Take Many Textures, Then Mix Together
A 77-year-old child prodigy with bushy eyebrows and the heart of an adolescent swooning at his first exposure to Rachmaninoff: that describes the sensibility of Michel Legrand
, the French jazz pianist and composer and multiple Oscar winner who is playing a rare New York engagement at Birdland, accompanied by a string quartet, harp, bass and drums.
This unwieldy mixture of classical, jazz and Hollywood is built around pianism that suggests a steep mountain brook spilling from level to level on an elaborate series of terraces, as Mr. Legrand tosses off stylistic quotes from masters like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and especially Erroll Garner. As both a composer and a pianist, Mr. Legrand favors repeated chromatic sequences, piled onto one another until one wonders if the structure can hold all that weight without collapsing.
The novelty ingredient of his new show, “Romance ...With Strings Attached,” is the harpist Catherine Michel. The centerpiece of Wednesday’s show was an extended suite for piano and harp of Mr. Legrand’s melodies from “Yentl” featuring Ms. Michel, who played the piece from memory. A virtuoso, she plucked familiar tunes linked by sweeping celestial arpeggios as Mr. Legrand’s piano filled in the background.
If the music was diaphanously pretty, it floated away like mist for lack of a rhythmic foundation. The dual textures of harp and piano set up some weirdly discordant overtones suggesting that these instruments may not be an ideal match. The absence of a bass, or of any solid sense of song structure as the themes melted into one another, made one long for some physical support.
The evening began with an extended theme and variation on “Watch What Happens” that established the format of much of the rest of the concert, in which songs were divided into blocks: for string quartet and harp, for jazz trio and for the combination of the two. The quartet — Barry Finclair and Robin Bushman on violins, Richard Brice on viola, Stephanie Cummins on cello — played beautifully. But the integration with the rhythm section — David Finck on bass and Lewis Nash on drums — was tentative.
Mr. Legrand occasionally sang in an enthusiastic croak. At the end of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” he tried to divide the word “with” into four different registers, going from low to high, but his voice refused to obey.
Michel Legrand performs through Sunday at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Clinton; (212) 581-3080, birdlandjazz.com.