Living legend Billy Joel talks about the staying power of his music, the alchemy and process of songwriting, the origins of his aesthetic, Beethoven and the Beatles, and what he’s trying to learn now.
By Ben Finane
On 15 Etudes for Jazz Piano by Dick Hyman
When most people think of Études, they think of Chopin, or they think of Rachmaninoff, of the great European classical composers. What’s interesting about these set of Études, they cover 15 different styles of 15 different pianists. It starts with Scott Joplin and ends will Bill Evans. And there’s a common thread through all of these études, and that’s a steady rhythmic pulse, and Dick Hyman talks about that. This is something that is very unique to jazz, the idea of a steady rhythmic syncopation that occurs from start to finish.
So the challenges in these pieces occur in the different ways rhythm is utilized. You have the ragtime rhythm, which is a bit more straight; through the more syncopated elements of someone like Earl Hines; the more rhapsodic and fantasy-like runs of Art Tatum; Someone like Dave Brubeck, who was known for his odd time signatures. So Dick Hyman really does a great job of covering all the styles, or all the idiosyncrasies of these specific jazz pianists. And even though they’re not necessarily as virtuosic, certainly, as the Chopin Étude, it remains very challenging to play in these styles while maintaining the rhythmic integrity.
These pieces can be played in isolation. Bill Charlap introduced me to these set of Études, because we played four different Études as part of a dedication to Dick Hyman at the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony. So we played four Études in no particular order, but you can play them back-to-back from start to finish. It’s a nice set of pieces, in that you can play them in isolation, and you can play them in a complete set. It's very challenging, I find, to play them in a complete set, because you’re really going from one approach to another, back to back. Your mind has to shift in just a split-second from one piece to another.
It’s great if you can play the Études in a complete run and just experience that challenge, and understanding sort of that common thread between: Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Art Tatum. There's one called South Side Boogie that is dedicated to Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey and Albert Ammons; those are three great boogie-woogie pianists, and so that’s all dones as one piece called “South Side Boogie.” Number eight, I believe, is dedicated to Duke Ellington. I missed Teddy Wilson. I can’t even keep track of all of the pianists. But the last three are George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, and, finally, Bill Evans. The Bill Evans one is called “Passage.” I think it's the most difficult, because it’s a very lyrical ballad-like piece, but you still have to keep the time going, it metrically still has to continue. There a lot of little subtleties and voices that you have to bring out, that make piano playing so challenging and fun.
These aren’t playing something note for note, like transcriptions. They’re more of an exercise. I see these pieces as having the potential to be embellished. I don’t play everything note-for-note; there are maybe a few discrepancies. And even in the recording that Dick Hyman made, there are several differences between the written score, which was published I 1982, and then the record, which I think was released later. So I think a good exercise is to learn the music from the score, to understand the language of each pianist. And Hyman is really a great master at getting to all of the details of the language of a specific musician. And then, from there, you can embellish and, I feel, do whatever you’d like. Well, maybe not whatever you’d like, but as long it’s in the spirit of the piece, you can make embellishments and some slight changes. I certainly think it's a good starting point, however, to stick with the score — just to understand the sort of idiosyncrasies of each pianist.
On jazz and classical
I get a lot of questions from classical pianists about how they could learn more about jazz piano playing, about the genre. Of course I always recommend listening to records and doing transcriptions. But the Hyman Études are a good introduction to the language of certain pianists, and you’re not forced to improvise, but simply understand the nature of the subtleties and the nuances, especially with rhythm, that are present in each style. And that’s the greatest challenge, I think, in playing any musical language, is to understand the rhythmic language and how to play correctly inside of the rhythm. I feel like that’s probably 70 to 80% of the battle in playing jazz music. Improvisation is something, over time, that can be acquired. But to have a feel, the proper feel, that's something that you really have to live, and you have to continuously edit and revise and work on evolving and improving.
I wouldn't call myself a classical musician. I studied classical music and I love classical music dearly. I think it's easy to paint a broad picture of genres, classical, jazz, whatever. I feel like someone spends their life playing and absorbing the music of J.S. Bach, they’re going to play J.S. Bach very well, and it’s going to be a part of them. Same if someone's playing the music of Monk or Ellington or whatever. I think the key for any artist is figure out how to absorb their influences to a degree that they’re able to distill that in a way that creates a unique sound for them, individual sound for them. Certainly, classical music informs the way I play, my approach to playing, and informs the style of music that I play. But I wouldn’t put myself in the category of someone who spends their life dedicated to Brahms or Rachmaninoff.
