Melissa Errico’s Grand Achievement, 10 Years in the Making

A veteran Broadway vocalist collaborates with legends Michel Legrand and Phil Ramone

Legrand Affair, the new album from Broadway and cabaret headliner Melissa Errico, is, indeed, a grand affair, involving a 100-piece orchestra, 15 Michel Legrand compositions old and new, master producer Phil Ramone and several trans-Atlantic recording sessions. The story of its creation is as epic as the album itself, spanning six years, a half-dozen world capitals and the birth of three children.

Errico, one of the Great White Way’s brightest lights, whose recent credits include Finian’s Rainbow, My Fair Lady, Sunday In the Park with George, Camelot, Dracula, Anna Karenina, High Society and solo gigs at the Algonquin and the Café Carlyle, first met Legrand in 2002 when she was cast in his offbeat musical Amour. The show, a perhaps too boldly original, post-World War II fantasy, closed after just 17 performances, but the friendship between composer and star endured.

Fast forward to 2005. Legrand, having floated the idea of making an album with Errico, arrived at her New York apartment in mid-February for an extended visit. Errico had compiled a massive binder of Legrand songs, a collection so extensive that the composer himself had forgotten many of them. As they winnowed down the enormous list, Legrand shared the stories behind various songs and delighted both Errico and her husband (retired tennis pro and ESPN correspondent Patrick McEnroe) with colorful tales from his vibrant musical life, including a long-ago beach frolic with Miles Davis and a request he once made to an airline pilot to keep circling over L.A. until he finished a score due to a Hollywood studio.

Their agreed goal was to create a deeply intimate album of ballads, and Legrand referenced two of his favorites—Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now—as examples. Then Legrand insisted that the project needed to be hugely symphonic, suggesting a 100-piece orchestra. Errico wondered about creating something intimate in so grand a setting, but didn’t question her friend’s vast expertise. Legrand also suggested they reach out to “Phil” for assistance. Only when he arrived at Errico’s door the next morning did she realize that the Phil in question was legendary producer Ramone. The following day, Legrand, Ramone and Errico went into the studio to record demos of several of their selected songs with bassist David Finck and drummer Steve Gadd, the composer himself at the piano.

Legrand then returned to France to write the orchestrations, visited once by Errico and Ramone for rehearsals. Legrand and Errico next met in Toronto, several months later. Taking a one-day break from the hit revival of Finian’s Rainbow, Errico flew to Canada to hear a new song, “In Another Life,” Legrand had just completed, with lyrics from his longtime friends and frequent collaborators, Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Errico loved the song, and it was added to a list that had now grown to 15 selections. (Hers would not, however, be the first-to-market recording of “In Another Life.” Jack Jones beat her by a few months, including the song on his Bergman tribute, Love Makes the Changes).

Another few months passed, and Errico found herself in Belgium, with Legrand and Ramone, for the recording of the music tracks. As promised, Legrand had delivered 100 musicians—the Flemish Radio Orchestra (now known as the Brussels Philharmonic)—to a Leuven concert hall. Errico didn’t, however, hear the final, recorded orchestrations until several weeks later, listening to them on a portable CD player while being piloted by Legrand across the Pyrenees for a brief vacation in Spain.

In August 2006, Legrand and Errico met in L.A. She was there for a film project, he was scheduled for a series of jazz concerts, and insisted on including both Errico and her Amour and Finian’s Rainbow costar Malcolm Gets, in several of his performances. (As an aside, Gets and Errico unite for a terrific medley of “Blue Skies” and “It’s a Lovely Day Today” on his 2009 album, The Journey Home). They also spent time with the Bergmans, whose lyrics accompany nine of the finished CD’s tracks.

Legrand and Errico, now several months pregnant with her first child, again teamed in New York at Joe’s Pub and Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center. Soon after, Errico and McEnroe’s daughter, Victoria, was born, followed two years later by twin sisters, Diana and Juliette. Finally, in 2010, Errico was able to clear space in her parenting and professional schedule to lay down the vocal tracks in New York, assisted by the album’s co-producer, acclaimed theater and concert director Richard Jay-Alexander.

The finished album does, remarkably, manage to sound both imposingly majestic and intimate, mirroring the hushed grandeur of Barbra Streisand’s recent projects, Love Is the Answer and What Matters Most (which, as an all-Bergman salute, also includes significant Legrand material—overlapping with Errico on one track, “The Windmills of Your Mind”). Like Streisand, Errico has a voice built to reach the upper balconies but is equally, exceptionally, capable of cozier, more introspective readings.

Her tender handling of “I Will Wait for You” (originally written by Legrand as the main theme for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) amid waves of swirling waves of strings provides stunningly beautiful proof. Many of the selections will be immediately recognizable, including such Bergman-enhanced gems as “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” “The Summer Knows,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and “You Must Believe In Spring.” All are gorgeously rendered, as is the delicate Legrand-Johnny Mercer masterpiece “Once Upon a Summertime.”

But it is the more obscure choices—particularly “Dis Moi” (from the 1971 film Un peu de soliel l’eau froide), the gentlest, sparest of Legrand’s orchestrations, the powerfully emotive, almost anthemic, “Celui-La” (which Legrand wrote the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, in response to the tragedy), the fragile “Martina,” unraveled like a fractured lullaby, and the fresh “In Another Life,” a wonderfully wistful tale of lost romance—that make Legrand Affair especially distinctive.

Legrand Affair will be released October 18 by Ghostlight Records.

If you’d like to share your comments about Melissa Errico or have suggestions for future installments of Hearing Voices, please email jtvocaljazz. You can also follow Christopher Loudon on Twitter @CWLoudon.

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