigel Hitchcock, doubling alto sax and flute. A boppish prelude gave way to a deliciously contemplative blues, whose opening was all melancholic slides and slaps by the terrific bassist Roy Babbington, while muted trumpets stole into the soundscape like city lights in an early-morning haze. The third section, "Pan-Americana", was all Latin raunch, and then "Africana" melded elephantine blarings to a monster ground bass - for the first time, Schifrin was moved to hit the piano rather than nonchalantly caressing it.
Throughout, the soloists had plenty of opportunities to show off. Hitchcock, not often a convincing flautist, did little more on alto than persistently demonstrate the speediness of his fingers. But Morrison was powerfully good, teasing moaning, melodic lines from the very bottom register and then throwing little upward doits on the end of thrilling high notes. The final section, "Toccata", again used a constant bass riff under a breakneck bouncy tempo for a wild synthesis of all that had gone before.
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