With Steinways, there’s a standard of excellence that is always present with the pianos. What I love is that each individual instrument has very specific characteristics that differ from instrument to instrument. And it’s nice to have an opportunity to spend some time finding out all of the little nooks and crannies and details of an instrument, and how to sort of bring the best qualities out of each piano. I’ve had the privilege of being a Steinway Artist for a few years, and trying out all kinds of pianos, and it’s really exciting to see the range, and see the whole gamut of qualities, whether it's a more mellow instrument with a certain singing quality to it, if it’s a brighter instrument.
I think that the great challenge in playing different instruments every time — we don't have the luxury, as pianists, to take our instruments on the road — is seeing what kind of traits can be emphasized through the instrument, and using the qualities of the instrument along with the space that I’m performing in. So it could be a big concert hall or a small recital hall. It could be outdoors, which is always challenging. But one thing that I love Steinway is that there is a certain standard of excellence that is consistent across the board. And it’s just a matter of understanding, usually within a short period of time, all of the beautiful qualities that each instrument presents.
Action is very important to me. I typically like a moderate action, not too heavy, not too light, but one where I really feel like I have complete control over the instrument. I’m not expecting too many surprises in terms of evenness. The treble, I can feel exactly how my touch is going to resonate with the bottom of the keybed. Same with the bass. And I think that's important in gaging what kind of tone quality is going to come out of the piano.
On Steinway & Sons Spirio
A big luxury with Spirio that a performer can play, it’s recorded on Spirio, and then he or she can listen to the actual performance in the room. And that’s a very different experience than listening to a recording, because you really get a sense of how the instrument sounds in the natural acoustic setting. I think anybody would love to have one of these in their home. They’re playing their program, or they’re playing something, and then they actually hear how it sounds in the space. Or maybe they’re playing in a concert hall, and they want to see if they’re projecting. Or maybe they're playing too bombastically. And they go to the back of a hall, they play Spirio, and they can hear the performance. That’s a major luxury that can’t really be duplicated on recording.
When I hear myself played back, it certainly informs me about how I'm playing. When I recorded the Hyman Études on Spirio, I played it back, just to get a sense of how I’m touching the piano, and making sure it’s just the right dynamic level where I want it, the right kind of tone and production. And then from there, I can tweak things as necessary to get the result I want.
By the 1964 release of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Legrand already had two decades of experience in music. Born in 1932 in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the child prodigy entered the Paris Conservatory at age eleven, studying with Nadia Boulanger, and graduated at age nineteen. He was dashing, a touch arrogant, and a “formidable seducer,” as one French newspaper recently put it (he married three times, most recently to the actor Macha Méril in 2014).
After Legrand’s 1955 jazz orchestra album I Love Paris sold eight million copies worldwide, his label pressured him to do one about Vienna. His heart wasn’t in it, so he turned it into a satire — Vienna Holiday — “about waltzes that I hate.” Other big-band sessions followed, including Michel Legrand Plays for Dancers, which he irreverently claimed was an effort to “destroy all of the violin orchestras.”
Around 1960, Legrand started practicing the piano for four hours a day, aiming to get his technique up to a level where he could perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The project never materialized, he told The New York Times, because he realized, “When I need a pianist, I know so many wonderful ones.” Cherbourg showed that Legrand could rise to a different challenge: setting the entire dialogue of a film to music. The bittersweet score — tracing a love affair between Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a garage mechanic, and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve), a girl whose mother owns a struggling umbrella shop — is something entirely new, a kind of on-screen opera. Legrand once claimed that he spent a year composing music to Demy’s dialogue, and Demy occasionally reworked the lines to match Legrand’s themes. An actor and a singer were assigned to each role, and the entire film was dubbed. Legrand’s sister, Christiane Legrand, sang the role of the mother.
Though many film critics grimaced at the film’s sweetly conventional plot, few failed to notice its rich musical fabric. In its recitative-like passages the score reflects the influence of vocalese groups such as The Double Six of Paris and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The central songs — “Watch What Happens” and “I Will Wait for You” — generate leitmotifs that illuminate the shifting moods of longing and regret. And the opening scene, set in Guy’s garage, has the feel of a rollicking big-band suite, followed later by passages of tango and mambo rhythms.
And just as the score moves between arias and recitative, the visuals are united with bold, saturated colors in the sets and wardrobe. As Oxford University music lecturer Matthew Cheung Salisbury recently noted on Twitter, Cherbourg was 1964’s “premier Gesamtkunstwerk,” referring to Richard Wagner’s concept for a “total work of art.”
A Move to Hollywood
Less celebrated but arguably as influential is Demy and Legrand’s 1967 picture The Young Girls of Rochefort, a whimsical confection with splashy outdoor production numbers and crisp jazz arrangements. The film yielded “Chanson de Maxence,” which has been covered by numerous performers, including Steinway Artist Brad Mehldau and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. (The melody, paired with new English-language lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, became the song “You Must Believe in Spring.”)
