|Michel Legrand at Ronnie Scott’s 2015
Photo credit: Benjamin Amure
Michel Legrand Trio
(Ronnie Scott’s, October 27th 2015. Review by Andrew Cartmel)
Subterranean Frith Street Blues: Ronnie Scott’s club is hot, packed, sold-out and buzzing with excitement as we await the arrival of Michel Legrand on the stage. The lights go down and the glowing red table lamps float in the darkness. The baby grand stands there, silent, gleaming and inviting. Legrand strolls up, sits down, plays a run on the keyboard and nods thoughtfully. “That’s a piano,” he says, and laughter rolls across the club. We’re off and running.
Legrand sings, scatting, and his voice and the piano become a single thing. He is here with his regular London collaborators, Sebastiaan De Krom on drums and Geoff Gascoyne on bass. They are a tight, bouncy, buoyant trio, playing at a leisurely pace with plenty of space. Legrand effortlessly fills that space, toying with the time, cascading down the keys on Ray Blues, written for Ray Charles, and the first in an evening of Legrand originals. (When you write this well there isn’t much need to do anyone else’s material.) His left hand plays with jaunty stride authority, his right with chiming, crystal precision. As tight as it is, the trio conducts itself with a casual sense of mischief. Legrand’s percussive highlights add accents to De Krom’s drum solo, then the piano moves to the fore again, speeding like a rabbit escaping the jaws of a fox. These three musicians are so integrated it’s like listening to a single person, playing with good humoured virtuosity.
La Valse Des Lilas, memorably rendered into English by Johnny Mercer as Once Upon a Summertime, is presented here in its original French, with Legrand’s singing starting as delicate chanson then melting into potent, abstract scat. De Krom conjures an impressionist shimmer on the cymbals that floats like a mist. Gascoyne’s plump, rolling bass provides the foundation for Legrand’s tap-dancing piano. “When I have a song, I have to destroy it with some jazz,” he reflects happily. Legrand is a comedian, a trickster, an imp. “I try to do something straight for you once.”
The “something straight” proves to be You Must Believe in Spring from the film The Young Girls of Rochefort. Michel Legrand sets out the first statement of the lovely, yearning tune. Geoff Gascoyne follows, echoing the statement with dark, sturdy lines, plucking the melody from the bass. Sebastiaan De Krom jolts the room awake with a sudden change of pace and Legrand plays mouse-scampering statements on the keyboard. But this is Gascoyne’s moment. He’s the featured soloist, richly ringing and snapping out the song. De Krom ends it with a flourish of soft mallets. “Now comes a song I did for Miss Barbra Streisand called What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life. I know, it’s not easy to sing after Barbra, but…” Legrand precisely inhabits the contours of the song, delivering the lyrics and the music — his unaccompanied piano rich and resonant — with great exactitude. Then the boys come riding in on Legrand’s trills with slow, measured, relaxed-heartbeat bass and drums. The piano dances mischievously among their music.
“Now a little classical piece. It’s a fugue. Do you know what a fugue is? It’s a theme, a counter-theme, a divertimento, a return in a different key… oh, who gives a shit?” The room erupts with laughter. Legrand is running the place like an impish anarchist. He sings Dingo Lament, from a film collaboration with Miles Davis, as a scat of cryptic jollity and liquid agility. Dingo Rock, another track from the same film, opens with a solo by De Krom. He licks his finger and rubs it across the drum skin to summon up eerie atmospherics.
Legrand has a butterfly lightness of touch on the piano, yet he can sound like a whole big band. Exactly what he’s capable of on the keyboards becomes evident when he plays Watch What Happens in the manner of a series of great pianists. First, an Art Tatum interpretation, then Duke Ellington — precisely, late period Duke Ellington, in the manner of Money Jungle, somewhat atonal and flattened — then Erroll Garner raindrops falling on the keyboard, George Shearing tilting and lilting, Dave Brubeck in Time Out mode, Fats Domino’s glorious boogie-woogie, played with great good humour by the band, Oscar Peterson scattering trills and frills, then Count Basie hitting three notes and we’re out. It’s a wrap. Michel Legrand rises from the piano bench and takes a bow.
Behind me, someone in the ecstatic crowd shouts “Bravo maestro!” They’re not wrong.