Sunday, October 5, 2008

Legrand Jazz - at 50

- Steven A. Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This piece is about another of those recordings that entered my life at a relatively early age and which helped me, to use pianist’s Barry Harris phrase – “See Out a Bit.” And, once again, I am indebted to my membership in the Columbia Record Club for bringing this recording into my living room. Little did I know at the time I first subscribed to it how membership in this record club would inadvertently further my Jazz education.

While I certainly knew [barely] about the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans by the time I received this album in 1959, all of whom appear on four tracks from one of the LP’s recording sessions, Legrand Jazz was also to become the source for a number of Jazz quests that would expanding my Jazz horizons.

Because of the music that Michel chose to orchestrate, I met Fats, Django and Bix [do any of them need last names?] for the first time as I sought out more information about the composers of The Jitterbug Waltz, Nuages, and In A Mist, respectively. In some cases, such as his up-tempo version of Bix’s In A Mist, Michel’s arrangements became so definitive in my mind that I was shocked when I later heard this tune taken at a much slower tempo by other Jazz interpreters.

There must be some irony in a story about a young man in Southern California being inspired to find out more about the early originators of Jazz as a result of listening to big band arrangements of their music as written by a young Frenchman.

But what arrangements these are - full of energy and sparkling with fresh ideas and interpretations including the use of harp, flute, tuba and French horn, instruments rarely used in big band settings at that time [with apologies to Gil Evans who was still not as yet on my “radar screen,” to continue the visual metaphors].

Besides gaining greater familiarity with some of the great Jazz composers from the earlier years of the music, Legrand Jazz also brought me a new awareness of improvisers such as Ben Webster, whose breathy tenor saxophone I first heard as introduced by a trombone choir on Nuages, Phil Woods searing alto saxophone solo on A Night in Tunisia, an arrangement that also has a trumpet “chase” comprised on Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Ernie Royal and Joe Wilder, a Harmon-muted Miles Davis exploring the intriguing Django, a slow John Lewis blues, over a background arrangement voiced for harp, guitar, and vibes in the style of Shearing-esque blocked chords, cooking solos by vibraharpist Eddie Costa, John Coltrane and Miles [over a repeated glissando made up of closely voiced harp, flute and vibes] on Jelly Roll Morton’s Wild Man Blues, and the return of the trombone choir of Frank Rehak, Billy Byers, Jimmy Cleveland and Eddie Bert, this time to be featured on Rosetta in their very own “chase.”
Needless to say, I wore the original vinyl of Legrand Jazz to a frazzle through repeated listening and was thrilled when the compact disc version later appeared on Phillips [830-074-2].

Fortunately for you, repeated listening doesn’t “wear out” a CD as I guarantee that should you obtain a copy of this fascinating music you will be sure to play it often as it is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Legrand’s arrangements on this album are as intriguing and inventive today as they were when they were penned 50 years ago.

Here are the original liner notes of the LP version of Legrand Jazz [CL 1250] by Nat Shapiro who is the co-editor of Hear Me Talkin' to Ya and The Jazz Makers along with Nat Hentoff to be followed by the insert notes and photos from the insert notes to the CD version by Max Harrison, author of A Jazz Retrospect.

“Among the many members of a diverse (it is international) and loyal (they have bought more than one million of his LPs) I Like Legrand Society, are those jazz musicians and arrangers who have, by chance mostly, come within earshot of Legrand recordings. From his enchanting I Love Paris (CL 555) through his more recent Columbia Album of Cole Porter (C2L 4), Legrand in Rio (CL 1139) and I Love Movies (CL 1178), this brilliant young Frenchman has, with remarkable skill, charm, invention and wit, refreshingly introduced a new kind of musicianship into that too often banal and staggeringly prolific area of popular art that we categorically label "mood music," and the French, closer to the mark, call musique légère [literally “light music,” or more accurately, as easy listening].

