With Michel Legrand already regarded as an elder statesman of jazz & film music, it’s unsurprising his recordings of late have focused on his prior film hits, and Silva’s 2-CD set features a new recording of suites and themes recorded in Moscow, and produced by King Records of Japan.
The production values are top-notch, and Legrand’s arrangements are more easy-going in this set, fleshing out themes into more leisurely renditions with the composer contributing short piano solos.
CD 1 starts off with typically lush orchestral version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s main theme, and the score also closes the disc with the film’s “Watch What Happens,” featuring a gentle interplay between harp, pizzicato strings, and the gradual addition of heraldic trumpets. Strings perform the theme’s B-section, and after a lengthy harp solo, brass and strings close the cue with a quick melodic restatement.
Umbrella’s sequel, The Women of Rochefort, also features elegant solo work on harp, as does Summer of ’42, with a lovely balance between harp and tender, gushing strings. Legrand’s themes tend to begin with a melodic hook that often leads to a big orchestral surge, and Summer follows the pattern, right down to the slight harmonic dissonance in the final bars which infer a romance destined to be cut short.
A lighter orchestral palette is used for Once Upon a Summertime, whereas the syrupy theme from Brain’s Song is given an up-tempo arrangement. The fusion of pop and classical has Legrand on piano augmented by drums and electric bass, with the gradual addition of full orchestra followed by a quick solo wrap-up on piano.
Dingo marked a reunion with Legrand and Miles Davis, going back to their 1958 Polygram LP Legrand Jazz, where Legrand’s intro to North American audiences featured jazz standards performed by Legrand and a top-notch collection of American jazz artists, including John Coltrane. With Dingo, Legrand not only composed the music, but Davis performed and also played the key role of an aging jazz musician onscreen, and the film marked one of his final works. Legrand’s vocals are a bit off now and then, but it’s an amiable character theme that nails the wistfulness of an aging artist reflecting on his career highs and lows.
Wuthering Heights is inarguably one of Legrand’s best compositions, and it reflects his peak period during the late sixties and early seventies when he composed themes for a series of melancholic characters. The tragedy and Gothic weight of the Bronte story is conveyed through grinding bass lines on strings, whereas one man’s inner conflict at being bored with life and unsure of his place in work and love comes through in “The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair [M]. “Windmills” – arranged by Legrand in a quasi-piano concerto - has a tempo that’s hastened by fast-flowing lyrics which suggest an imminent collision, whereas “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life” from The Happy Ending is a perfect evocation of desperation, freedom and anticipation rolled into one simple, wrenchingly beautiful little theme.
Although Gable and Lombard was a bit of a dud, the score featured a tender theme which Legrand has arranged to evoke the classical Hollywood sound of high register notes on strings as filtered through contemporary ears. Classicism also dominates the fugue-heavy The Scoundrel, as well as the suite from The Three Musketeers, with its strikingly dissonant title music, buoyant ‘merriment’ theme (updated with electric bass and drums), lilting harmonies for M’Lady, and final material from the film’s finale (similarly goosed with bass and drums). Thickly intertwining strings and twirling woodwinds dominate the final cue for The Hunter, and while Legrand’s score may not have fit the ill-fated film (in Europe, his music was replaced by a score composed by Charles Bernstein), but it punctuated Steve McQueen’s final film with a some heartfelt emotions (even if the fluttering and twirling motifs are overused).
In addition to film themes, the set contains a trio of non-films works that add some loftiness between the otherwise dramatic cuts. “Di-Gue-Ding-Ding” is a flip-flopping ditty with flightly strings figures and electric bass; Oum the Dauphin is represented by ts quirky, spirited theme; and there’s a semi-successful orchestral version of the racing theme from Le Mans, a suite from Yentl, and the bittersweet theme from Les uns et les autres, with its elliptical structure.
The non-film “Family Fugue” begins with rapid circular patterns performed by a chamber string orchestra prior to lengthy solo work from Legrand on piano. The flowing 9 minutes cue is somewhat reminiscent of his 14 mins. “Image” composition from the eponymously titled 1975 album, headlined by Legrand and saxophonist Phil Woods.
Legrand’s strength has always been creating simple, elegantly orchestrated themes which lend themselves to classical and jazz arrangements, but rather than explore themes through diverse or extreme orchestral arrangements, he prefers jazz improvisations, which tend to make straight theme presentations outside of jazz rather repetitive.
Perhaps he regards classical orchestral arranging as wholly formal, and jazz as the sole venue where he can explore a theme on a personal level. “Family Fugue” illustrates his knack for integrating improv within an orchestral jazz setting, but those wanting more diversity will prefer Legrand’s jazz albums, and parts of his filmed concerts (such as Michel Legrand: Live in Brussels) which feature the composer performing themes on piano in orchestral + small jazz combinations.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan