André George Previn KBE – Pianist, Composer, Conductor – GENIUS
Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights
I recently came across a copy of the 1996 Ballads CD that André Previn made for Angel Records and from which the above photograph by Joanne O’Brien is taken.
The CD was nestled right next to a slew of solo piano and trio recordings that André had made for Les Koenig’s Contemporary Records label, primarily in the 1950s and 60s.
André plays beautiful, solo piano on the Ballads disc and while wondering how I came to know about the recording n the first place, I found a post-it note affixed to the CD insert booklet that referred me to an article in the late
Gene Lees’ Jazzletter, a self-owned, monthly publication that Gene authored for almost thirty years until his passing in April/2010.
Friends since 1959, Gene shared this background about André in the introduction to his essay entitled The Courage of Your Tastes: Reflection on André Previn:
“In 1950, while he was in the army (along with Chet Baker) and stationed in
, André studied conducting with Pierre Monteux. He returned to San Francisco and played with, among other groups, the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars. His collaboration with drummer Shelly Manne on a jazz LP of music from My Fair Lady in 1956 set a fashion for such recordings based on Broadway musicals. Los Angeles
One of his albums, a lush recording of piano with orchestra and his arrangements, came to a crisis on the date: it was a few minutes short. André went off somewhere and wrote a string chart for some blues, went back into the studio, improvised a theme over it and got a huge hit on Like Young.” [Jazzletter, April 1998, Vol. 17 No. 4, p. 1]
Later in his piece on André, Gene offers this description of Previn’s playing including comments about it in relationship to the Jazz piano wizardry of Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Art Tatum:
“André really bothered the jazz establishment. He wrote movie scores! How degrading! And he dared to make jazz albums, including some with Shelly Manne that were among the best-selling in jazz history.
He was consistently trashed by the critics. The same thing happened to Phineas Newborn. There was an enormous suspicion in the jazz critical establishment of high skill. So vicious was this that, in Oscar Peterson's opinion, it drove Phineas Newborn mad. He said to Oscar, in tears, "Oscar, what am I doing wrong?' Nothing. He just had more technique as a pianist than the jazz critics, most of them, had as writers. And criticism is always an act of projected self-justification.
Thus those writers who lacked facility in their own work made much of "soul" and operated on the fatuous premise that high skill precluded it. You will not encounter this attitude in those who really know music and can really write. It is too often overlooked that Charlie Parker and Bill Evans had electrifying technique. But both men were heroin addicts, which fact enables that covert self-congratulation that is an essential ingredient of pity — as opposed to the nobility of true compassion — and in turn permits a patronizing praise.
André immensely successful, suffered from the judgment of jazz critics. The 1988 New Grove Dictionary of Jazz concludes a shortish entry on him with: "Although he is not an innovator, Previn is a technically fluent and musical jazz pianist." That takes care of that. Dismissed. The entry also describes Andre" as "influenced by Art Tatum." This egregious bit of stupidity almost always recurs in discussions of jazz pianists with well-developed technique, no one more than Oscar Peterson. When I was working on my biography of Oscar, I said to André "I don't hear much of Tatum in Oscar." André said, "I don't hear any."
Nor do I, nor did I ever, in André work. He uses none of Tatum's runs, none of his licks, none of his methods. This sort of comment by jazz critics almost invariably is a manifestation of deep ignorance of classical piano training and literature, which demand utter fluency in scales and arpeggios.
If you really want to hear the scope of André piano technique, listen to his 1992 RCA recording with violinist Julie Rosenfeld and cellist Gary Hoffman of the diabolically difficult Ravel Trio and the Debussy Trio No. 1 in G. If you do, observe the difference in sonority he educes from the piano for these often-linked but disparate composers.” [Ibid, p.3, paragraphing modified]
And Gene had this to say about André’s playing on some of the Jazz recordings that he made later in his career including his work on Ballads:
“… what struck me most was the growth in André’s playing. …. And André’s facility was no longer his enemy. He was using his remarkable skills as a pianist to dig in. His playing was far more reflective and certainly more emotional than in the years of his early prominence. It was deeper, darker than I had ever heard it; and yet at the same time the quicksilver tone had become more scintillant than ever. And oh! has he got chops. All kinds of chops: phenomenal speed, an exquisite illusion of legato in slow chordal passages, balance, and more. He has a subtle control of dynamics that at least equals that of Bill Evans. Bill's dynamics, however, were — deliberately; it was an element of his style — within a comparatively small range. Bill rarely took a whacking good thump at the piano, and André does. In this, then, his dynamic scope is broader than Bill's.
I realize with something of a start that a man who is (if Mel Powell was right) our greatest symphony conductor was also one of our greatest jazz pianists. What? Yeah. …
André told me at that time that he was thinking of making a solo piano album, all ballads. I told him I hoped that he would, and forgot about it. Then
Alan Bergman, the great (with his wife, Marilyn) lyricist, told me on the phone that I just had to hear an album by André’ simply called Ballads. …
Reflective and soft, harmonically urbane, it became instantly one of my favorite albums, one that I will listen to often ova the years. It comprises all standards, except for two tunes by André, In Our Little Boat and Dance of Life. The latter is one he wrote for a show he did with Johnny Mercer in
, The Good Companions. These two tunes, along with one that is in the What Headphones? album, titled Outside the Cafe, would convince a statue of General Grant of Andres brilliance as a composer. … London
Listening closely to the Ballads album, one learns something about his work as a symphony conductor. André has an uncanny control of dynamics in his solo piano. He can go loud-soft more suddenly and subtly than anyone I know. And his rubato is always true rubato: the time that is "robbed" (which is what the word means) here is replaced there. And no matter how slow the tempo, if you find the center of it and start tapping your foot you will find that his time is immovably there.
And this is true of his conducting. He uses, indeed, both of these abilities. And now, having listened so closely to the Ballads album, and then revisiting some of my favorites among his symphonic albums, I am beginning to see what Mel Powell meant; I think I am reaching the point where I might be able to spot a Previn recording of a symphony just by its sound, for he uses dynamics and rubato like no conductor I have ever heard. What André is, then, is a shaper of time, a sculptor of sound. …
A genius, a word I never use lightly, is itinerant among us.” [Ibid., excerpts from pp. 4-6]
To conclude this piece on the genius that is André George Previn, KBE, here are the introductory portions of Les Koenig’s liner notes to his Contemporary LPs My Fair Lady, Pal Joey and Gigi followed by a video tribute to André which uses as its soundtrack, Previn’s performance of Zip from Pal Joey as accompanied by Red Mitchell on bass and Shelly Manne on drums.
MY FAIR LADY
“GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, in Pygmalion, from which My Fair Lady is adapted, proved that the difference between a Cockney girl and a fine lady was mainly one of pronunciation. In his fable, Henry Higgins teaches the girl to speak English, thereby working a startling transformation in her. Actually the language she speaks remains the same. The difference is almost entirely a matter of accent.
And coincidentally it is also largely a matter of accent by which the wonderfully original and entertaining score written by
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe for My Fair Lady has been transformed by Shelly Manne & His Friends to a wonderfully original and entertaining modern jazz album. In the main, the melodies and the harmonies remain unchanged. But not the accent, the rhythm, the phrasing, the way the notes are attacked. It is still My Fair Lady, of course. But it is, at the same time, modern jazz at its best.
The sources of jazz have always been many and varied. The late Jelly Roll Morton claimed Tiger Rag was derived from an old French quadrille, so it should not be too surprising to find modern musicians finding jazz in Ascot Gavotte fifty years later. And in any case jazzmen have always turned to Broadway. The sophisticated melodic and harmonic material in the works of the Gershwins, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern have always stimulated creative jazz musicians to improvise original, entertaining, and often moving performances. It usually takes a very long time, however, before jazzmen accept show tunes, and accord them the honor of a jazz treatment. "Jazz standards" are usually some time in the making. A case in point is Rodgers & Hart's My Funny Valentine which originally appeared in 1937 and had to wait over fifteen years before the modern jazz movement gave it new life in the '50s. And so it is a tribute to the My Fair Lady score that within a few months of the show's opening, such gifted jazzmen as Shelly Manne, André Previn and Leroy Vinnegar were moved to play it.
Let André Previn explain the Friends' approach: ‘What Shelly, Leroy and I have attempted in this album is unusual insofar as we have taken almost the entire score of a musical, not just 'Gems from . . , have adapted it to the needs of the modern jazz musician and are playing it with just as much care and love as the Broadway cast. There has been no willful distortion of the tunes simply to be different, or to have a gimmick, or to provoke the saying 'Where's the melody?' We are all genuinely fond of every tune and have the greatest respect for the wonderful score in its original form, but we are paying our own sincere compliment to the show by playing the complete score in our own métier.’”
