For his return to Birdland, French film composer Michel Legrand had the luxury of a lush string quartet and a guest harpist. Opening with a series of flourishing piano arpeggios, the string section added richly cinematic textures to “Watch What Happens,” the durable theme from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” one of the more than 200 film and TV scores penned by the prolific three-time Oscar winner.
Everyone remembers the song, but few remember the film “The Happy Ending,” a 1969 soaper that starred Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones and Bobby Darin. Legrand’s infectious romantic theme was “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” and he added subtle syncopation to the song’s continental allure.
With “Once Upon a Summertime,” the 77-year-old composer offered a serene vocal setting, set to Johnny Mercer’s picturesque lyrics and complimented by a playful scat chorus. Legrand’s sense of blithe lyricism and infectious melodic structure is never more boldly defined than in “The Summer Knows” from “Summer of ’42.”
His sense of romanticism, so keenly defined in his composing, his playing and his singing, is one of unalloyed beauty. While he has been playing his trademark repertoire for many years, he always manages to invite a fresh sense of variation and invention.
A bold classical sweep showcased the string quartet with “Family Fugue,” a piece well served by David Finck’s sinuous bass solo. A gifted and knowing jazz pianist, Legrand added imaginative tonal colors, letting the strings serve as velvety support.
Opening night brought guest Tony Bennett to the bandstand to join Legrand in a soaring duet of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” It was one of those great impromptu unions of two masters of their craft. Despite a brief lapse in the lyrics that Bennett turned into a tasteful scat, the pair took the tune to rapturous heights, and the capacity aud on hand for the first set responded enthusiastically.
Set closer found the composer joining his wife, harpist Catherine Michel, for an ambitious duet set to the Oscar-winning themes from “Yentl.”