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Michel Legrand has created some of the loopiest and some of the soupiest music in Space Age Pop. A multi-Oscar, multi-Grammy nominee and winner, jazz pianist and arranger, classical performer, easy listening conductor, composer of movie and stage musicals, songwriter, film director, and even would-be singer (in the mold of Burt Bacharach and Edmundo Ros), Legrand is aptly described as "a man in a hurry."
Raised in a musical family--his father Raymond was a successful light music conductor and his sister Christiane was a pivotal member of the Double 6 of Paris and the Swingle Singers--Michel entered the Paris Conservatory of Music at ten, and began taking music in like a vacuum. He audited every instrumental class offered and eventually learned to play over a dozen instruments. He studied with the legendary music teacher, Nadia Boulanger, into the early 1950s, but his real turning point came in 1947, when a friend gave him a ticket for a Dizzy Gillespie concert. "My jazz life started that night," he said, and he began buying and studying records by Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, and other American jazz stars.
After leaving school, he worked as an accompanist for a number of French pop singers. He cut a quickie easy listening album of French tunes from Columbia-EMI that was released in the U.S. as I Love Paris and became a huge hit. He followed with several others, mindless of their commercial success because he only collected a flat session fee. Then, in 1955, he was hired as a musical director by Maurice Chevalier, who took him on tour to the U.S. Learning of the huge sales of his Columbia LPs, he convinced the label to let him make Legrand Jazz, featuring his arrangements of "Round Midnight" and other jazz standards with a to-die-for list of musicians ranging from Ben Webster to Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane. He later cut a similar album, C'Est Magnifique, for Mercury, featuring an only-slightly less stellar cast.
As his movie scoring career began taking off in the mid-1960s, he eased off his easy listening gig, but not before recording the one album he's really mentioned on this site for: the uncategorizable gem, Michel Legrand Plays for Dancers (Philips). Recent Space Age Pop fans may recognize one cut from this album, "Digue-Ding-Ding," which appeared on the Deram compilation CD, Inflight Entertainment, as well as on the soundtrack of the 1998 film, "Clay Pigeons." Plays for Dancers mixes extreme strings, group vocals featuring Legrand's own nonsense lyrics ("Digue-ding-ding-ding-ding," "Da-we-da! Da-we-da!"), and a hybrid of rock, Latin, and R&B rhythms. It's almost too much to take for a whole album, but by themselves, the cuts never fail to have an arresting effect: "What IS that?" people often ask on their first hearing. Legrand never again did anything remotely like it, nor did anyone else. About the closest thing to it is the Harry Lookofsky-Quincy Jones-Bobby Scott collaboration, Hash Brown and his Ignunt Strings, also on Philips (hmm...).
Of course, many people seeing Legrand's first major movie work, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," probably said "What IS this?" on their first viewing. Also like nothing else before it, the film, directed by Jacques Demy and scored by Legrand, featured no spoken dialogue whatsoever--every single word was sung. The film was something of a success in the U.S. more on the strength of its tear-jerker story and the hit single, "I Will Wait for You," the first of many Legrand tunes to capture the U.S. airwaves. Demy and Legrand worked together again in the late 1960s on "The Young Girls of Rochefort," but followed a more conventional approach--i.e., only the songs were sung.
Legrand scored a number of French films after "Umbrellas," but by 1967, the tug of fame and fortune in the U.S. became irresistable. He linked up with his old friend, Quincy Jones, who introduced him to the songwriting couple, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and together they picked up a Oscar a year later with "The Windmill of Your Mind," despite Noel Harrison's lame Richard Harris imitation on the soundtrack of the original "The Thomas Crown Affair." Legrand took to Hollywood like a pig to slop, and quick as a wink, he was hauling away a few more Oscars and Grammies with "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," from "The Happy Ending," the themes from "Brian's Song," the ground-breaking three-hankie made-for-TV movie, and "The Summer of '42."
Legrand eventually moved back to France, but he continued to work on both U.S. and French films. He won the Oscar for Best Original Score in 1983 for Barbra Streisand's musical, "Yentl," and won the French equivalent of the Tony for best musical for "Le Passe Muraille," based on the classic Marcel Ayme novel. The musical, titled "Amour," also played on Broadway for several months in 2002, and the original cast soundtrack is available on Sh-K-Boom Records. He also recorded an occasional jazz album, mostly playing piano with a small combo, but also with a larger band, such as on Live at Jimmy's.
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