Arts: The man who always knew the score

French composers have always excelled in the art of music for cinema, and none more so than Michel Legrand. With over 200 film soundtracks and three Oscars to his credit, he is still turning his relentless drive into symphonies and stage musicals, and playing jazz.

Michel Legrand lives high in the Valais region of Switzerland, not for fiscal reasons but because he adores the mountains and the lakes. Though the former can't be irrelevant to France's most successful musical export to the USA, where he is a show-business bigwig, keeping up effortlessly with the Quincy Joneses and hanging out as if by right with the Barbra Streisands.

Around 200 movie soundtracks ago, in 1956, Legrand was introduced to the States by France's great chanson export of the 1930s, Maurice Chevalier, who hired the young pianist as his musical director and took him off to the USA on tour. This was four years into a career which began, on leaving the Paris Conservatoire with First Prizes in harmony, piano and counterpoint, as an intermission pianist, at five francs a session, in suburban Paris cinemas, and progressed to session work for singers such as Henri Salvador and Catherine Sauvage.

On arrival in America, Legrand found himself, to his surprise, already a star. His first LP, a collection of French standards, a recording unremarked at home, had been issued in the States under the title I Love Paris, and was busily selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Legrand's love affair with the USA lasts to this day, albeit with distinct reservations. "I adore Americans, but they've no culture," he says on the telephone from his Swiss mountain. "Piaf told me before I went: `go, but don't stay, you'll lose your talent.' And it's true, the studios are magnificent, all the professional support is there, but life is too easy, you become less demanding with yourself."

Undemanding of himself is not a characteristic obviously associated with Michel Legrand. He appears to have hit the track running and worked flat- out ever since. He was born to a successful film composer father, Raymond Legrand, who abandoned him at the age of three to be raised by his mother in the Paris suburb of Becon-Bruyeres, a name which strikes the French as faintly humorous, like Pinner or East Cheam. He was a solitary child, happy only when learning on the family piano, and who blossomed on the precocious commencement of music study, three years before the normal age of 14. "My life began when I started at the Conservatoire," he says.

At the Paris Conservatoire he studied for seven years with the great Nadia Boulanger, "an old lady by then, but sublime, alert, with a dry wit, a formidable teacher, very demanding, tyrannical, I adored her". He didn't have a career plan on leaving, and drifted into work with Chevalier, "a nice man, professional, wanted lots of rehearsing, but solitary, not finally someone who enjoyed life". The Chevalier job was an experience, and Legrand wanted many, fast, and to keep moving. He still does. "Look, can we get on," says the voice on the telephone, "otherwise this is going to take an hour.

"The thing is, I like variety. I want to compose film music, popular music, to play jazz. I want to compose symphonies, sonatas, the classics. I've recently recorded Gershwin, Satie. I work very hard. I want to do everything."

If Legrand ended up doing everything, it was in film music that he made his mark, one of a succession of his countrymen to dominate the heyday of the cinema soundtrack. From Maurice Jaubert, the pioneering composer for Jean Vigo and Marcel Carne, through Paul Misraki, collaborator of Godard, Chabrol and Welles, and Maurice Jarre of Dr Zhivago fame, to Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue and The English Patient), French composers excel, it seems, at the art of film music creation. One reason may be the eclecticism required of a cinema score, a quality natural to French musicians. Another may be a facility for perceiving the musical implications of image and plot. "When I work on a movie soundtrack," says Legrand, "I first watch the film many, many times to get a real feel for the images and what the film is saying' I regard the music as a bit like a second dialogue."

Legrand's first major public success came via a movie in which the music was the only dialogue. In the late-Fifties and early- Sixties, he began to work with the Nouvelle Vague directors, Francois Reichenbach, Jean- Luc Godard, Agnes Varda and her husband, Jacques Demy. In Demy he found a soulmate. "We've spent thousands of hours together since, working, laughing..."

With Demy as lyricist as well as writer and director, the duo created a screenplay for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, a frothy and novel entertainment in which the characters would express themselves entirely in song. The project was rejected by half the movie industry before the indefatigable Legrand and Demy finally found a young producer, Mag Bodard, prepared to take it on. Les Parapluies was shot in 1963, starring Catherine Deneuve and her beautiful and short-lived sister, Francoise Dorleac: "des soeurs jumelles, nees sous le signe des Jumeaux" - "we're twin sisters, born under the sign of Gemini." In 1964, it won the Palme D'Or at Cannes.

In 1968, Legrand conquered Hollywood with his soundtrack for The Thomas Crown Affair, whose theme song, "Windmills Of My Mind" ("Les Moulins de Mon Coeur") became a huge hit, and has just been recorded by Sting for a remake of the film ("not bad," says Legrand of the new version). After this, the work, and the success, just flowed on through dozens of film commissions. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort with Demy, Lady Sings The Blues, F for Fake with Orson Welles, The Go-Between for Joseph Losey, Yentl, starring Barbra Streisand, which won him one of his three Oscars. After Yentl, he decided to pack in film composing ("I tend to do things for eight or nine years and then move on"), but Sean Connery rang him up and persuaded him to write a Bond soundtrack, Never Say Never Again.

A second strand to Legrand's music-making has always been jazz. Again, he had a charmed introduction. On the strength of his I Love Paris hit, he was offered on first arrival in New York a contract to make any album he wanted. Legrand Jazz was the result, for the recording of which he pulled in no less a team than John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. "I was petrified - Miles had the reputation of coming in to a rehearsal late to be able to listen to a few bars first. If he liked it, he'd start playing; if he didn't, he'd just walk straight out without a word." Davis stayed and became a friend. In 1990 Legrand collaborated on the score for the movie, Dingo, starring Davis, the great trumpeter's last work.

If Legrand's best-known songs - "Windmills", "I Will Wait For You" (originally "Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi", from Les Parapluies), "The Summer Knows", "The Way He Makes Me Feel" - have achieved fame through the versions by Sinatra, Mouskouri, Fitzgerald, Streisand et al, Legrand was not slow to tackle the craft of singing himself. One is not surprised to learn that Jacques Brel ushered him into it, inviting him on stage to open a concert. His recently released Best Of compilation shows a light, romantic voice, ready to leap off into scat ad-libbing at the drop of a hat, and a selection of pretty, clever songs, beautifully scored and imbued with the dual musical ethos of America and France in the Sixties, the softly brushed hi-hat, the washes of Hammond organ or strings, the Swingle-like choruses, the touches of bossa nova percussion.

If this seems dated, it's interesting that innovative but retro young French artistes like Philippe Katerine have recently taken up Legrand's songs, artistes also connected with the easy listening ethos. "For God's sake don't mention easy listening to Legrand," a French music writer told me, but before I had time to utter the offensive suggestion, my interviewee had rung off and gone to fly his plane, or fish, or practise one of the other hobbies he crams into the brief pauses between speed-writing symphonies and churning out stage musicals, a new passion. He's had one major success already, a collaboration with the novelist Didier Van Cauwelaert, which just finished a year's run in Paris. There are five more already in the pipeline.

`The Best of Michel Legrand' is released by Universal this week.

The Michel Legrand Trio plays at the Jazz Cafe, London, on 29 and 30 September

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