Taped at the Flagey Studio 4 Concert Hall in Brussels, this 2005 concert features Michel Legrand conducting the Flemish Radio Orchestra, performing orchestral suites and themes from his film work, after which the lights are dimmed, and Legrand engages in a series of jazz performances and original chansons, accompanied by guitarist Peter Verbraken, Bari Denolf on double bass, and drummer Jean-Philippe Komac.
The DVD includes the concert’s two halves, Film Scores, and Jazz & Chansons.
It’s easy to brand Legrand’s style as a bit old-fashioned, perhaps due to his adoration for strong melody, and heavy use of strings with flittering, decorative ornamentation on woodwinds and brass. Yet his style, both as a jazz artist and orchestral composer are unique, making his transposition of jazz improve into an orchestral setting distinct from his contemporaries.
The key lies in the way he expresses a theme in improv, with elegant (and sometimes maniacal) cascades of notes, and his pauses in mid-thought that allow for sometimes quixotic tangents before continuing onwards a the theme’s conclusion.
Strings often play in sentimentally high registers, yet he also experiments with levels of lushness; notes seem to breathe when played by an array of violins, rising to airy heights, bet never losing grip of a theme’s emotional heart. On jazz piano, Legrand’s hands often fiddle with a theme for a few bears, investigating a quick set of patterns; those short expressive bursts often appear as quick figures on brass or flutes in an orchestral environment, and theme fragments are passed on from harp to flutes, sax to oboe or piano.
Melody is always present in his writing, be it in an orchestral setting or within the more free-spirited realm of a jazz combo, and this taping of Legrand’s televised concert will please and impress fans fond of his scores, and his brilliant piano solos.
The orchestral selections begin with a suite from 1975’s The Three Musketeers (9:00), encompassing the main titles (minus harpsichord), the raucous duel music when D’Artagnan first battle with the king’s guards with ‘aid’ from the musketeers , the lilting semi-tragic love theme, and the counter-punctual duel music for the finale, with a lyrical bridge delicately augmented by a jazzy bass line.
Legrand’s main theme from 1982’s Best Friends, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (6:35) has solo saxophone (Herve Meschinet) gently nestled between soft and full-on orchestral support; and the title theme from Legrand’s only James Bond film, 1983’s Never Say Never Again (4:25) fuses the rock beat of Domino’s dance number with lush orchestral elements – strings, trombones, and solo trumpet, plus little rest periods where flutes, clarinet and oboe recap the song’s opening rhythmic bars.
Solo muted trumpet (Claude Egea) covers the bluesy main theme of Dingo (5:42), a 1991 collaboration between Legrand and Miles Davis, and the last film score of the latter, and the orchestral part of the evening closes with a sweeping orchestral jazz version of 1967’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (6:41), 1971’s Summer of ’42 (6:31), and 1983’s Yentl (14:29).
The Rochefort theme has trumpet and piano (Legrand) moving between solos and duets, with the orchestra swinging back with specific sections highlighting Legrand’s brass writing, and there’s a clever moment at the beginning of the piece when the strings mimic ethereal female voices. Summer of ’42, the classic seventies weepy, still manages to capture the painful memory of an ephemeral romance, with its beautiful balance between soft, semi-tragic strings, and swaggering sax solo.
Whether one has an affection for Barbara Streisand’s Yentl or loathes her attempt at creating an epic, old fashioned (and improbable) musical romance, Legrand’s main theme is effectively intimate and tender, and transcends the film’s most overt flaws. The delicate main theme is played on harp by Catherine Michel, and its elongated development bookends the suite, nestling more voluminous (and arguably maudlin) instrumental quotes of the score’s vocal material in the midsection.
For the evening’s second half, Legrand emerges again from the green room, and steps onto the darkened stage which he stares with guitarist Verbraken, Bassist Denolf, and drummer Komack.
The set’s themes range from film work and chansons – the latter pretty much fresh for English language fans unfamiliar with his early work in France, where he blended jazz and French folk songs.
The Jazz & Chansons programme begins with the classic “Watch What Happens” from 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (8:28), followed by Legrand singing the first song he ever wrote, “Once Upon a Summertime / La Valse des Lilas” (4:48), which contains the basics of Legrand’s songwriting harmonic structure. “Lilas” is laden with a sense of fond memories, and the delicate tones that Legrand stretches from sung lyrics to jazz scat are indicative of the way he crafted songs during the late sixties, (particularly “Windmills of the Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair).
Next comes Legrand's tribute to bassist Ray Brown, “Ray’s Blues” (9:23), the longest piece among the jazz works where each musician is given time to perform a solid solo. At 76, Legrand sounds as clean and jovial as his 1960s performances, and his best moments occur in “Family Fugue” (6:14), wherein the piece starts classical, drifts into a tight and intense streaming jazz style, and Legrand engages in long, intimate dialogues with himself, fiddling with the fugue as a mercurial fusion piece.
The jazz/chanson includes three more vocals: “Edith” (5:13), a gentle tribute to Edith Piaf, in which Legrand took the poetic words of Jean Drejac and spun it into a song; and “Le Vieux Costume” (3:46) and “The Break-Up / Rupture” (5:32), both also based on Drejac poems.
As a host, Legrand is quite charming, and he makes a few cheeky comments about his work, such as the intro to “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?” (6:07), the popular theme from The Happy Ending, a 1969 Richard Brooks film that flopped and disappeared fast from cinemas. Legrand sings the main lyrics in English (the opening bars are quite poignant), and the quartet moves on to some gentle improv on what’s perhaps his most wrenching theme (and a worthy contender to eternally weepy jazz standards like “My Funny Valentine”).
The evening closes with the quartet running with the main theme from Umbrellas of Cherbourg (5:55), in which they go through straight, jazz, Bossa Nova, Tango, Dixieland, and Russian folk, which amuses the audience.
The DVD transfer is very clean, and the audio mix comes in Stereo, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. Although Legrand speaks only in French, his small chatter before a performance and addresses to the audience are subtitled in optional English and German. Stephane Lerouge’s liner notes provide a compact tribute to Legrand, whose career has spanned songwriting, jazz, and film music, and introduced a distinct French voice to film in the 1950s.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan