Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Yesterday at lunch I picked up Anyone for Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi?, a compilation from '64-'65 by the Swingle Singers. I had known the group from a Verve jazz Christmas comp on which they sang an effervescent, crystalline vocalise arrangement of "Carol of the Bells," which I loved. That was pretty much all I knew of them until yesterday.

Such a '60s sound! And so French -- light, airy, sophisticated, chic, cool. Two soprano, two alto, two tenor, two bass, singing the classics in lightly swung arrangements, accompanied by walking bass and swinging drums in the style of the great Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay -- mostly brushes, mostly cymbals, impeccable swing and shimmer. I'd always loved MJQ's wonderful album Blues on Bach -- someone in my friend Jay's family had it when we were kids -- and this reminded me of it.

And what singing! A ten-minute run-through of Mozart's entire suite, A Little Night Music, sung very fast, and splendidly. And -- what's so charming -- with jazz-pop timbre, not classical belting, but amplified intimate crooning, with occasional jazzy portamentos into the notes, always enhancing the music, never compromising the listener's expectation that they will hit their pitches square on the note.

The whole thing was sounding like the sexiest hip bourgeois '60s film dream, that glamorous way of being coolly self-possessed and impeccably turned out, untouchably sensual and flirtatious, wholly attractive and yet, totally foreign to my own way of being.

I remembered reading that Michel Legrand's sister sang in the group, so when I got home I did some digging.

Christiane Legrand was not only in the group, she was the stellar soprano soloist, the one who gave the group whatever sultriness it had.

After digging some more, the reason for the sound's glamour came clearer to me. It isn't well-advertised, and the web is full of contradictory information, but Legrand provided the voice for Catherine Deneuve's role in her brother's masterpiece score for one of my all-time favorite movies, the cinematic pop-style-opera without a word of spoken dialogue, Les parapluies de Cherbourg.

Christiane Legrand later recorded with Italian modernist composer Luciano Berio, and an album of Brazilian music, Of Smiles and Tears; and, pleasing my mind's ear, the Swingle Singers also recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet -- I haven't heard any of this music, and I want to.

It's mysterious to me why Christiane Legrand doesn't cut a wider profile. Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a widely loved movie, and her voice is a key reason for its success. The Swingle Singers sold lots of albums in the 1960s, attracting jazz, pop, and classical fans, and a less splendid version of the group tours today, 45 years after their founding. The group's ensemble sound was uniquely gorgeous, and Legrand's solos pierce with their beauty.

Searching last night, I came across an MP3 posting of perhaps the Anyone for Mozart etc. album's most gorgeous tune, a Legrand solo with accompaniment from the rest of the group, the Largo movement from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F minor. The linked site also has a YouTube clip of a later version of the group singing excellently, if with less gorgeous blend than the original group's (and with really hammy staging), Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Their light sound does not suit the romantic Russian nearly as well as it does the nimble-footed baroque and classical styles of Bach and Mozart. I advise not watching it until after you listen to Legrand's solo. She's the woman who made Bach sexy, the woman who brought sexy Bach.
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