Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jazz and Justice

The Dirty Harry Series Scores by Lalo Schifrin (and Jerry Fielding)

Crime jazz. Felonious funk. Whatever you want to call it, the Dirty Harry soundtracks by Lalo Schifrin (and Jerry Fielding) are a mighty blast from two big guns of '70s film scoring, Schifrin, an Argentinean virtuoso jazz pianist, was best known for his pulse-pounding “Mission: Impossible” theme when he got the Dirty Harry assignment, and free agent Fielding grabbed the brass ring when "Schif" was briefly off the case, pursuing another beat.

Thankfully, Schifrin’s record label, Aleph, has seen fit to reissue the full scores for all of the Dirty Harry movies: Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988).

What all of these scores share in common is a gritty, dramatic, sometimes abrasive approach to cinematic jazz.

The score for Dirty Harry may not be as immediately accessible as some of Schifrin's other scores. On the title track the push and pull of Harry Callahan's protracted struggle with the serial killer, Scorpio, is convincingly realized through the stop and start of the rhythm section and the slow rise and fall of heat-haze synthesizer. When the clattering percussion and rumbling electric bass are in motion they evoke Harry on the warpath, tracking his prey. When the rhythms take a breather, it's like Harry's hit a snag.

Tension drives the Dirty Harry score, wherein Schifrin explores the darkest tones -- much darker in fact than anything else he'd done up to that time. Just check out the fat, abrasive electric guitar on "The School Bus" – it's Schifrin at his spikiest. Throughout the score, Schifrin expertly balances funky bass and percussion with sinister woodwinds and brass, dissonant strings and disquieting keyboard lines.

There are some relatively lighter moments. "Harry's Hot Dog" sounds like the lost theme song for a Good Times spin-off sitcom. "No More Lies, Girl" is a slow soul number that wouldn't sound out of place on a blaxploitation score. "Red Light District" is more like two disparate numbers as it segues from gentle ballad to Caribbean folk dance. "Off Duty" is a lively bit of convincing post bop jamming, but the good time rock of "The Strip Club" is more evocative of a soft drink commercial than of a titty bar. It should be noted that these tracks are missing from the bootleg CD version of Dirty Harry.

Where Dirty Harry excels is in the funky evocation of San Francisco's mean streets. At its best, Schifrin's score comes off as the aural equivalent of Clint Eastwood's grim steely expression in the cover art. It makes you want to ask yourself: "Do you feel lucky? Well do you, punk?" Now that the Dirty Harry score has received an official release the answer is resoundingly "Yes!"

Magnum Force picks up from where Dirty Harry left off. What fans love about the original — restless percussion, rumbling bass lines, jazzy keyboards and dissonant strings — can be heard on Schifrin's score for the sequel. The powerhouse main title cut will rip your head off if you're not careful. It even has a killer drum break!

Like the film itself, Schifrin's score is a hair less abrasive and discordant than on Dirty Harry, but the sound is still fiercely aggressive. The name of the game here is action, not anxiety. Many of the 22 tracks bristle with balls-to-the-wall crime-fighting intensity. Like any crime soundtrack, however, there are soft moments, too ("Harry's New Friend" and "Warm Enough?").

The Enforcer was the only DH film that Jerry Fielding scored, though he was — along with Schifrin — one of Clint Eastwood's most frequent scorers during the actor's most productive period. Following The Enforcer Fielding also scored Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales ('76), The Gauntlet ('77), and shortly before the composer died, Escape from Alcatraz ('79).

This is the sound of Fielding at his most vital and vivacious. He makes no attempt to reinvent the DH sound, and shrewdly follows Schifrin's established style for the series through the deft use of throbbing electric bass, wah guitar rhythms, percolating percussion, dissonant strings, brash brass and keyboard atmospherics. "Rooftop Chase" is the requisite bit of cop funk, but other tracks such as "Warehouse Heist" and "Alcatraz Encounter" are tenser and exercise Fielding's mastery of texture and ambience.

It's really quite apparent that Fielding is having a ball. The sound he's cooked up is by turns lean and mean, funky, swinging and — most surprisingly for a hard-as-nails cop drama — emotionally poignant. That's because he builds the score around Harry Callahan's new, ill-fated partner Inspector Kate Moore (played by Tyne Daly, who contributes to the liner notes). This feisty female match for Dirty Harry provides Fielding with an emotional focal point. That's not to say The Enforcer is soft — it's compellingly tender when it needs to be — but otherwise just as tough as anything on the series' first two soundtracks.

After The Enforcer the character of Dirty Harry was dead and buried as far as Clint Eastwood was concerned. He had no intentions of making another, or so the story goes. But Warner Bros. needed a sure-fire hit in '83, and Clint came to their rescue with Sudden Impact, with Schifrin back riding shotgun.

Since it was a new decade — a new era of pumped-up action movies – Schifrin updated his sound with synths that mimic turntablist scratches as well as strings and brass – notably on the up-tempo "Main Title." There also are drum machines and funky slap bass. It's Schifrin gone hip-hop! It's '80s crime funk for a new generation.

"Murder by the Sea" starts innocently enough with smooth jazz-funk, as a chiming keyboard solo tinkles away over a "urban" groove. Halfway through, the groove fades, leaving a spacy sinister mood for violins, woodwinds and piano.

The dichotomy of contemporary style and old school scoring chops continue throughout the score.

On "Frisco Night," pulsing synths and throbbing bass trade passages with dissonant strings and undulating horn tones and echoing percussion to create tension and disorientation.

On "Cocktails of Fire," Schifrin gets into one of his sure-fire action-funk grooves where the rhythm section plays without embellishment for several bars at a time. And when the embellishment comes it's always minimal and tremendously effective.

For all of the tension, there are a number of quiet, somber, soothing and even romantic moods where the, keys, strings and brass come across in reassuringly familiar tones, such as on "The Road to San Paolo" and "You've Come Along Way." Occasionally, as on "Ginley's Bar," the mood gives way to a distinctly '80s brand of instrumental rock.

The oddest bits are carousel organ music for scenes of freaky terror ("Unicorn's Head").

What's striking about Sudden Impact is Schifrin ability to update the "Dirty Harry" sound for the decade of big shoulder pads and bigger hair without getting cheesy about it.

Schifrin's fourth "Dirty Harry" soundtrack (for the fifth movie in the series) demonstrates, once again, the composer's ability to update his crime scoring style for the times — in this case the late '80s.

The updating is most apparent in the midi keyboard textures and occasional use of drum machines. At times (as on "Main Title") the synth sounds gimmicky and dated, but when Schifrin gets into the meat of the score he blends the synths more effectively with brass, strings, percussion. As is Schifrin's habit, he also employs exotic instruments such as a waterphone, which lends itself well to the score's sinister sections.

Since The Dead Pool has never been released before, the listener is treated to suites of short cues taken chronologically from the film. This means that the mood often shifts dramatically within a each track, from serene to action-packed to tense. Schifrin infrequently quotes from his original "Dirty Harry" score.

As on his previous "Dirty Harry" scores, Schifrin never fails to convey the twisted logic of the psychotic killers that Harry Callahan must bring to justice. Searing strings, blaring brass and pummeling percussion ratchet up the tension again and again (as on "The Rules," "The Car" and "Kidnap and Rescue").

The score concludes with a smooth jazz rendition of the "Dirty Harry" love theme, which reminds one again of the '80s, but manages to steer clear of cheesiness.

Overall, The Dead Pool is a fitting finish to the Dirty Harry saga, and one of Schifrin's better efforts from the era.

These CD reviews originally appeared on the author's website www.ScoreBaby.com

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