In an email, Mehldau praised Legrand’s “very strong melodies and harmonies that go deep, yet have a fundamental simplicity that you hear in the great songwriters. There’s a clear story to the music.” Mehldau especially admires the way Legrand uses harmonic cycles, “creating constant tension and resolution.”
In 1966 Legrand moved to Hollywood, where his friends and fellow composers Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones introduced him to the Bergmans. He’d go on to pen dozens of songs with the lyricists, including “The Windmills of Your Mind,” from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair. The ornate melody, hypnotically intoned by Noel Harrison, perfectly matched the moody tale of the playboy thief played by Steve McQueen. Other Legrand–Bergman songs outlasted the films in which they appeared. “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” from The Happy Ending (1969), became a standard covered by pianists Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, and Bill Evans.
“He could write melodies faster and better than virtually anybody before or since,” says Burlingame, who notes that Legrand would also boldly reimagine his older songs. Burlingame cites the Grammy-winning 1972 album Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand: “I remember buying that LP and getting home and putting it on the turntable and thinking, ‘My God, he’s rethought all his own stuff for Sarah Vaughan and it’s just as great as it was the first time around.’ ”
‘He could write melodies faster and better than virtually anybody.’
The Frenchman’s talent for an unending melody was matched by his flair for orchestration, which took on a modernist edge in several of his scores. The Thomas Crown Affair began as a kind of independent jazz symphony, which Legrand then cut to fit the film’s individual scenes. The seductive chess match between McQueen’s and Faye Dunaway’s characters uses sultry jazz strings and bright splashes of guitar, piano, and harpsichord.
Even more audaciously, Legrand developed a series of jazz-orchestral cues for The Picasso Summer (1969), an otherwise uneven film about a San Francisco couple that travels to France in search of Pablo Picasso (an extended animated sequence evokes Stravinsky). And in 1970, Legrand delivered a trippy neoclassical score for Demy’s Peau d’Âne (Donkey Skin), a fairy-tale musical with echoes of Cherbourg.
In 1971 Legrand won his first Oscar, for Best Original Dramatic Score, with the coming-of-age film Summer of ’42, one of more than a dozen awards the blockbuster film received. Its four-note, minor-key theme is a relentless earworm — sweetly melancholic, with lush string arrangements and tinkly piano elaborations.
It’s hard to deny that Legrand didn’t always choose his film projects effectively, and though he earned three Oscar nominations for Yentl — and won for Best Original Song Score — the Streisand vehicle has its detractors. As The New York Times noted, “The songs... constitute an ongoing interior monologue for [protagonist] Yentl, but they have been slapped so awkwardly onto the narrative at times — with Yentl sometimes singing over other characters’ dialogue — that they neither advance nor amplify the action.” Legrand later called the project “exhausting,” and sought to move on by writing music for the 1983 James Bond film Never Say Never Again.
Custodian of a grand song tradition
Streisand was one of dozens of prominent singers to interpret Legrand’s work; the list also includes Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Sting, and opera singers Kiri Te Kanawa and Jessye Norman.
Some of these projects featured Legrand himself, either conducting or at the piano, and in this sense, he became something of a custodian of the formal Hollywood song tradition.
In later years Legrand continued to push himself, whether it meant learning how to pilot a plane or writing symphonic works for the concert hall. Conductor Raymond Harvey led the premiere of Legrand’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in 2016, with the composer joining the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
“He was a delightful man and still a marvelous pianist, even at that advanced age,” Harvey recalls. “The rehearsal process was congenial but also very detailed.” He adds: “The piece has a little bit of everything: thorny sections, brilliant little piano cadenzas, overtly lyrical moments, a grand theme in the last movement.”
The four-note, minor-key theme of Summer of ’42 is a relentless earworm, with lush string arrangements and tinkly piano elaborations.
Legrand also took on greater cultural stature in later years. He was named a commander in the Légion d’honneur, one of France’s highest honors, in 2016. “He was a great cross-cultural presence between America and France,” says Marie-Monique Steckel, the president of the French Institute Alliance Française. “He wanted to be part of the music world both in America and France. He had a whole French education but then fell in love with jazz and American music.”
And Steckel sums up a common refrain about Legrand: that whether it was his pioneering film scores, his jazz performances, or his concert-hall work, he exuded a zest for life.
Legrand turned reflective in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. For “every movie that I’ve scored,” he said, “I’ve tried to be original, to be different from what we’re used to listening to. When I write music, my music talks. It’s not a music that says nothing, a tapestry where nothing happens, like most of the composers. I think I’ve been an adventurer — in life, in my work, too.”