In many of his previous collections, notably the Porter and Rio sets, Legrand has not only made frequent and startlingly original use of the jazz musician as a soloist, but, by virtue of his dynamic ensemble scoring and happy understanding of what a rhythm section is supposed to do, has often managed to make his large orchestra swing in the best tradition of Basie, Lunceford, Ellington and (big band) Gillespie.
Michel Legrand (a multi-prize-winning graduate of the Paris Conservatoire) loves jazz with none of the tame enthusiasm, tinged with condescension of the academically oriented "serious" composer. His arrangements pointedly avoid the meaningless trickery of those highly skilled (and successful) popular arrangers who, from time to time, invest their work with "jazz feeling." Michel, still in his twenties, loves jazz with an almost boyish enthusiasm, with, if not a firsthand knowledge of its growth and environment, the kind of passionate devotion and astonishing erudition that European fans are wont to have. His feelings for several important jazz figures border on idolatry.

In the past, however, Legrand's jazz activities have been limited by both the nature of the recording assignments he has been given and the fact that in Paris, despite the liveliness of that city's jazz scene, the optimum conditions for producing a large-scale jazz figures border on idolatry.

And so, while on a visit to the United States in May and June of 1958, Michel Legrand recorded his first jazz LP. The writing was done during the first three weeks of June. The repertoire was chosen from the works of eleven important jazz composers, and the musicians, many of them familiar to Legrand only through their recordings, were selected from among the best then in New York.

Each arrangement was created with two major factors taken into consideration: 1) the styles and techniques of the participating instrumentalists and 2) the structure and mood of the original compositions. Legrand's primary concern was to provide a sympathetic framework for specific soloists. Thus, Wild Man Blues, The Jitterbug Waltz, ‘Round Midnight and Django were primarily written as vehicles for Miles Davis, with full knowledge on Legrand's part, however, of the formidable capabilities of Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, Phil Woods and the other musicians given solo space. Similarly, Nuages and Blue and Sentimental were scored with the full, breathy tone of Ben Webster's tenor saxophone in mind. Rosetta, Stompin' at the Savoy and Night in Tunisia were designed to display both the collective and individual talents of two mighty brass foursomes and on each of these tracks, ample time was permitted for the soloists to romp through a traditional "chase" pattern.

The fact that each composition in this collection was written wholly or in part by a great jazzman was the result of a deliberate decision by Legrand not only to pay tribute to his peers, but to attempt to bring the work of these giants into new focus. Jelly Roll Morton's Wild Man Blues, heretofore associated only with Louis Armstrong and Morton himself, emerges in its modern dress, played by the outstanding trumpeter of this generation with all of the savagery, bitterness and beauty of Morton's best work. The Jitterbug Waltz, one of Fats Waller's most engaging pieces, while retaining its basic charm, takes on other qualities characteristic of Waller the man and musician - notably wit and pulsation.

Django Reinhardt’s Nuages, John Lewis’ Django, and Bix Beiderbecke’s In A Mist, all with their original Debussy-like coloration and mood, are given added dimension by Legrand's instinctive rapport with the material at hand, resulting in delicate, yet powerful underlining of the solos.

In almost every sense, Legrand Jazz must be considered "experimental." Yet, with all of its daring, with all of its surprises and moments of flashing virtuosity, it stays within the bounds of jazz. The beat, the spontaneity, the indefinable spirit of jazz is there. This album is the first work of a truly important new voice in a wilderness where new voices are all too often disembodied. We're looking forward to much more from this powerful, sincere and stimulating prodigy.”

- [c] 1986 Max Harrison - CD Insert Notes

"Born in the French capital in 1932, Michel Legrand studied at the Paris Conservatoire during 1943-50 with, among others, Henri Chaland and Nadia Boulanger, one of the most eminent composition teachers of the twentieth century. Such beginnings have been largely forgotten due to the success of such things as his film scores. Legrand won Oscars for his music for "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (1964), "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Les Demoiselles de Cherbourg" (both 1968), and "Summer of '42" (1971). Much earlier he had been awarded a prize by the Academie Charles Cros for his arrangements for a 1953 Catherine Sauvage LP, and in 1956 a Grand Prix du Disque for his own "I Love Paris" record. His international career took off, indeed, between these latter two awards, when he conducted for Maurice Chevalier's 1954-55 appearances in Paris and New York.

