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REVIEW: Michel Legrand and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – 60 Years of Music and Movies at the Royal Festival Hall

The standing ovation for Michel Legrand
iPhone snap by Sebastian Scotney

Michel Legrand and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – 60 Years of Music and Movies
(Royal Festival Hall, 18 September 2018. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Sixty years indeed. This sampling of the vast output of the French jazz prodigy Michel Legrand kept proceedings to manageable proportions by presenting highlights from just his film composing career.

On stage at London’s South Bank were the massed forces of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or, the Michel Legrand Big Band, as I like to think of it – with a jazz rhythm section nestling at their centre, featuring the maestro himself on piano supported by long-time musical accomplices Geoff Gascoyne on upright bass and Sebastiaan de Krom drums. Accompanying the musicians as they played were neatly coordinated and smoothly edited sequences of clips from the movies themselves.

Ice Station Zebra demonstrated the mastery of film composition that Legrand had achieved as early as 1968. The pointillist mystery of the introduction, comprising cross-hatched strings and glockenspiel, yielded to supple shoots of woodwinds springing up, subtly and adroitly conjuring the mood before the brass section injected a stab of menace. If the film itself, a Cold War thriller set in cardboard snowfields, is now forgotten, Legrand’s music for it remains compelling, absorbing and masterful.

Providing an impressive contrast, and a first hint of Legrand’s extraordinary range, Gable and Lombard was an American pastoral, conveying a sense of loss and nostalgia from the opening notes, with Helen Tunstall’s harp adding delicate pastel splashes. Sebastiaan de Krom’s ticking drums and Gascoyne’s bass were at the heart of the piece which suggested the sweet insistence of a memory which is always just a little out of reach.

Michel Legrand left the conductor’s podium to sit at the piano, leaving conducting duties to Paul Bateman, and there was an audible sigh of appreciation from the audience as he played the opening bars of The Summer of ’42. His solo carried the piece with casual authority until the orchestra joined in with a flood of colour and emotion, but Legrand unequivocally maintained the theme. Casualness and authority were again paired in his insouciant announcement, “Now I’m going to play a couple of songs that I wrote with Miles Davis.” These were from the film Dingo and Legrand’s piano was rapid-fire bop played to perfection, like bright water flooding between stones. The trio dominated here, with the glittering cadence of Legrand’s playing, de Krom’s mesmeric and measured drums and Gascoyne’s throaty, sinewy bass all providing a spellbinding setting for the mass deployment of the brass.

The encore for the concert was Legrand’s ravishing solo on Brian’s Song, a perfect jewel of a composition and one which will have lodged in the minds of every listener  more than a few will have walked from the hall humming it. But the ultimate statement of this evening came a little earlier, with the music from The Thomas Crown Affair. The Windmills of Your Mind was like a controlled series of explosions from the orchestra until arpeggios from Michel Legrand led us into a sublimely slinky trio rendition. His piano performed a melancholy, thoughtful monologue before the final orchestral flourish, as though reflecting on the long decades of a great career.

The concert was presented by Ronnie Scott’s and Fane Productions, in association with City Lights Entertainment UK.

Michel Legrand
LINKS: Review of Michel Legrand’s autobiography
Review of his Ronnie Scott’s debut in 2011
Review of an appearance at Ronnie Scott’s in 2015

Categories: Live reviews

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