George Robert, sax – Plays Michel Legrand – Claves 50-1607, 55:16 ***:
(George Robert, alto saxophone/ Torben Oxbol; arrangements and orchestral parts)
Michel Legrand at the movies, on sax.
With the passing of George Robert (1960-2016), we have lost a very fine jazz musician and esteemed educator. He played with many of the top big bands, including Lionel Hampton and Phil Woods. A longish stint with Tom Harrell is also a highlight of his discography. Robert is quite a traditional alto stylist with an even, burnished tone that recalls Benny Carter. On the record under review, he demonstrates his impeccable taste in negotiating unabashedly Romantic music without indulging in effects or tumbling into mawkishness.
Most jazz listeners identify Michel Legrand with his momentous 1958 big band recording. It was a real Napoleonic conquest, recruiting the top modern players in original arrangements of jazz standards. One might have thought that a Gallic Gil Evans was in the making. However, events proved otherwise. Although, Legrand returned to specifically American jazz now and again, he directed his professional attention to French film music. He earned an enormous reputation for his soundtracks to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Summer Of ’42, and Brian’s Song. Perhaps the tunes will outlive these films as they have been finding their way into the American Song Book of late. A recent duo CD by Roger Davidson and David Finck (2011) shows how their lush orchestrations can be discarded to reach the essence of Legrand artful melodies. Another approach is that of Phil Woods who made a swinging big band recording of the songs bringing together both sides of the composer’s work. This present recording also asks us to decide if its dial points towards jazz or film.
It doesn’t take long to establish this. On the duly admonitory “Watch What Happens,” we are greeted with a wave of synthetic strings courtesy of Torben Oxbol who is in charge of “All Orchestral & Rhythm Section Parts.” Well before Robert’s entry on alto we know that we have walked past the jazz bar and are seated comfortably in the dark space of the cinema of yesteryear. It is film music all the way down, full of lush major 7th chords, sweeping crescendos, and pianissimo plucking.
The invitation to nostalgia will be accepted by fans of Legrand’s cinematic art, but it will set others’ teeth on edge. Electronic harps, strumming guitars and especially the metronomic beat of the rhythm machine might equally take you out of the dark space into overly bright public buildings, escalators and dentist offices. I paid special attention to the lovely “The Summer Knows,” concentrating my attention on the plangent modulations. For a minute I could feel the orchestra as a real presence. But in “Once Upon a Summertime,” the harps reappear and the jam is back on the face rather than on the bread.
By the time I reach “Brian’s Song” and “Papa Can You Hear Me,” I am tip-toeing past the lovers, looking for air. This recording will easily sweep away the competition in the Smooth Jazz category but will not appeal to most serious jazz fans, nor is it a fitting tribute to the late George Robert.
TrackList: Watch What Happens; How Do You Keep the Music Playing: What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life; The Summer Knows; Once Upon A Summertime; You Must Believe In Spring; The Windmills Of Your Mind; I Will Wait For You; The Way He Makes Me Feel; Brian’s Song; Papa, Can You Hear Me