In a rare Gotham club turn, versatile composer, conductor, arranger and pianist Lalo Schifrin helmed an all-star lineup for a weeklong Blue Note stand to celebrate his 70th birthday. The bursting collective spirit of the quintet resonated with a rare sense of form and balance. Schifrin plays with exceptional imagination, and he adheres to a boldly defined sense of texture and melodic form.
An opening set was dominated by Schifrin’s own richly varied suite, commonly known as “Gillespiana.” The composer was a protege of Dizzy Gillespie, imported from Argentina to play with him and write charts for the band, several of which became milestones in Dizzy’s expansive career. The five-part suite is a colorful twist on concerto grosso, which leaves plenty of room for the guys to wail. Originally written for a big band and a hot Latin rhythm section, the 40-year-old suite has been pared down for a quintet setting, and the joys abound.
It’s a chamber piece now, whipped into the starting gate by Jon Faddis — also a Diz protege — playing an aggressively colorful trumpet line, and followed by an expressive saxophone interlude from Dick Oatts. Schifrin supplied bold block chords runs. Especially notable were his low-register designs.
“Blues” was the funky highlight of the hour, with a beautiful muted solo by Faddis and Oatts adding a lyrical flute line. The changes were familiar, setting the pace for an infectious mood. Grady Tate on drums and the pulsating bass of Ray Drummond framed the action with bold, firm support. The racing tempo of “Pan Americana” provided Schifrin with an eloquent moment to dig into Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Faddis was high and wide, and colorfully wide open, on “Africana,” the fourth movement, which was designed for its musical origins with its loping, lumbering tempo. The exotic finale, “Toccota,” served as a flashy frame for Tate’s explosive drum solo.
The suite demonstrated the subtle skill of Schifrin’s talent in dealing with varied time signatures and for remodeling a sprawling orchestral suite for the more intimate demands of a quintet.
Schifrin also offered a tribute to the late bassist Ray Brown, who is featured on the composer’s latest Aleph CD, “Return of the Marquis de Sade.” Drummond soloed with Brown’s “Blues in the Bass-Ment,” skillfully toying with tempo changes and employing supple rhythmic strength.