Such conspicuous successes, which have continued to the present, have obscured not only the sound academic basis of Legrand's brilliantly effective orchestral writing but also his strong attraction to jazz. There were some hints of this on recordings he had made earlier, and it was inevitable that he should in due course direct sessions in which the interest was explicit. Their result, "LeGrand Jazz," was the subject of widespread comment on its first appearance but it has been unavailable for many years. In the meantime it has become a considerable rarity, much sought after by connoisseurs of fine jazz orchestral scoring and inspired solo improvisation. Its reappearance was much overdue.

The enterprise is more ingenious, has more dimensions, than is at first apparent, and this set of performances achieves several things at once. Legrand was on a visit to the U.S.A. in May and June 1958, the writing was done in the first three weeks of June, and the sessions were recorded in New York over three days at the end of that month. This concentrated activity no doubt aided the creation of a body of music which is a single, indivisible whole: these 11 interpretations belong with each other, and nowhere else. Besides offering a personal view of jazz history up to the end of the 1950's, Legrand's recordings have themselves become an historical document, something now lying a generation back in the past which can tell us much about where jazz was then and suggest a perspective on some of what has happened since.
Not only was it necessary for the chosen themes to be of outstanding distinction, but for each, through its essential qualities, to contribute unique aspects to the whole. Every one of Legrand's scores embodies an exact understanding of the character and structure of each theme, of its potential for development in terms of orchestral of orchestral writing and improvisation, of the styles of the soloists he would employ and of how they would relate to the scored material: everything acts together. His instinctive, though also technically sophisticated, rapport with a wide variety of music could be expected from his earlier recording and other assignments. But his ability to enter into the inner worlds of these pieces - each the creation of an exceptionally strong artistic personality - indicated a considerable deepening of his perceptions. This was the more so as he presented them in such a way as to heighten their original character while showing them in new lights and providing uncommonly stimulating opportunities for his soloists. It might be added that no small part of the stimulation came from the unusual challenges with which the latter were presented. Without Legrand's initiative it is unlikely, for example, that Miles Davis would ever have been heard improvising on Fats Waller's "Jitterbug waltz" or Ben Webster on "Nuages" by Django Reinhardt.

Although these are very much Legrand's recordings, with a collective flavor entirely their own, his orchestrations, for all their dazzling impact, are not once overbearing. In tact there is something almost paradoxical in the way that he determines the atmosphere of the whole whilst at some points, as on "Blue and sentimental," almost disappearing from view. There is indeed plenty of space for the soloists and, as they were la crème de la crème of their time improvising on some of the best themes composed by major figures of their own and the previous generation, this is as it should be. Listening to their efforts again after too long an interval, one is sadly reminded of how reputations rise and fall. Thus Joe Wilder, who played so beautifully on the third session, is now largely forgotten, while Bill Evans and John Coltrane, long since recognized as crucial influences on jazz, were not mentioned on the front of the sleeve of the original issue!

The players were organized in three distinctive instrumentations, the first having the greatest mixture of colors, the second being characterized mainly by the trombone team, the third by the trumpets. This could easily have led to an excessive diversifying of the overall impression, yet, be it in the lucid ensembles of "In a mist" or amid the serenity of "Wild man blues," Legrand's writing unifies it all. The trumpet and trombone occasions give rise to lengthy chase passages of the sort that can so easily degenerate into boring exhibitionism. No hint of that will be found here, and although there is no denying the dueling aspect of, say, the trumpets' foray on "Night in Tunisia," what we get is a rapid-fire exchange of solid musical ideas. There was too much happening in these sessions for anyone to waste time on mere display.
In fact it is solid musical invention all the way, starting with "Jitterbug waltz." Waller's title is a nice contradiction in itself, for whatever jitterbugs did it was never to waltz. Legrand responds with the alternation of two strongly divergent tempos which, if you like, contradict each other. Their juxtaposition has expressive point, however, and each time the textures are different yet clearly related to what went before; indeed it is like hearing two interlocking sets of variations. The solos are at the faster speed - Davis, Herbie Mann, Phil Woods, Evans - then the theme is restated briefly, yet in a way that does not merely echo the beginning, and there is an unexpected coda in the shape of a bass solo. Waller, even in this orchestration, represents the New York "stride" school of piano-playing while "Nuages," by the great Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, stands for Europe's early contributions to jazz Here the trombones set the scene and then Webster enters, his solo the more poignant for its brevity; again the coda. this time taking the form of a piano solo could not have been predicted.
It is apt that the trumpets should dominate "Night in Tunisia," for this was composed by Dizzy Gillespie, one o the instrument's greatest masters; it was among the earliest bop themes to establish itself in the general jazz repertoire, bop being the first significant jazz style to emerge after World War II. Gillespie's peer in those days was Charlie Parker, and a Parker disciple, Gene Quill, is soon heard from, although it is Legrand's rich, many-voiced ensemble that makes the strongest impression. Quill's alto saxophone resurfaces, the ensemble briefly takes fire again to launch Frank Rehak's trombone solo, then the trumpets enter one by one, Wilder especially shining. As it continues, their improvising becomes more tightly argued, the individual statements shorter, more concentrated; then another Parkerian alto saxophonist, Woods, contends with the brass, and there is a further imaginative coda.

