Lalo Schifrin
New Fantasy






New Fantasy is a big band-focused eight-track Space-Age album by Argentinian composer, conductor and pianist Lalo Schifrin (born 1932) which enchants genre fans due to its fast-paced constructions, superbly euphonious brass eruptions and exotic ingredients, recorded in two consecutive days in June 1964 at the Rudy Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey and released in the same year on Verve Records. Comprising 19 musicians in total, Schifrin's orchestra features brass players en masse and ennobles their impetus with flutists, percussionists and drummers. Most of the eight tracks are not particularly exotic per se, but their Space-Age galvanization is vivaciously gleaming.


On top of these intriguing prospects, Schifrin marries the big band physiognomy with the eclecticism found in Jazz quartets. The wealth of quick tone successions and coils is astonishing and never all too demanding due to the multitudinous amounts of euphony. New Fantasy is over the top, but not by means of melodrama or kitsch rather than esprit and aura. There is only one song where traces of Latin lamentos are injected and another one that is particularly dull and uninspired, but these instances notwithstanding, New Fantasy is an intriguing artifact that is not often mentioned by Exotica fans, and rightfully so, I have to confess, as only two till three of its songs can be considered faintly exotic; these are still a feast even for those listeners who usually despise the concrete jungles aurally painted by big band setups, an allusion that is admittedly nurtured by the front artwork, but luckily outshone and annihilated by the music itself. Which will be the main topic in the next few paragraphs, business as usual.


George Gershwin's Prelude #2 is the gateway to Lalo Schifrin's New Fantasy, but to be quite frank, there is anything particularly new or fantastic about this opener. The wave-like double bass aorta is a prime example of standard Jazz, Schifrin himself is prominently featured on the piano in the infancy stages of the composition, and it is only shortly before the first minute ends that the full power of the 15 dedicated brass musicians is unleashed. Especially J. J. Johnson shines on the lead trombone. This is not even Space-Age music, at least not yet. The tone sequences might be energetic and vivid, but are altogether far too common and normal. Moisés Simons' The Peanut Vendor improves things, especially percussion-wise with a rapid-firing bongo groove, an improvised opening phase with both euphonious and cacophonous brass eruptions, mellow double bass bubbles, and short flecks of Schifrin's piano. The main melody reappears for short moments but otherwise makes room for the electrifying percussion aorta. The fact that this rendition is both long and enormously lively is its big selling factor. Brass fans will rejoice before the labyrinthine climaxes.


Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras #5 follows and changes the soundscape decidedly. Mundell Lowe injects dreamy-languorous guitar chords which lead to a downbeat structure that feels slow as molasses after the hyper-hectic The Peanut Vendor. The melody bathes in melancholia, silky alto flutes waft amid Schifrin's piano tones, the aura is hammock-friendly and the horns enormously dreamy and tame. This, I am sure, is Exotica. Without birdcalls and bongos. But Exotica nonetheless. That Brazilian spirit is figuratively touchable. Side A closes with the title-lending New Fantasy by Larry Green, a short albeit effervescent piece of less than two and a half minutes charged with a catchy rhythm piano, frizzling hi-hat thickets and gargantuan brass fanfares of the partially cacophonous Space-Age kinds. The show tune-resembling structures are clearly here, the warm guitar splinters in adjacency to the warbled flutes and eminently catchy tone sequences make this track one of my favorite Schifrin works of all times. Everything gleams and shines. The tempo is yet again as fulminant as the tune is short. This one is a keeper!


Side B opens with Richard Rodgers' Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, and why not? There are brass stabs aplenty, although the tubas are not as sanguine. The whole interpretation feels unexpectedly lofty, with a clear focus on manifold paradisiac flute airflows, golden piano tercets and exhilarative trumpet flourishes which oscillate between uplifting and mildly tense timbres. In the end, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue is related to New Fantasy texture-wise, but does not fire on all cylinders. Anyway, it is a spacey-convoluted ever-changing critter… recommended! Duke Ellington's The Blues meanwhile inherits the most minimal complexion of the whole album, is almost dreamy due to its sepia-tinted alto flute and sleazy double bass twangs and genteel reeds, but the occasional fully forced brass bursts and arhythmic micro-intersections cause a great level of joyful distress. Believe it or not, but The Blues grows during repeated listening sessions. It is seemingly mild-mannered, but all of a sudden bursts at the seams.


Aram Illitch Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance is next, a composition that is already thunderous in its original carnation, and Schifrin's arrangement is no different. The Middle Eastern tonality is completely neglected in favor of sunset-red and highly enthralling brass vesicles of the blazing kinds. Bongos and timpani clash, sun-soaked rhythm guitars shimmer through the Third-Stream-oriented second half. It is here where the hollowness of the bongos enchants even more. A superb take which successfully unites Jazz, Exotica and complexity. The outro is Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico, a beautiful Lounge tune awash with sunbeams and clouds in the shapes of muted trombones, mellifluous flutes and mild-mannered bass backings. The flute melodies are decidedly Mexican, as are the accompanying brass layers, but soon enough, sunbursts occur and let the brass coatings blow next to everything away before Lalo Schifrin's plinking piano icicles and Mundell Lowe's guitar chords wind the jocular rusticality down a few notches, ending the album with an exotic Acapulco-oid vista.


It might be strikingly dubious to call an album comprising eight interpretations of classic tunes New Fantasy, but naturally, it is more often than not all about renditions of – and takes on – well-known tunes. I do not want to ridicule Lalo Schifrin's endeavor, not at all. New Fantasy is one of those big band albums that grows ever-stronger the more songs pass by. With the exception of the lukewarm rendition of George Gershwin's Prelude #2, the Space-Age theme runs firmly and coherently throughout the album. Add the Exotica traces and occasionally bold doses, and you have a clear winner. I continually write about the many states of brass blasts or even stabs when it comes to big band-oriented music à la Hugo Montenegro's Bongos And Brass (1960) or Dick Schory's percussion-related works (i.e. his complete oeuvre), but here the trumpets, trombones, tubas and saxophones do not only burst, but almost burst into pieces. But bursts, eruptions and explosions are not everything. They also have to reside in the right tone range, or if it is many of them at the same time, need to co-create a polyphony that is captivating to the max, with a bit of everything: quirkiness, wonkiness, good-old harmonies and effulgence.


Regarding the brass-related side, Lalo Schifrin and his orchestra totally deliver! And the remaining parts are perfectly carved out as well. The flutes orbit around exotic, tropical and Latin styles, the double bass accents are often bog standard, but crisp and crunchy. Add a few instances of bongos, congas and droning timpani, and you have a great work. The listener has to be somewhat prepared or skilled, though. He or she must have an affection for eclectic Jazz numbers, for there are some outright rapid songs on this album. Even the slower, mellower material has certain tones and melodies that are akin to the Free Jazz subgenre and is more about the textures and spiraling cascades than melodies in the flesh. These tendencies aside, New Fantasy glitters, sparkles and blazes its way, with the eponymous title track being the show-stopper. To my knowledge, it has never been reissued, but maybe its 50th anniversary will see a remastered version of some form. 


Exotica Review 274: Lalo Schifrin – New Fantasy (1964). Originally published on Oct. 19, 2013 at