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JAZZ : ‘Dingo’: Sweet Swan Song of Legrand Jazz From Davis

<i> Leonard Feather is The Times' jazz critic. </i>

The scene: a movie set on an airstrip in the Australian desert. The temperature on this dusty day in 1990 is a stifling 105 degrees. The participants: a crew of 50, plus more than 100 extras--and thousands of flies.

As the cameras begin rolling, a short, unsmiling man steps out of a Boeing 707. The colorfully draped figure is Miles Dewey Davis, who is portraying fictional musician Billy Cross in the film “Dingo.”

As Davis, in his first film acting role, starts playing the unabashed four-beat jazz that identified him decades ago, a young boy, Dingo Anderson, appears enchanted by the sound. The trumpeter tells him, “If you ever come to Paris, look me up.”

“Dingo” stars Davis--who died at age 65 of complications of pneumonia and a stroke on Sept. 28 in Santa Monica--and Colin Friels, who plays the adult Dingo Anderson. The film--set for a one-week run from Friday through Dec. 20 at the Laemmle Monica 4-Plex Theatre in Santa Monica--offers proof that the most controversial performer in jazz was still able near the end of his life to reassert the artistry of his pre-fusion past.

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Michel Legrand helped Davis immeasurably in his return to his early style. As the film’s co-composer, arranger and conductor, Legrand was as essential a part of the musical power of the “Dingo” soundtrack as arranger-composer Gil Evans was to such Davis orchestral album masterpieces as “Miles Ahead.”

Legrand wrote the simple, haunting theme that underlies much of the picture and that serves as the recurrent element in the soundtrack album, recently released by Warner Bros. Records.

“The (project) began for me,” Legrand said in a phone interview from Paris, “when Miles called and said (Legrand imitating the famous Davis growl), ‘Michel . . . I have to write a film score, and I want you to do it with me.’ Well, when Miles calls, you take the first plane.”

As Legrand soon learned after arriving in Hollywood in February, 1990, the script was written with Miles in mind, and the Australian director and co-producer, Rolf de Heer, persuaded the trumpeter to take the role of Cross. Davis, however, made his acceptance conditional on securing Legrand’s help. The pair had worked together in 1958 on the acclaimed album “Legrand Jazz.”

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And how did Davis feel about playing straight-ahead jazz after his decade-long refusal to turn back the musical clock?

“I asked him that on the first day, out at his Malibu home,” Legrand recalled. “He said, ‘That’s no problem, because the story begins a long time ago and I’ll do what the script calls for.’ So we sat and talked and drank and ate, and it was beautiful, but I finally said, ‘Miles, we have to start prerecording next week.’ So he’d play a phrase and put it on paper, but nothing much happened that day.”

As the days went by, Davis didn’t feel much like working, but Legrand coaxed him into action.

“I told him: ‘I’ll write down everything from those few notes we did last time, I’ll prerecord all the band stuff, then next week you come in and we’ll just overdub your part,’ ” Legrand said.

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During the summer and fall, Davis went to Australia and Paris for the acting sequences. Last February, after editing was completed, Legrand and Davis met again for post-recording.

“He was in great shape,” Legrand recalled. “Even if it was a very bright tempo, he played everything with such love. It was a wonderful experience.”

Also important was the contribution of Chuck Findley, who recorded the trumpet parts for Friels’ Dingo character.

As Legrand explained, director De Heer wanted “a trumpeter who not only was inspired by Miles but could also play like a wild animal--like the Australian dingos.”

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“So right away,” Legrand said, “I thought of Chuck, who is so flexible, and he worked with me a lot in the studios. Rolf de Heer sent me a tape with all the animal cries in it, and Chuck played like--well, he played like a desert dog, barking and crying. There’s a scene in the outback that is really beautiful.”

Findley is heard again in the final half-hour of the film, after Dingo has finally caught up with his idol in Paris. Cross takes the younger man to a jazz club, where he sits in with a small band led by a trumpeter (whose role is played by composer Onzy Matthews but whose music was taped by trumpeter Nolan Smith). The climax is a three-way jam. Cross, who had given up the horn after suffering a stroke, decides to join in.

The rekindling of the Davis-Legrand partnership could have led to other ventures, the composer said.

“I saw Miles just last July when he came to France to receive the Legion d’Honneur,” Legrand said. “He called me and said, ‘Michel, you’ve got to come here and hold my hand.’ We talked about doing another record session together; in fact, we had started to work on it.

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“He seemed so absolutely normal and fine and happy--then all of a sudden, just weeks later, I hear the news. But I am happy that everyone can see and hear him in this final triumph.”


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