Michel Legrand is one of the last living jazz greats of the 1950s. Arriving in New York during the height of the jazz scene, he befriended and collaborated with many notables, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. His style was distinctive; he blended elements of classical composition with contemporary jazz, creating a hybrid that would soon become known as “light jazz” and eventually “easy listening.” Though such descriptive words serve are seemingly pejorative, in Legrand’s case, it is unfair—and plain wrong—to assume that this “easy listening” sound is anything less than innovative, ahead-of-its time jazz.
Bonjour Paris, released in 1956, was his first truly great album. A concept album about his favorite city, the album contained compositions by notable French songwriters and reveled in its blend of jazz, classical, and traditional French sounds. It’s also a very trippy, surreal album; the title track that bookends the record is a sweet sonic swirl that builds up to a dark, solitary whistling man duetting with a trumpet, while an orchestra slowly fades in. It’s haunting, and it’s hauntingly beautiful, too. From there, Bonjour Paris only grows more compelling. Are songs like “Every Suburb In Paris” and “My Man” orchestral compositions with a twist of jazz? What of the jazzy “The Portuguese Washwomen’ and “Two Loves Have I?” Are they jazz numbers performed by an orchestra? Well, actually, they’re both—and that’s the sweet spot of Bonjour Paris; it is an album that is wholly traditional and yet sounds like something entirely new. Best yet, though, is his take on “Beyond The Sea.” With a much slower tempo than the better-know jazz versions by Tony Bennett and countless others, it is turned into a melodramatic, cinematic delight; it builds slow and builds up strong, a soundtrack to a doomed love affair—or to the longing of home by a New York-living expat—making the “beyond” in the song seem eternally out of reach and eternally in one’s heart. The lyrics are about longing, but Legrand makes you feel every mile between the lover and the longed-for.
As is their wont, El Records has enhanced Bonjour Paris with two notable collections of songs. The first four bonus tracks are taken from the soundtrack to Chris Marker’s conceptual documentary Le Joli Mai. a film following the lives of three Parisians throughout the month of May, 1962—the first month that France had not been at war since 1939. The songs are lovely, light, and airy; with the added addition of Yves Montand on vocals. The second group of songs consists of a 1960s-era update of the Bonjour Paris concept, 1962’s Rendez-vous A Paris. While the songs are lovely—especially his take on “C’est Si Bon”—they don’t quite lack the majesty and triumph and wonderment quite like Bonjour Paris did.
No matter, though—for Legrand was and is a prolific man, and if Rendez-vouz A Paris didn’t satisfy, more music was sure to come—and come it did. He would soon become an award-winning soundtrack composer, arranger, go-to jazz orchestra conductor and producer, and a songwriting genius beyond compare. Bonjour Paris is a brilliant collection, a magnificent declaration of intent by a young man wng” albums of the 20th Century.
Bonjour Paris is available now via El Records.