Why did Michel Colombier, a writer of film scores, compose and
conduct the contemporary Symphony "Wings," using 158 musicians and 24 backup
vocalists and five solo singers?
Because, you may say, they were there.
Why were they there? Because Herb Alpert reached into the wall-to- wall coffers at
A&M Records and sent a whopping care-about-music package to Paris
to finance the project.
Alpert is proud of this, his loftiest undertaking, to date as a producer at his 9-year-old record company.
"It all began," he says, soon after Michel came over here as Petula Clark's musical
director. "When she sang on one of my TV Specials, 'The Brass Are Coming,' I
met him. He did some writing for strings and woodwinds that appealed to
me. I asked him whether he'd like to try an ambitious work someday, using
a jazz -ensemble, full symphony orchestra and soloists."
Colombier allowed that he had entertained thoughts along those lines. Finally, after
almost three years, those thoughts have become "Wings."
The 35-minute work is less jazz than rock-pop-classical, less symphony than cantata. The voices are those of
Bill Medley, sounding like a righteous black brother; Vermettya Royster, a
sure-enough soul-packed black sister; Paul Williams, a former actor, who contributed all the lyrics
(he also wrote "We've Only Just Begun"); Lani Hall, ex- Brasil
and Herb Alpert, ex-TJB.
"When I first heard what Michel had written," Alpert says, "I was on his
melodic frequency immediately; but he was then working with a lyricist in
Paris who was a little too esoteric. I recommended Paul, who had to do it the
hard way, fitting words to pre-determined melodies."
The original name of the work was "Freedom And Fear". This has
since been reduced to a title for the opening song, accorded a
headstrong Ray Charles-by-way-of-Joe Cocker delivery by Bill Medley.
Another working title was "Pourquoi Pas?" which has become the
name of an instrumental sequence.
Asked the significance of the present title, Alpert shrugs: "It's
up to the listener to get the message of the title and the lyrics and
the music. I never did get around to analyzing and picking apart the
lyric content. It's like jazz, in the sense that you can listen to a John Coltrane solo and tell me what you hear, and I'll tell you what I
hear, and there will be two entirely different reactions."
The basic thrust of Williams' poetry would seem to be an affirmative upbeat exhortation.
In one verse Medley sings: "I've been the world and felt it turning/
been everywhere and tried to learn it all/ Done everything that I think I
can/ And if I could I'd be the wings of man" As for Colombier's
objectives, though Alpert grants that the mingling of a symphony orchestra
with jazz and/or rock sounds, is hardly new, he feels that Colombier has translated the process
into 1971 terms. John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet- recorded with the Stuttgart
Symphony in 1958; Duke Ellington has been involved in similar experiments since 1955; Dave
Brubeck performed his oratorio a year or two ago with the Cincinatti Symphony.
More recently the trumpeter-composer Chuck Mangione recorded his "Friends and
Love (released on Mercury) with the Rochester Philharmonic, a work patterned along lines very similar to 'Wings' but leaning
less heavily on lyrics and more on jazz improvisation.
Alpert is convinced that 'Wings' is Colombiers chef d'oeuvre. "Here's a man who has broad
and deep roots: Paris Conservatory trained, with a background in
appreciating, everything from Bach to Lennon-McCartney. He's taken all
these tools and brought everything up to date.
"Listening to Michel's work I was reminded of a question I asked
myself a couple of years ago: What would Ravel be writing it he were living
What indeed? He might be the liveliest, busiest 96-year-old writer of
Franco-Spanish pop-jazz-rock flavored cantatas, on the Paris -to
Is Michel Colombier indeed a 1971 counterpart of Ravel? I disqualify
myself from answering, since Alpert has decreed: "Nobody who has heard
"Wings" only two or three times is entitled to give an
opinion." I will conceded, though, that at press time, nearing the
end of my third hearing I was receiving much stronger vibrations than
had reached me the first or the second time around.