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Michel Legrand At Birdland

AAJ Staff By

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Michel Legrand
Birdland
New York City
February 26-March 2, 2008

Legendary French master composer and pianist Michel Legrand recently played Birdland in New York City with his trio. Well, it wasn't really his trio: on bass was the great Ron Carter (Miles Davis' second great quartet) and, a la batterie, the redoubtable Lewis Nash. Legrand, who has played duets with Oscar Peterson, said how honored he was to play with great American jazz musicians such as these ("It was my dream to play with Ron Carter and Lewis Nash. It came true"). But the real honor was for us to see Michel Legrand.

The composer of such masterpieces as Theme from Summer of '42 ("The Summer Knows"), "The Windmills of Your Mind," and "You Must Believe in Spring" played two sets nightly. I saw him on Saturday night. The numbers were mainly his own works, many written with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, like "Windmills." Legrand sang most of them, his whispery voice segueing readily into his French accent between songs.

Birdland is a large open club, friendly and with a storied history, having been opened on Broadway in 1950 in honor of its namesake, Charlie "Bird" Parker, before its reincarnation and relocation to 44th Street. But rarely has it been host to a talent as cosmopolitan and multifaceted as Michel Legrand, whose fame extends far beyond jazz circles. He's literally written the soundtrack to most peoples' lives, many of his songs having appeared in popular movies such as The Summer Of '42, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I was lucky enough to see two sets. The first opened with an instrumental number, then Legrand played and sang, in French, "Once Upon A Summertime," on which Carter took a long and interesting solo. Wearing a red tie and cravat with a dark suit, the bassist read from a music stand as all the music and arrangements were Legrand's. A run of famous film themes and songs followed, interspersed with jokes from Legrand that the numbers had been written "in 1863" or maybe "when I played with Miles Davis, in 1646." He introduced a number from Yentl (1983) by describing the scene that the song was written for: "Night falls and everywhere is dark ..."

Lewis Nash was introduced, prior to a rock number, as someone who "hates to play rock, so we'll play this!" At the end, Carter slid his fingers down the neck of his bass in a chromatic slide a la Jimi Hendrix. The lovely Theme From The Summer Of '42 followed, and then "I Was Born In Love With You," which Legrand said was written "in one crazy night" with the Bergmans. He sang a duet with singer and Birdland regular Hilary Kole ("How Do You Keep The Music Playing?"). " ...she is called Hilary. Are you running for President?" he joked, and then came the finale of the set, "The Windmills Of Your Mind." As was usual, Legrand sang in French: les moulins de mon coeur—"the windmills of my heart." Aha, a different title, and maybe more evocative at that. The song was souped up, as was the final number of the second set, with different rhythms: a tango, fast swing, Dixieland, and ... Russian! Legrand merely instructed his musicians to play a burst of slow, stomping, folded-arms Russian rhythm. Out there!

And so ended the first set.

In the second set, "Once Upon A Summertime" was introduced as a song "with the beautiful lyrics of Johnny Mercer." The third song this time was "Rose In The Stone," written "with my friends the Bergmans." An insistent theme amid the varied lyrics in Legrand's music is the seasons, as well as references to horizons ("past the horizons of your mind"), the wind ("the wind against your cheek"), and other aspects of the environment evoking a mood. When it was again time for "Theme From The Summer Of '42," Legrand announced that the writer of the film, Herman Raucher, was "in the house." He added that they should work together again. A quiet number from "The Thomas Crown Affair" caused the bartender to tone down his shaking of the cocktail just ordered by a woman to my left. She laughed. The fact that Pierce Brosnan played in the re-make of the film after his Bond movies was perhaps a further irony: stirred, not shaken this time!

After the second set's duet with Hilary Kole, Michel said that he had loved jazz all his life," since I was three, a little boy, in 1743 at the time of Louis XIV!" He mentioned perhaps the greatest pianist in jazz, Art Tatum, adding that Tatum (who died in 1956) had "appeared to him in a dream" saying, "I will play one of your tunes: Watch what happens." Legrand then went into a Tatumesque take on Legrand's own tune. This was followed by a medley of Legrand takes on other famous pianists: Duke Ellington ("Take the A Train"), Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck (with Legrand twice changing keys downwards by whole-tone steps at one point), Count Basie and Oscar Peterson!

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