“THERE IS A STORY, apocryphal perhaps, about John O'Hara, author of the original Pal Joey stories, and author of the book of the Broadway musical, who, when asked to describe the show, is said to have replied, "Well it ain't Blossom Time." Those familiar with the sentimentality of the Sigmund Romberg musical should get a pretty fair idea of what Pal Joey is not, and possibly, by indirection, what it is. Incidentally, when Blossom Time appeared on Broadway in 1924, Mr. Romberg was the subject of much discussion for adapting various Schubert themes for his score, particularly for waltzing about with a section of the Unfinished Symphony.
In any case, André Previn & His Pals, who are noted for their transformations of Broadway scores into modern jazz, haven't as yet got around to Blossom Time, but they have most certainly applied their alchemy to Pal Joey, and again, in describing the results, one is tempted to repeat Mr. O'Hara.
Pal Joey made his original appearance (in The New Yorker) as the semi-literate writer of a series of letters to his Pal Ted, a successful swing musician and band leader of the late 1930s. Joey was a singer and M.C. in a Chicago South Side club, too much on the make for success and girls, "mice" he called them. Not a pleasant character, but understandable, as John O'Hara drew him. In 1940, O'Hara went to work on the musical version of Joey with the late, great lyricist Larry Hart, and composer Richard Rodgers, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The show opened in
, Christmas night 1940. For many of us then, it represented the coming of age of the Broadway musical which for the first time seemed to be "looking at the facts of life," as composer Richard Rodgers put it. Now, 17 years later, the movie version with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak, introduces Joey to a new generation, and it is good indeed to have Bewitched, I Could Write A Book, Zip and all the rest around again. Not the least attractive thing about the revival of Joey is the impetus it gave André, Shelly and Red for the present jazz version. New York
THE PALS' PERFORMANCES were completely improvised at the two recording sessions. Before doing each tune, André played it straight, and then the floor was thrown open for discussion. Various possible jazz versions were explored, and once the tempo and general approach were agreed upon, the actual recording was usually accomplished in one take. This technique relies heavily on free association and the artists' unconscious. With musicians of the Pals' caliber, it makes for an unusually fresh and original approach.”
“GIGI, BY FRENCH NOVELIST COLETTE, first appeared during the last war when the author was 70. She died in August, 1954, at the age of 81, after a small sip of champagne, having lived to see her slender story of a turn-of-the-century
adolescent, who had been trained to find a rich lover, but who falls in love and marries him instead, become the most successful work of her forty-four book career. Paris
Gigi's phenomenal public acceptance is remarkable when one considers the original is no more than an extended short story of some sixty-odd pages. It has been translated into many languages, was a French film starring Daniele Delorme in 1950, became a hit play in 1952, dramatized by Anita Loos and launching Audrey Hepburn, Colette's own discovery for the role of Gigi, as a great new star. Now, in 1958, it is a hit musical for
MGM, starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan; and by way of the score for the film, it provides Andre Previn & His Pals: Shelly Manne & Red Mitchell, with their latest modern jazz version of a current musical entertainment.
The score for Gigi is by lyricist
Alan Jay Lerner (he also wrote the screenplay) and composer Frederick Loewe, who put their special brand of magic to work on their first project since My Fair Lady. And like My Fair Lady, it gives André a chance to apply his own magic to turning eight new Lerner-Loewe songs to modern jazz. As a matter of fact, the new fashion of doing jazz versions of Broadway and Hollywood musicals owes its existence to that now famous first My Fair Lady album (Contemporary C3527) recorded by Shelly Manne & His Friends: André Previn & Leroy Vinnegar in the Fall of 1956, and still heading the best-seller lists. The Friends followed Lady with Li'I Abner (Contemporary C3533). Then André Previn & His Pals: Shelly Manne & Red Mitchell made their best-selling version of Pal Joey (Contemporary C3543).
It was not surprising that André chose to record a jazz Gigi because, as musical director of the film, he supervised all of Gigi's music, adapting much of the Lerner-Loewe material for the background score, doing a number of the arrangements, and conducting the
MGM studio orchestra. In truth, this album was projected even before Lerner & Loewe had written the score. They had been delighted with the Friends' Lady, and had a copy of it in their hotel room when André joined them in the Summer of 1957 to begin work on pre-scoring Gigi. Then and there they insisted André do a jazz version.” Paris