Michel Legrand is France's premier jazz musician - his work is France's major contemporary musical export. He's best known for 1964 French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It's a sung-through musical, quite ahead of its time. Even its most casual conversation (lyrics by the film's director Jacques Demy) is sung. Les parapluies de Cherbourg made a star of its young leading actress, Catherine Deneuve.
But M. Legrand's done much more than Cherbourg; he has enormous body of work. Some of his song shave become cabaret standards even in this country, like What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? and Windmills of Your Mind. He's won Oscars, Grammys, The Prix Molière, and a list of other awards as long as a film score. He's worked with everyone from Maurice Chevalier to La Streisand.
In March, Legrand celebrated his 75th birthday with a six-night run at the New York jazz club Birdland. He opened in a bold - not to say an aggressive - style, punching out the notes. Then the set peaked with his second song - his own delicate La valse des lilas. He introduced it by telling us that he wrote it when he was very young. He was young indeed - the song's copyright date is 1955. He called it by its English title, Once upon a Summertime (this title comes from the first line of Johnny Mercer's English lyrics), but he sang the marvelous French lyrics by Eddie Marnay:
Mais tous les lilas
Tous les lilas de mai
N'en finiront jamais
De faire la fête au cur des gens qui s'aiment, s'aiment.
Some internet sources credit Eddie Barclay for co-writing the music, and some credit the lyricist with the same. At any rate, it flows in gentle ¾ waves, its lines descending in pitch, like a sigh. Marnay's delicate, melancholy lyrics suit it perfectly, openly emotional, but not indulgent like some French songs. Mercer did not translate them; wisely, he rewrote them (as he did when he adapted Autumn Leaves from the French). And he rescheduled the ballad - the French song is set in spring.
Legrand's voice isn't a trained voice, but neither is it the voice of an old man. If he has little concern, for pitch, we don't miss it. His talking/singing is perfectly suited to the man and the material.
He continued with several other of his songs: I Was Born in Love with You,
with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman (with whom he's worked extensively);
My Maybe Baby, which he wrote, if I heard him correctly through his accent,
with Francoise Sagan, one of France's most colorful novelists.
He was at his best when the drums (Ron Carter) and bass (Lewis Nash) sat it out, and he was solo at the piano, morphing from one rhythm to another. The songs lost the aggressive quality, and jazz floated by like clouds. He joked with the audience. Sometimes he sang in vocalese, or a sort of refined scatting. He looked at the keyboard sometimes, and from time to time - I've never seen a pianist do this before - he licked his fingers.
Late in the set, ML pattered that the great jazzists appeared to him in a dream - Duke Ellington, Brubeck, Shearing, et al - and as he named them, he played in the style of each. I don't deny this is skillful, but we don't care. We came to hear Legrand play like Legrand.
For an encore, he played one stanza of I Will Wait for You, the theme from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, singing the English lyrics by Norman Gimbel. It isn't one of my favorites, but it's Legrand's best-know song. He played exactly eight bars, and I thought that rather condescending.
- Steve Capra