Jeremy Sams’ multi-stranded career includes directing West End stage hits and composing scores for the theatre, film and television – he’s won a BAFTA and an Ivor Novello award and has received Tony, Olivier and Drama Desk Award nominations. He’s also enjoyed a successful and extensive career writing lyrics and translating plays and opera libretti. He is the man behind the forthcoming lavish tribute Michel Legrand Remembered at the Royal Festival Hall, which he discussed with Andrew Cartmel:
London Jazz News: Can you remember the first time you became aware of the music of Michel Legrand?
Jeremy Sams: As a 10 year-old, I first saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I’ll never forget being open-mouthed at the music. At the fact it was doing everything I might have hoped or imagined, and then so much more. I went, I recall, straight to the piano to pick out I Will Wait for You. And then, having mastered it, tried it in many keys. Almost as many as Michel uses.
LJN: Was there one piece in particular which you fell in love with?
JS: That score became a lifelong friend, and remains so. I acquired the LP and wore it out. There are many layers to it. There is a romantic, orchestral sheen, but the engine that drives it is a big band firing on all cylinders. There, too, is Michel himself, his orchestrations, his piano playing, and in a few choice roles (the postman who asks for the paint shop!) his singing voice. More than that, I pretty much learnt French from that LP. The film, by the way, looks more and more like a masterpiece with every viewing. I’ve never seen a film more often – there are still details musical and visual, to savour.
LJN: Could you describe how you came to meet the man himself?
JS: So, my obsession grew. I got to know all his recordings and would watch, on principle, any film he did the score for. I’d attend his concerts. I was a fan. In time I did some English versions of some of Michel’s songs, (one of which we’re doing at the Royal Festival Hall) and eventually was asked to collaborate on a new version of his musical Le Passe-Muraille. By this time I had quite a few Legrand songs under my fingers. More in fact than he knew! When we started working together it was always at a piano. He was an inveterate noodler, so it was more productive if I played, once the song we were working on was underway. Sometimes I’d play one of his… he’d stop, entranced and say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful. Who’s it by?’ ’It’s by you, Michel.’ ‘By me? Really? Well, it’s beautiful.’ He wrote so much and so quickly, he could hardly be expected to remember it all!
LJN: What it like working with him? What was your process?
JS: We wrote several songs for the Broadway version of Le Passe-Muraille, which eventually became known as Amour. Michel’s rule was, ‘If a song doesn’t come by lunch, it’s not worth writing.’ So we’d start at breakfast and have composed a song by lunch. And then we’d have lunch (an important meal for a Frenchman). It’s a great way of working. If a song then gets cut (as so many do, and did), then, hey, you only wasted a morning! Michel wrote over a dozen musicals, most of which foundered along the way – there is still a treasure trove to be unearthed. All those wonderful songs, all written before lunch. The same is true of his movie scores. Music just poured out of him. He was never not writing, orchestrating, or practising….
We’d also mostly work in French. His English was always charmingly idiosyncratic And word-stress was a huge issue. He never quite worked out not to put the em-phas-is on the wrong syll-ab-le. So I used to write, on a single line, the rhythm the words needed. Just for the title or the first two lines. Then the machine would fire up and off he’d go. However he modulated, and whatever sequence he wrote, he always knew where he’d end up. I’ve never known anyone with such a knowledge of harmony.
LJN: Michel Legrand is famed for his film scores, and he’s also widely known for his masterful jazz. But you came at his music from quite another angle, his stage work. What difference do you feel that makes?
JS: Michel’s music comes from a variety of sources. The first is classical. Ravel, Satie and Fauré were his gods. But the greatest of them all was Bach. You can hear that baroque harmony and melisma everywhere – The Go-Between, The Windmills of Your Mind… Then French chanson – Chevalier, Trenet. Lastly, and most vitally, jazz. As soon as he could, he was listening to Dizzy, Bird, Louis, Art Tatum, Miles. And he had, eventually, the privilege of working with most of them. He provided a new set of standards. Old in harmonic construction, yet ‘cool’ and European. Look at him jamming with Oscar Peterson, how happy they both are… He loved jazzers and they loved him.
Those strands run through everything he did. His ‘serious’ concert work, his movie scores, his stage work. He was, first and foremost, though, a songwriter. And that is quite different from being a stage composer. I and others had to help him into writing finales, duets, story songs. But he could literally do anything.
LJN: Now that he’s is no longer with us, what is your most vivid memory of him?
JS: He could, as I say, do anything. This got tricky sometimes. If a muso dared to say that a passage was unplayable on his instrument, Michel would pick up the instrument and play the passage! Restaurants were a challenge. I once found him in the kitchen showing the chef how to make the dish he had ordered.
LJN: Speaking of remembering Michel Legrand, could you tell us about what’s in store for us with the concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 20 September?
JS: We’re going to lead with big band, Michel’s favourite medium. It was to him what the string quartet was to Beethoven. We have many tracks from his big band albums. Movies and musicals are represented by some amazing singers, Maria Friedman, Alison Moyet, and Melissa Errico – who starred in Amour on Broadway, and who will be singing Michel’s last song. Unpublished at his death and as yet unperformed.
It’s the portrait of a genius, from those who loved him.