Michel Legrand isn't a jazz pianist in the traditional sense, like Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans. Instead, he comes at the artform from a distinctly French perspective, with an emphasis on love, Champagne and laughter. Few modern composers have influenced generations of jazz musicians as deeply as Michel. Over the past 55 years he has written nearly 250 movie scores, and many of his best-known songs have become penetrating and haunting jazz standards. So much so that in some cases these poetic melodies have become inextricably linked to jazz artists who performed them best.
For instance, it's impossible to separate Bill Evans from You Must Believe in Spring. Or Wes Montgomery from Watch What Happens. Or Sarah Vaughan and Bill Evans from What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? Or Idrees Sulieman from The Summer Knows.
For me, what makes a Michel Legrand melody so memorable is that hint of melancholy combined with a soaring sense of possibility. In other words, these songs are very, very French—passionately in love with love but fearful of too long a commitment. Like the sound of a musette—happy and playful but with a touch of sadness.
Last night I had an opportunity to see Michel at Birdland (wooed away from Paris for a rare U.S. club date by producers Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta). Accompanying Michel was the staggeringly superb Ron Carter on bass [pictured] and the ever-delicate Lewis Nash on drums. Michel played only his own movie songs and sang many of them (lyrics mostly by Alan and Marilyn Bergman). At 76, Michel's playing has become lush and mischievous, and his zest for life and beauty seems insatiable. And tireless. The trio went on at 8:45 pm and played until 10:30, covering 12 of his own songs. And he was performing a second set!
Michel opened the first set with Watch What Happens, from the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Michel used swirling patterns and scale runs that sounded as if he were releasing flocks of doves. This tune was followed by Once Upon a Summertime, which he sang in French as a ballad, complete with Chet Baker-like sighing scats. On You Must Believe in Spring, from The Young Girls of Rochefort, Ron Carter turned the song inside out with a woody five-minute solo that easily became one of the evening's high points.
Michel sang What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? in English. The more you hear Michel play and sing, the more you realize he falls in love with his own melodies as he builds pattern after pattern on top of fabulous melody lines. The lights then came down a bit, and Michel sang Papa Can You Hear Me from Yentl in English, and the rendition was heartbreaking. "I don't mean to compete with Barbra Streisand, but I did sing it first, no?" he said, mischievously, in broken English as the audience laughed. The trio picked up the pace immediately afterward with an instrumental rondo.
Next were two songs he recorded with Miles Davis for Dingo, a little-known 1990 film in which Miles plays a veteran trumpeter. The first tune, Lament, was a fusion-esque piece, and The Jam Session, was a showcase for Lewis Nash, whose playing is delightfully strong and tasteful without ever being over the top.
On the Summer Knows, Michel scattered notes and scale runs like stardust. Singer Hilary Cole [pictured] joined him for a duet on How Do You Keep the Music Playing, which was followed by the ballad I Was Born in Love With You. The set ended with a rousing Umbrellas of Cherbourg theme, during which the trio played upward of 10 different rhythms. Michel encouraged the audience to sing along, which at first seemed a bit sticky for a jazz set but somehow worked out better than I thought since there were many professional singers in the packed club.
Of course, Michel could have played for the next week and a half straight and would never have repeated a song. In addition to scoring for film and television, he has written several musicals and recorded well over a hundred albums. He has been nominated for 13 Oscars, won three of them, has won five Grammys, and has been nominated for an Emmy. Most recently he wrote the music for Marguerite, a musical that opens in London in May.
Michel's first jazz job was in 1954, writing the arrangements for a French big band backing pianist Blossom Dearie [pictured] and a French vocalese group known as the Blue Stars. Michel's sister, Christiane Legrand, was one of the vocalists, and would up becoming a member of The Swingle Singers.
Michel's first big jazz break came in June 1958, when he arranged and conducted the album Legrand Jazz. The two all-star recording sessions in New York included Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, Teo Macero, Art Farmer and other jazz giants. In 1959, Michel was back in Paris to record Legrand Piano, along with a French bassist and drummer. The album of songs associated with France and Paris was a big hit.
In the early 1960s, Michel wrote for the French cinema and recorded a few jazz albums. Worldwide fame arrived after he scored director Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), in which all the dialogue was sung and set to music. The film introduced two songs that would quickly become standards—Watch What Happens and the movie's theme. The follow-up film by Demy and Michel, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966), also featured sung-through dialogue and introduced the standard You Must Believe in Spring.
After the success of Watch What Happens and You Must Believe in Spring, the work poured, and Michel began a furious writing pace—scoring as many as eight films a year. New standards included Windmills of Your Mind from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) The Hands of Time from the TV hit Brian's Song (1970) and The Summer Knows from The Summer of '42 (1971). Since then, Michel has scored for dozens of well-known films.
Michel's songs are both sad and sweet, in major and minor keys—jolie laide, if you will. They remind you of a place you've been and remind you of people you've known—even if you've never been to those places or known those people. He manages to create a nostalgic mood that breaks free from the usual mawkish movie-score traps, pulling you in and engaging you on a personal level. That's what happens when a French jazz pianist goes Hollywood.
JazzWax tracks. Michel's earliest recordings—his arrangements for Blossom Dearie and The Blue Stars—are available here or at iTunes on Blossom Dearie: The Pianist/Les Blue Stars. His trio album of all French songs, I Love Paris, is available here or as an iTunes download from Jazz in Paris: Jazz Paris Piano.
My favorite Michel Legrand movie soundtracks are The Thomas Crown Affair, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. All remain edgy and rich with French accents. The Thomas Crown Affair is available at iTunes. The Young Girls of Rochefort was recently remastered and is available here. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has not been reissued in the U.S. but is available as an import. The one I own is fabulous—it's a double CD with fabulous fidelity and includes all of the movie's music, not just excerpts. It's available here.
And by the way, all three films are must-sees and are available at Netflix.
If you want to hear Michel conduct a full orchestra playing his best-known hits, buy The Essential Michel Legrand Film Music Collection here or download it at iTunes.
And Miles Davis playing Michel's score for the movie Dingo can be downloaded at iTunes or purchased here.