Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Passion from Philly and France":Claudia Beechman's The Grand Legrand

Claudia Beechman has a way with words. She is a versatile and deeply moving poet as well as being an accomplished vocalist, and in listening to her latest CD, The Grand Legrand, a collection of 11 songs (most of which you will instantly recognize by melody if not by title) composed by the amazing Michel Legrand, one cannot help but realize that it truly is the singer as much as the song. Claudia’s deft use of phrasing and her unique interpretations of the songs’ varied meanings and moods put her in the realm of entertainer (well beyond mere technical proficiency) where the greats like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Crawford reside. Making a song your own is like crafting a poem—awareness and manipulation of sibilance, consonance, and rhythm allow the vocalist to stir the listener’s emotions the way an able writer does. This is where true artistry lies and Claudia Beechman possesses it in no short supply.
None of this proficiency and artistry has happened by accident. Music and theatre are in Claudia’s family and in her blood. (What follows is a very brief synopsis—please visit Claudia’s bio on her New Mystics poetry page and her website, http://www.theatrefest.com/claudiabeechman/ to read more about her fascinating and very successful life in the Arts, and for performance dates and information about her other CDs and projects). She started at 14 as a folksinger, where she was influenced by Judy Collins and Joan Baez. She progressed to studying opera, earned a BA in French, and spent a summer in Montreal where she took a course in Moliere and “le francais vivant par l’action dramatique”—living French thru acting. She moved to Paris and undertook serious study of the actor’s craft. While she was home on a visit, her father gave her a deluxe edition of Edith Piaf and she learned the guitar accompaniment and began to perform the songs at several venues. While playing in clubs she was asked by a Canadian actor to do the lead female role in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Her career has developed from there, as she has continually expanded her repertoire of French songs with piano accompaniment and learned to sing songs in Hebrew, Turkish, and Greek.
Before I talk about the songs, I want to share a little information about the man who wrote them. Michel Legrand composed over 200 film and television scores (e.g., Wuthering Heights, Ice Station Zebra, Lady Sings the Blues) working along the way with directors like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Luc Godard, and Orson Welles. He has won 3 Oscars out of 13 nominations, 5 Grammys, and an Emmy nomination. At 22 his album I Love Paris became one of the best-selling instrumental albums ever released. He collaborated with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on some of his most well-known songs (which appear on this disc) as well as the Oscar-winning Yentl score.
Michel’s reputation as a composer gave him the opportunity to work with many accomplished writers and performers, including Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Johnny Mathis, Quincy Jones, Neil Diamond, Stan Getz, James Galway, Ray Charles, Arturo Sandoval, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. After he saw a performance by Dizzy Gillespie in 1947 he got hooked on jazz. After going to New York in 1956 he made his first jazz album Legrand Jazz with no less than Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Ben Webster, among others. He was only 24. Miles used to call him The Frog. Ironically, Michel played on Davis’s last jazz album. Michel went to Hollywood in 1967 and won ASCAP’s Henry Mancini award in 1998.
I found it interesting that Legrand writes at a table, pulling the music from the silence. He says that the instrument would only get in the way and limit the imagination as it creates the music. He also never listens to the album once the engineering is finished because he doesn’t want to have any regrets about his decisions or risk imitating what he’s already done.
And now we come to the songs on The Grand Legrand, and the masterful job Claudia has done with them. The CD, which has been popular in Europe as well as in the United States, features arrangements and piano by Tom Baust (an accomplished accompanist and music director for Claudia and other concert and cabaret performers and a professional singer as well) and cello by Nancy Stokking, who has performed at several top venues, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Both Tom and Nancy have performed with no less than Sarah Brightman of Phantom of the Opera fame, and their expertise and passion are obvious throughout the 11 songs.
The songs on the CD can be categorized by the amount of arrangement and instrumentation used. For example, “One at a Time” and “Summer Me Winter Me”
have very simple cabaret style arrangements, which really showcase Claudia’s memorable mezzo-soprano, including a powerful flash of the top end on the latter and “Happy,” which is a difficult song with varied rhythms, challenging phrasing, and some interesting incidentals, is also quiet enough musically to let Claudia’s talent shine through. This particular arrangement incorporates the theme from “Brian’s Song” to wonderful effect. “You Must Believe in Spring,” another song simply arranged, features a haunting cello that demonstrates how the musical instrument can be as much a conveyor of pure emotion as the voice when placed in hands as capable as Stokking’s. You can hear parts of “The Summer of ‘42” in this song, which is another excellent touch.
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” has a wonderful arrangement with opening and closing phrasing reminiscent of Stephen Schwartz. Claudia really shows off the top of her range in this one.
In contrast to the subtle arrangements on the aforementioned songs, “After the Rain” has an instrumental fullness that overpowers the singer (a danger on some of the other songs as well) and instrumentation, especially the piano, truly goes too far here. The arpeggios and other rain effects are based on a good idea but are just too much. It makes the song too busy and Claudia’s voice is nearly lost.
“Once Upon a Summertime” and “The Years of My Youth” both shine a light on Claudia’s facility with French lyrics, and the result is both fluid and beautiful. It is in both of these songs that Claudia best demonstrates her ability to sell a song, including a well- executed spoken section in the former. Several piano variations on classical themes create a compelling atmosphere in the interludes. Again, the cello is particularly powerful and bursting with emotion. “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” has a wonderful musical interlude as well.
“Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the only recorded medley of the music and sung dialogue from the 1964 film of the same title (there is actually only one song—“I Will Wait for You”). It has the further distinction of being the most popular download on the disc at cdbaby.com, and a few listens will clearly demonstrate why. The film, which won the coveted 'Palme d'or' award was groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first film musical entirely sung, taking as its subject matter a love story set at the time of the French-Algerian war (a subject explored by Jean Genet in his play The Screens just a few years earlier). It featured Catherine Deneuve, then just 19 years old. (My readers will probably know her best from the David Bowie vampire film The Hunger). The medley is done in mostly French with the original lyrics as well as an English translation on the inside of the CD’s cover. Baust demonstrates his further ability as a vocalist, singing the part of Guy with sensitivity and theatrical skill and complementing Claudia’s engaging singing of the words of Genevieve.
“The Windmills of Your Mind” is my favorite track on the CD and my favorite Michel Legrand composition. It is very well done here (and there are several terribly poor versions—including the one from the film by Rex Harrison’s son Noel!) The song comes from Norman Jewison's 1968 film "The Thomas Crown Affair," which starred Steve McQueen. The song featured French lyrics by Eddy Marnay and English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and won the Oscar for Best Film Song in 1969. Claudia’s deft transition from chest to head voice and back while she works her way thru the spiraling lyrics is well supported by Baust’s best piano work on the CD, with Nancy Stokking’s cello complementing at every turn.
The Grand Legrand is the perfect CD for a quiet, romantic evenings with that special someone and a good bottle of wine. It has become a unique and appreciated part of my collection.

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