He has, without a doubt, one of the most impressive résumés in the history of show business.
Here's the short version for Michel Legrand, the French pianist/composer/arranger: He has recorded with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan. He has scored movies for Jean-Luc Godard, Clint Eastwood and Barbra Streisand. He has accompanied Maurice Chevalier, Jacques Brel and Johnny Mathis. His songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Jessye Norman. He has won five Grammys and three Oscars (for "Windmills of Your Mind," "The Summer of '42" and "Yentl"). Indie-rock hipster alert: He has not yet worked with his niece, Victoria Legrand, of the duo Beach House.
The Frenchman's first taste of success in the United States was costly -- financially but not artistically. His 1954 debut album on Columbia Records -- an instrumental collection called "I Love Paris" -- sold a staggering 8 million copies but he was paid only a modest fee.
"They said you are going to get $200 flat fee and no royalties," said Legrand, 79, who will make his long overdue Twin Cities debut this weekend at the Dakota Jazz Club. "Because I was beginning and it was my first recording, I said, 'Swell. I'll do it with or without money if it's going to be good for me.' Couple years later I was doing a television appearance with Maurice Chevalier in New York and Columbia Records made a big party for me. And they said, 'We want to give you a present. So tell me which album you want to make and you'll make it.'"
He made it and "Legrand Jazz" became legendary. Classically trained, Legrand became smitten with jazz after seeing Dizzy Gillespie in concert in France so he brought in Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Phil Woods, Milt Hinton, Donald Byrd, Coltrane and Davis to work on the record.
Jazz will be the focus of Legrand's gigs at the Dakota with drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Francois Moutin. But he will also play material from movies and sing some of his better known numbers. There are no pieces in his repertoire -- not even "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life" or "The Summer Knows" -- that he is tired of playing.
A vacation from writing
"I cannot be tired because I perform so seldom," he said last week from his New York hotel. "I spend 90 percent of my time writing. I'm writing an opera, I'm writing a ballet, I'm writing a musical. I just said to my agent a few months ago, 'I want to go on vacation and play jazz in clubs.'"
His Dakota gig ("I will discover a new city") is part of a five-city tour put together by New York's famed Blue Note jazz club. It's his first U.S. tour in four years. Legrand can't linger because he needs to be in Montreal for a meeting about a movie musical he will direct, and he must finish composing a score for a Hamburg Ballet piece by John Neumeier that begins rehearsals this summer.
"I love to move from one discipline to another," Legrand explained. "I don't want to do the same kind of stuff all the time. I need variety."
Following orders from Brel
He is not fond of singing, though. In fact, it was Brel, the great, dramatic French singer/songwriter, who compelled his accompanist to sing as his opening act for a European tour. "I said no and Brel says, 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you.' Brel was an extraordinary man and very powerful. I had such admiration for him that I obeyed and I started to sing."
How long did it take Legrand to get comfortable singing?
"Ho, ho, ho. Not yet. Maybe another 15 years it will happen."
Legrand did try composing a Broadway musical. "Amour," based on a popular French short story by Marcel Aymé, was a hit in France in 1997 but closed after only 17 New York performances in 2002.
"I was very disappointed," he said. "It was very humorous and very well produced. The audiences enjoyed it very much and they were standing up at every performance. And one critic at the New York Times said opera bouffe. He was grinning like this and then he killed us."
Do Americans have different tastes than the French?
"Yeah, yeah. It's a different way of writing music," he said. "It's a different audience, too. The Americans are more lyrical, more sentimental, more emotional than the French."
In either case, he doesn't write songs for the audience.
"I'm very selfish. Everything I write, I do it for me, I do it for my own joy. If they like it, great. If they don't, I can't help it. I'm not trying to seduce an audience or try to do what they expect me to do. I always want to be very honest and sincere with myself."
Still, he has seduced millions of music lovers during his grand career. How does he want to be remembered?
"I don't care," he said. "I never look behind me. I always look in front of me."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream