If Lalo Schifrin had done nothing else but write for and lead a big band throughout his long career, he might have been canonized as one of the giants in the field instead of being considered an occasional enlightened visitor. On the other hand, when he does return to the big band, it’s always a special event, with two or three stellar soloists on hand and Schifrin’s unique voicings on display. So it was at the Catalina Bar and Grill Wednesday night — with an added bonus, as one could hear Schifrin’s charts close up with only minimal amplification.
Over three-quarters of an hour of Schifrin’s hourlong set was devoted to his early calling card, “Gillespiana,” the five-movement suite that Schifrin wrote for his employer-mentor Dizzy Gillespie back in 1960.
More than four decades on, the stature of this epic apotheosis of Gillespie’s bebop, big band and Afro-Cuban-jazz innovations has grown, for it reveals as much about Schifrin as it does about Gillespie. There was a distinct Schifrin personality at work already, with every movement loaded with melodic signatures and suave voicings that would be developed in Schifrin’s later film and TV scores.
Schifrin had presented “Gillespiana” as part of a Playboy Jazz Festival in the mid-1990s, but listening to it in this enclosed, acoustically friendly space free of the garish distortions of the Hollywood Bowl was a far superior experience. Now one could savor the mellow, urbane textures of the four French horns and tuba (replacing a conventional sax section) against the sassier trumpets and trombones. Due perhaps to limited rehearsal time, some brass passages were not immaculately executed on opening night, but the rough edges should melt away further into the run.
Trumpeter Jon Faddis, still our current embodiment of Dizzy Gillespie (physically, he even looks more and more like Gillespie these days), remains a master of florid, stratospheric early Gillespie and subtle, sly, grooving, muted late Gillespie.
He was complemented by Tom Scott — scorching when unleashed on alto sax and impressive on flute; a good, driving percussion team manned by drummer Alex Acuna and Latin percussionists Joey Deleon and Richie Garcia; and Schifrin’s own mostly on-target piano solos.
After “Gillespiana,” the band only had time left for Schifrin’s “Chano,” an attractive, easygoing guajira in remembrance of Gillespie’s Cuban collaborator, conguero Chano Pozo.