The most remarkable musical link between Europe and America is the composer, arranger, pianist, conductor and singer Michel Legrand. His film music, chansons and songs are as famous in Paris as they are in Hollywood. He has worked together with famous artists from the jazz and pop music world and was once called the most widely played French composer after Ravel.
Michel Legrand was born in 1932 as the son of orchestra leader Raymond Legrand. At the age of eleven he went to study at the Paris Academy of Music, where he did his specialisation under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger. This influential music educationist became famous for her disciplined yet modernist views on composing. Apart from Legrand she also taught pioneering American composers such as Aaron Copland (tutor to Leonard Bernstein) and Philip Glass.
In addition to this classical background Legrand is also active in jazz. In the early fifties he was one of the first Europeans to work together with the legendary jazz innovators Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Bill Evans.
"Jazz influenced my life because I grew up with it. I see jazz as one of the most important musical developments of this century. It has become part of my culture, I play jazz as if it were my language. Improvising keeps your fingers and mind supple and young," according to the 65 year old Legrand.
As a composer we all know Legrand mainly from the grand orchestral film music: Summer Of ‘42, Gable And Lombard and Les Uns Et Les Autres. Of his 200 soundtracks, many became classics. Les Parapluies De Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (1966) are two examples of how Legrand was noticed in France and America. In his own country these films (directed by Jacques Demy) were revolutionary because all dialogues were sung. In America Cherbourg and Rochefort made history because the soundtracks produced evergreens such as I Will Wait For You, Watch What Happens and You Must Believe In Spring.
Legrand’s strong melodic film themes are so timeless that they have often survived the film they were written for. The Thomas Crown Affair and The Happy Ending are long forgotten films; the songs however, we still remember, The Windmills Of Your Mind (awarded an Oscar) and What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life (nominated for an Oscar).
More than any other European songwriter Legrand knew how to infiltrate into the repertoire of top singers such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Jack Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Dame Kiri te Kanawa, James Ingram and most of all Barbra Streisand. As early as 1966 Streisand flew to Paris in order to work alongside Legrand. The song Je M’appelle Barbra, arranged and conducted by Legrand and partly sung in French, is even today considered the best Streisand song. In the early eighties Streisand asked Legrand to do the complete soundtrack of Yentl, her debut as a producer. The lyrics were written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, two names we keep seeing in most of Legrand’s English songs. "I write whatever is needed for the film, my first thought is always purely instrumental. When the themes are ready I go to Alan and Marilyn Bergman and without too many words the appropriate text is always found. We work on the same wavelength," according to the composer who has been honoured with three Oscars.
Legrand, unlike anyone else, has made a name for himself on both sides of the ocean. Not only as a composer of film music but also as a popular arranger and conductor. Obviously he is at his best with his own compositions. Who ever is fortunate enough to sing Legrand songs with Legrand conducting the orchestra, like Laura Fygi, can count on something very special. The composer demands the utmost from his vocalists, musicians, producers and technical staff. To work with Legrand means to work under high pressure, nothing escapes him and he goes on until even the smallest detail has met his high demands. That the Maestro was content is apparent from the song Rachel; Legrand wrote the song as a birthday present for Laura’s daughter who was born just before the recording. On Laura’s CD Watch What Happens we can also hear the singer Legrand after many years. In his charming way he sings the second voice in Et Si Demain.
The Organisation for Music Rights, SAGEN, has calculated that Legrand’s Les Parapluies De Cherbourg is the most widely interpreted French music after Maurice Ravels Bolero. And just as France’s other famous export product, its music is also still fermenting. The teamwork between Laura Fygi and Michel Legrand has been going on for a year now and already it can be classified as Grand Cru Classé.