Though Michel Legrand’s eyes finally closed after a rich seventy-year career, our ears will continue to resonate for a long time with the subtleties of his melodies.
A pianist, a composer of potent, heady melodies, a sought-after arranger… Legrand was also a singer with a fragile voice that was perfect for ballads. On route to shaping his signature comedy-musical “à la française,” he passed through many genre territories including jazz and the variety of French musical heritage. We can thank him – we already have done – for maintaining jazz accents, in his most creative hours, through his furtherance of French musical variety, and for having imposed this style on film music as a whole.
This is inscribed in all our memories and the repertoire feels like the kind of catalogue that Prévert might have sung. Though grandiose, this metaphor rings true – allow yourself the pleasure of going back in time to see why: “Le Rouge et le Noir,” “Le Cinéma,” “Les Moulins de mon cœur” (The Windmills of Your Mind), “Brul’ pas tes doigts,” “La valse des lilas” (Once Upon A Summertime), “You must believe in spring” (ou “La Chanson de Maxence”), “Le blues du dentiste,” “Va t’faire cuire un œuf, Man.” This is a sound panorama that encourages us to revisit the relationships Legrand created with Boris Vian, Henri Salvador, Claude Nougaro, Eddie Marnay as well as filmmakers: Jacques Demy, Godard, Agnès Varda, Norman Jewinson and Robert Mulligan.
A beautiful aura across the seas
Without getting into an analysis of the reasons, it is clear that Michel Legrand (the man) failed to attract a fanatical following with the general public in France. Although, it is important to add that his talent as a composer of enduring melodies has never been questioned. However, his aura abroad has always remained intact – in the USA, of course, but also in many other countries as well.
The French song
After quickly integrating into the music world, Legrand navigated between jazz musicians, jazz-sensitive songsmiths and sounds from across the Atlantic. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he crossed paths with Boris Vian and Henri Salvador, two rogues with youthful, schoolboy spirits. He exposed them to the nascent stages of rock and roll having discovered it himself on a trip to the USA. Under the pseudonym Mig Bike, and over the Boris Vian’s lyrics (who signed under the name Vernon Sinclair), he wrote the music for songs that would be performed by Herny Cording aka Henri Salvador. “Rock & Roll Mops,” “Dis-moi qu’tu m’aimes” and “Va t’fair cuire un œuf, Man,” though not imperishable classics, evidence the first traces of rock in French song. Collaborations with Claude Nougaro display another level, leaving a permanent mark on this musical style. Take a moment to remember the ideal marriage between music and lyrics in songs like “The Cinema,” (which includes the famous “l’écran noir de mes nuits blanches” – the black screen of my sleepless nights); “Le Rouge et le Noir”; “Tout Feu Tout Femme”; “Les Don Juan.”
At the same time, a little either side of 1960, he wrote arrangements for the large orchestra accompanying Dizzy Gillespie on tour in France. Still only a young arranger, barely twenty years of age, he had recorded the album Legrand Jazz – and his arrangements were being performed by an orchestra that included performers of no less stature than Miles Davis, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, and Bill Evans. But he didn’t stop there, far from it: his range would go on to encompass work with Bud Shank, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Phil Woods and Gerry Mulligan.
During a marked return to jazz in the 80s, he met Stéphane Grappelli and the singer Helen Merrill. It is undoubtedly satisfying to note that Miles went on to reinterpret “Once Upon a Summertime” and that Bill Evans, a sensitive pianist, would draw often from Legrand’s repertoire (must-listens: “You Must Believe in Spring,” with Eddie Gomez on bass, and “Summer of 42,” “I Will Say Goodbye, “The Best of Your Life” and “What Are You Doing”).
The movie theater
But it was the cinema where Legrand would forge a stature worthy of three Oscars in Hollywood. Before that, he had outlined his first steps in France with François Reichenbach, Agnès Varda (Cleo de 5 to 7 in 1962), Godard (A Woman Is a Woman) and Jacques Demy (Lola). It is this last director of a singular creativity who would be his companion in the conception of his most innovative works: films where everything is sung, where the music and the melodies call for the lyrics. It could have so easily proved unpalatable and yet, it’s magic. It was like an earthquake when people discovered Les Parapluies de Cherbourg in 1964 (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). It was the same again in 1967 with Demoiselles de Rochefort in 1967 (The Young Girls of Rochefort) and finally with Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin), re-shown this year in Parisian theatres.
As the journalist, novelist and lyricist Philippe Labro put it: “his [Legrand’s] music can accompany the images of a film in any way the director desires; but his music also retains its own identity should the melodies be played alone.” It is this trait in his writing which makes his melodies a plentiful hunting ground for jazzmen eager for material to improvise on. Quincy Jones and Henri Mancini helped him to weave his canvas in Hollywood, where he would win the first of his Oscars with the Norman Jewinson film The Thomas Crown Affair, whose melody “Les Moulins de mon coeur” (The Windmills of Your Mind) would be the song on everyone’s lips. The track “The Summer Knows” in the film “Un Eté 42” also achieved major success, with Barbra Streisand.