Music has always played such a key role in my life. I was talking with a singer friend recently and she asked me about pivotal songs or albums or musical moments that played a role in developing my music appreciation. Now, didn't that just take me back to some fine moments in time...
First was Henry Atac's class in elementary school. "Skinhead", as we called him behind his back, was a somewhat cautious stickler who would carefully wipe down each side of an LP (that's Long Playing Record for you newbies) with his handkerchief before putting it on the player. He'd then instruct us on what we were to listen for. That is, if we could keep awake: his choices of symphony put most of us into la-la land. But I will never forget one day when he said, "Today I am going to deviate slightly from our normal course of appreciating the work of the masters to hear something different. I do this in honour of composer George Gershwin's birthday. Mr. Gershwin composed music which seemed to blend elements of classical excellence with what is referred to as 'jazz'."
Something within me said, "Sit up and take notice" when I heard that descriptor. And then he added, "We'll now hear 'Rhapsody in Blue'." I was stunned. The usual "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major" was the bland expression we'd come to expect, but clearly, here was something new. "Rhapsody in Blue" – the name alone grabbed me, just as did that lonely, wailing clarinet glissando that gets it all going.
I left that class a changed lad. "The Rhapsody" is played regularly in my home to this day (just ask my kids).
The other moment that arose was hearing an album my father had bought. Dad liked music, always had a great hi-fi and purchased one of the first FM radios in Canada (it got only one channel!). Not sure why he bought this album, but I'm sure glad he did. It was called "The Columbia Album of Cole Porter", Columbia being the record label, and Cole Porter being... well, if you don't know who Cole Porter was, you shouldn't be reading this!
This is a big album: 24 tracks in all, across two discs, released in 1958. Legrand was 26 for heaven's sake he when he arranged these songs. 26! Give me a break!
(Mind you, he's come by his talent honestly, his father being a conductor and composer himself.)
The album kicks off with a symphonic start to "Begin The Beguine", but within seconds, bongos – that's right, bongo drums! – infuse the track. Next, the strings swell up and down, dancing across the senses in ways I'd never heard before. Then an accordion goes solo, assaulting the brain. I was stunned. This shouldn't be working... but it was! Then a trumpet, more strings, the bloody bongos return to keep the beat... it's extraordinary. And we're just on the first track!
Next up, "In The Still of the Night" features a choir! And a single violin. I'm sitting there, listening, astonished. Eventually brushes on a snare drum add a bit of jazz to the piece while the Grappelli-like glow of the violin takes it home. By the time track 3 arrives, perhaps one of Mr. Porter's best known tunes "Just One of Those Things", we're hearing swirling violins suddenly taken over by a full-up orchestra, then replaced by that damn accordion again, this time with the traps keeping the jazz motif around. A marvelous bass trombone solo (shares of what Nelson Riddle would go on to dine out on) arrives, and then...
"What Is This Thing Called Love" is raced up as a latin-influnenced jazz trio track, piano, drum and bass (Michel himself at the keyboard, perhaps?). You get the feeling the other 50 guys in the big orchestra are just standing by, ready to jump in, but the Maestro holds them back, keeping their powder dry for new adventures to come.
The "True Love" oboe beginning is ethereal. By the time the strings arrive, it's exquisite.
"Ridin High" is insane: it's a cacophony of bells being struck by mallets that should not have come anywhere close to working, but it does! (reminding me of the album Legrand would produce so many years later, "Twenty Songs of the Century" in which he actually mixed an intercut multi-times-sped-up bit of music echoing of phrases going back and forth in a manner that is absolutely stunning!).
"Too Darn Hot" gets underway with that bass trombone again. But suddenly the beat goes on, tout le gang taking over the whole moment. That is until an Oriental lilt comes in part way through. Encroyable!
"I Get A Kick Out Of You" starts with a pizzicato string ensemble that's interrupted by a Gershwin-like traffic arrangement.
Perhaps in tribute to Milt Berhart's legendary trombone solo on the Sinatra/Riddle 1956 version of Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin", M. Legrand allows his version of the tune to be played by the orchestra's trombonist. Ad what a wonderful job he does, complete with subtle alto sax riffs in the background.
All the while I'm thinking, "Who is this guy!!??"
Well, you get the idea.
I must tell you, each and every one of the 24 songs on this incredible session is unique, different, marching to its own beat. I had never heard anything like it. Still haven't. Legrand was quite apparently a genius in orchestrating these versions of Cole Porter's most famous songs. In solo parts he stretches almost every instrument to their top performance!
Guess you get the feeling I could go on about this. Yup, sure could. But I'll stop before I bore you (too late?). The point is, hearing this album in my tender youth awakened me to the wonders of what a gifted arranger could do. And what an arranger Michel Legrand was, complete with Oscars, Grammys and every kind of award for composing and arranging and playing you could imagine.
And that, mes amis, was yet another pivotal time in my musical awakening.