Legrand Jazz sold well after its release in 1959. Part of its success had to do with brand loyalty, as the leader of the album, who handpicked the musicians for three different recording sessions and chose and arranged each composition with specific players in mind, was Michel Legrand. Although only 27 when the album came out, Legrand was already quite popular due to a series of skillfully arranged if fairly lightweight non-jazz albums.
If Legrand Jazz pulled in a broad audience, it also scored big with bona fide jazz lovers. It was hard to resist an album which featured three different big bands that collectively served as a sort of who’s who in the jazz world playing well-known jazz compositions from different eras, including “Django,” “’Round Midnight,” “Night in Tunisia,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” The soloist we most quickly associate with the record, and whose name, in fact, appears on the front cover, is Miles Davis, and his importance to this project is undeniable, as this is prime Miles. The trumpeter had recently released his first album on Columbia, ’Round About Midnight—and the title track to that album, the great Thelonious Monk ballad, was one of four tracks on Legrand Jazz that feature Miles as a soloist.
Other heavyweights include Ben Webster, whose breathy and seductive tenor saxophone solos are exquisitely framed by Legrand’s rich and highly imaginative arrangements. John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, and Bill Evans—all of whom worked on legendary Miles Davis sessions—perform with Miles here, and other important jazz names include Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, and Phil Woods. This is a record where even the smallest touches have historical resonance, including the dabs of color added by Eddie Costa’s vibes, Herbie Mann’s flute, and Hank Jones’ piano. No wonder Dom Cerulli gave the record five stars in his 1959 Down Beat review. Legrand Jazz fits squarely in the tradition of late-50s cross-pollination between American and French jazz musicians, and that lineage includes another Miles Davis project, the soundtrack to Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, which was released the same year Legrand Jazz was recorded (1958).
One other thing must be mentioned in connection with Legrand Jazz: the sound. The new Impex vinyl reissue, which used an all-analog chain, offers a wide, full soundstage. Detailed and warm, the LP has an in-the-room presence with lots of air. If texture and timbre appeal to you, this is a must-hear audiophile reissue. After listening to the reissue I discussed the project with Bob Donnelly, who, along with Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Studios, helped cut the album. When asked why Impex chose that particular project, Donnelly said, “Legrand Jazz was a no-brainer as it has Miles Davis and America’s other top jazzmen of the time. Also, the arrangements of jazz standards are exciting and different. This title not only has all the prerequisites, but it’s also historically significant in that it combines three different lineups with one of the most popular arrangers coming out of France at the time. It has great sound, and no one has reissued it in America using the original Columbia tapes before.”
Insight into how the album should sound came from Columbia’s original stereo release of the album. “It helped that I’m a record dealer/collector and have access to many copies of a given title,” Donnelly explained. “I gathered all my copies together of Legrand Jazz (eight, as it turned out). Then I listened to find the copy with best overall sonic quality. That gave us our reference. When we were at the mastering session—something Impex always participates in—we listened to the master tape and compared it to our reference LP to determine if the tape needed EQ and level adjustments.”
Donnelly described Legrand Jazz as one of those projects where everything went right. “Usually some of these old tapes need help,” he said, “but in this case we got lucky. We only had to make minimal EQ adustments. Probably that’s because the tapes hadn’t been used in over 50 years, and Mark Wilder at Sony made us an analog mix-down transfer of the original 1958 work tapes.
“When we were ready to cut the lacquer for plating, Chris had just finished getting the tube lathe in top working order and made a test cut on it to compare to the solid state lathe. He immediately called us and highly recommended we do it on the tube lathe. We normally would want to hear a reference lacquer first but decided to trust Chris, and when we got the test pressing, boy, were we glad we did. It was much better than the solid state reference. We’re very happy with the way it sounds.”