The Story Behind Michel Legrand’s 1958 Jazz Sessions

It was the summer of 1958 when Miles Davis arrived at the great New York temple of sound, Columbia Records’s 30th Street Studios. He hadn’t decided whether to take part in recording the first of three sessions by a young French composer named Michel Legrand. Legrand was quite popular at the time, having already released some MOR (middle-of-the-road, as in easy listening), Parisian and Brazilian-themed records for the label—the type that Miles would’ve walked away from in a New York minute. And though Miles didn’t know it at the time, Legrand sported serious credentials. The young composer had studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and taken lessons from the great Nadia Boulanger. His charts were as complex as any that Gil Evans had ever penned, maybe even more so. Legrand may have come from a classical music background, but he was an ardent lover of jazz.

Legrand recounted their session in June of 1958, saying, “Miles was then at the top of New York jazz. Everyone said to me: ‘He will come to the meeting and stand near the door, keeping his trumpet in his closed case. He will listen for five minutes, and if he likes music, he will sit down, open his case, and play. If he does not like, he will leave and he will never again contact you.’ I was so afraid that I had flare-ups of sweat! I started rehearsing with the orchestra. The door opened, and Miles listened by the door for five minutes. Then he sat down, opened his case and began to play. After the first catch, he asked me, ‘Michel, is my game [playing] suitable?’ That is how it all began.” (Source: Wikipedia)

One of the alternate covers of Legrand Jazz featuring Miles Davis that fans will come across when searching for the original.

And so Miles joined Legrand’s orchestra for the very first session on June 25, 1958, playing on early jazz classics such as Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz and the Louis Armstrong/Jelly Roll Morton classic, Wild Man Blues.” This was unusual for the forward-looking musician who rarely recorded older music, but Legrand’s arrangements were new and cool. Seeing instruments like the big French harp in the studio, along with jazz heavyweights Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, vibraphonist Eddie Costa, and bassist Paul Chambers convinced Miles to participate in this now-classic session.

The Legrand Jazz sessions had been organized as a payment of sorts to Legrand, who had not yet been paid for some earlier works that he’d recorded for Columbia. As recompense, the label offered him a New York date at its studios with his choice of repertoire and musicians. Ahead of his recording date, Legrand arrived early in the City to work on completing all of his arrangements before his first session. This would be his chance to impress the crème de la crème of New York’s jazz scene. Everybody who was anybody showed up that day—31 musicians in all. (The group of artists who assembled reminds me of the iconic photo and film, A Great Day in Harlem.)

Legrand chose familiar classic jazz compositions, among them Wild Man Blues,” Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” John Lewis’s Django,” the Sampson-Goodman-Razaf standard Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and Django Reinhardt’s Nuages.” Legrand’s challenge was to render these classics anew, with original and diabolically challenging arrangements to boot. The orchestra must’ve loved that.

For his three sessions, Legrand arranged the brass instruments into two separate sections: four trumpets (Ernie Royal, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, and Joe Wilder) and four trombones (Frank Rehak, Billy Byers, Jimmy Cleveland, and Eddie Bert). These trumpet and trombone sections often “traded fours,” meaning that each musician would take his turn displaying his chops for four measures, one after another as the improvising went round and around. Listen to the Dizzy Gillespie classic, Night in Tunisia,” and you’ll hear the four trumpet players soar stunningly, as if in tribute to Diz.

Legrand Jazz is a must for any jazz fan’s music library, but its provenance is like Ancestry.com on steroids. When searching for the original recording, one encounters 32 different versions, multiple album covers, and different labels! Which begs the question: “Will the real Legrand Jazz please stand up?”

Finally, it has. Los Angeles-based audiophile label Impex Records recently reissued the original album. Sourced from the original master tapes, it’s been cut on the all-tube Bernie Grundman mastering and cutting system, and put on whisper-silent 180-gram vinyl by RTI’s Rick Hashimoto. The album comes packaged as a gatefold LP with photos on the inside that show Legrand at work. Kudos to Impex’s Robert Sliger for the album art and Robert Donnelly, who oversaw production. This Impex reissue of Legrand Jazz is a dream come true for both jazz fans and audiophiles. It is truly the ne plus ultra of jazz reissue, so don’t let this one slip by you.

Album images courtesy of Impex Records.