Legrand’s jazz recordings began with Dizzy Gillespie and the Paris Operatic Strings in Paris in 1953: Photos, Videos

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Michel Legrand, a French pianist who began his career writing arrangements for jazz and pop musicians in the early 1950s before becoming one of the most prolific sophisticated sentimentalists of French and American film in the 1960s and beyond as a composer, arranger and conductor, died on January 26. He was 86.

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Legrand’s jazz recordings began with Dizzy Gillespie and the Paris Operatic Strings in Paris in 1953 and then Blossom Dearie and Les Blue Stars mid-decade. In Paris, he arranged and played on numerous pop recordings by French singers and instrumentalists. His jazz turning point came in June 1958, when he recorded Legrand Jazz for Columbia in New York. His first session for the album he arranged and conducted featured an all-star lineup: Miles Davis (tp); Herbie Mann (fl); Jerome Richardson (cl,bar); Phil Woods (as); John Coltrane (ts); Betty Glamann (harp); Eddie Costa (vib); Bill Evans (p); Barry Galbraith (g); Paul Chambers (b) and Kenny Dennis (d).

The second session wasn’t so shabby either: Ernie Royal, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd and Joe Wilder (tp); Frank Rehak and Jimmy Cleveland (tb); Jimmy Buffington (fhr); Gene Quill and Phil Woods (as); Seldon Powell (ts); Teo Macero (bar); Don Elliott (vib); Nat Pierce (p); Milt Hinton (b) and Osie Johnson (d).

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The album gained Legrand visibility in Hollywood just as films were shifting from European-influenced scores to jazz-modern approaches. Legrand’s filmography began in France in 1955 with Visages de Paris, a documentary. He then composed and arranged 35 French movies before his score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964 became an international sensation. The music was nominated for four Oscars. Like Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin, his contemporaries, Legrand divided his time between writing for film and recording jazz, recognizing that the two were part of the same successful effort, one feeding the other.

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Seeing Legrand at Birdland several times over the years, I was struck by how his Parisian touch could make you nostalgic for things you never actually experienced. From The Windmills of Your Mind (The Thomas Crown Affair) to The Summer Knows(The Summer of ’42), Legrand’s music has always had a way of engaging our heart and brain simultaneously, making you tear up or fall in love. His music also had the ability to add an air of intellectual depth and complexity to leading actors that remained with them throughout their careers.

Here are 10 of my favorite Legrand projects:

Dizzy Gillespie and His Paris Operatic Strings in February 1953…

Legrand on piano in 1954…

Miles Davis and Herbie Mann playing ‘Round Midnight in 1958 on Legrand Jazz

Legrand’s swinging opening for Umbrellas of Cherbourg

A duet by Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac from Legrand’s spectacular score for The Young Girls of Rochefort in 1967…

Another duet from The Young Girls of Rochefort by Legrand…

A little-known Legrand soundtrack for A Matter of Innocence (1967)…

Legrand’s suite arrangement of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s song Sweet November for the 1968 movie of the same name…

Legrand playing and singing The Windmills of Your Mind,his love theme for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)…

Legrand playing piano on his Summer of 42’s love theme, The Summer Knows (1971). His score here is absolute perfection…

Christiane Legrand, Michel Legrand’s late sister, singing the high notes on Quincy Jones’s for Lena and Lennie(she’s pictured second from the right on the album cover…

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