"Blue and sentimental" was made famous by Herschel Evans, a tenor saxophonist with Count Basie's band in the late 1930's. Here it belongs to Webster, who solos throughout with just sufficiently active trombone support. He provides exactly the lyrical calm needed after the storming trumpets of "Night in Tunisia," but that calm is never merely passive and the acutely expressive nuances of his improvising repay many hearings.

"Stompin' at the Savoy" bears two of the major swing era names, Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, and the Goodman link is signaled with a few terse flashes of clarinet, an instrument not otherwise heard on these sessions. The antiphonal ensembles are a richly detailed, many-voiced updating of the 1930's big bands' characteristic textures. Woods has plenty to say as usual, so does each of the trumpets, and there are more ensembles which, typically of Legrand, are both full-bodied and resolutely clear: we can hear every note. There is more subtle writing in "Django," for harp and piano. These instruments can readily make each other sound redundant (the piano is a harp with keys, after all), but here they precisely complement one another. Then Davis gives us his thoughts on this John Lewis theme dedicated to the composer of "Nuages."

Several of Legrand's treatments go directly against our expectations. "In a mist," for example, being fast instead of slow and "Wild man blues" doing without its striking sequence of breaks. This latter was composed by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920's and gives rise to many-hued ensembles that are more insistently contrapuntal than on the foregoing items. It was witty to use Eddie Costa's vibraphone here rather than in "Django," which has Milt Jackson and Modern Jazz Quartet associations. (The MJQ's early output was among the best of the "cool" jazz of the 1950's.) Coltrane solos, then Davis follows with orchestral support of a quality that he all too rarely was accorded; in fact it is an enhancing commentary. It was again witty to employ "Rosetta," by the great virtuoso pianist Earl Hines, a major innovator through several decades of jazz, as an outing for the trombones (with Hank Jones scampering among them during the theme statement). This is their equivalent of the trumpets' "Night in Tunisia" and all four are heard from in top form. Then Webster provides a most telling contrast, both with Jimmy Cleveland & Co. and with his own statements on other tracks. After which the trombones return with a passage that is one of Legrand's most original moments; and this time it is Mann who does the scampering.
An introduction giving no suggestion of what is to follow leads into Thelonious Monk's "'Round midnight," still the most familiar of his many compositions. This was thus renamed when words (not used here) were added, but was originally known as "Round about midnight," the title which jazz people still normally use. Whatever we call it, Davis is heard with very imaginative orchestral support - or rather he is surrounded with unpredictable gestures which are different each time. "Don't get around much anymore" is another instance of Legrand's humor, for the trombone section never quite plays Duke Ellington's well-known melody, although they hint at it constantly. This also has an earlier title, "Never no lament," under which it was recorded by the supreme Ellington band of 1940, and it, too, was renamed when words were added.
"In a mist" (also known as "Bixology") is in some ways the most remarkable single track. This exploratory piece, recorded as a piano solo by the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke in 1927, is taken at a fast tempo which, almost inexplicably, suits it to perfection. This is from the trumpet session but the whole ensemble is king. Indeed it is a piece of superb orchestral writing, full of new sounds and textures, and splendidly played, as is everything here. "In a mist" provides a fitting end to a sequence of performances which, it can now be seen, was unrepeatable. Legrand was no doubt wise in recognizing its uniqueness and in never attempting to retrace his steps."

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