Making a name.
André Previn at the Piano (RCA Victor, 1947) (recorded October-November 1947)
Previn’s first major-label outing as a pianist is an exercise in sheer aplomb. The instrumentation is Cole-trio plus drums, Previn essentially borrowing two-thirds of Page Cavanaugh’s trio (Al Viola on guitar and, Lloyd Pratt and, on a couple of tracks, Charles “Chic” Parnell on bass) along with Mills. The ensemble is tight, Previn’s playing practically fizzes off the turntable, and the arrangements are suave and sophisticated, with the occasional sassy modern-music embellishment.
There’s more than a hint of café society in the slower numbers, but Previn dishes it up with style and a lush touch. After a few cloudy introductory harmonies seemingly borrowed from the interwar French avant-garde, “But Not for Me” settles into tight, polished 1940s manner reminiscent of Frankie Carle. (To be clear: I consider this a real compliment.) A transition back to the tune hints at future Previn: he and Viola transpose one of Gershwin’s major-harmony phrases into minor, a bit of musical vertigo before the changes lock back into gear.
Previn’s up-tempo playing is both astute and, if not quite as freewheeling as his 1940s live recordings, a measure more intrepid than his earlier studio efforts. Taking the spotlight on “This Can’t Be Love,” you can practically hear him assimilating and expounding on the tune in real time. And on “Just One of Those Things,” his solo is a twisty delight, weaving motives through the harmonies with sure-footed and swinging poise.
Previn announces himself as a jazz pianist with remarkable self-assurance.
By Request (RCA Victor, 1950) (recorded April, May, October 1949)
Piano Program (RCA Victor, 1951) (recorded May, June, October 1949)
Three Little Words (RCA Victor, 1950) (recorded March, April 1950)
Previn’s next few releases, on the surface, offer more of the same, but there’s some intriguing evolution happening in the margins. Much of it has to do with his rhythm. Up until now, even in ballads, Previn hasn’t strayed far from a solid, swinging underlying grid. On these recordings, made in 1949 and 1950—accompanied by Pratt, guitarist (and future session-player legend) Bob Bain on guitar, and former Kenton drummer Ralph Collier—Previn’s rhythm starts to loosen up, hanging around the beat as much as riding it. The way he slinks around the tune of “Bewitched” (from By Request) is beguiling.
“You Took Advantage of Me,” from Piano Program, is a real ride, its generous swing sharing the lane with sudden, muscular annotations and some surprising ensemble flourishes.
Previn’s jazz is starting to point in two additional directions at once. The first is Hollywood; it’s around 1950 that his reputation as a film composer and arranger really takes off. The Three Little Words album was, in fact, something of a tie-in with the film of the same name, a Fred Astaire vehicle featuring old songs by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. Astaire apparently was not terribly impressed with the songs’ choreographic possibilities, and, according to Astaire scholar Todd Decker, went through five rehearsal pianists before clicking with Previn, giving the 21-year-old his first full music-direction credit. (It would also yield the first of Previn’s 11 Oscar nominations.) What seems to have impressed Astaire was not just Previn’s arranging skills, but his ability to supply quantities of completely new music, tailored to Astaire’s choreography. The famous “Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home” number is almost all Previn’s own music.
The arranged transitions and interludes in “You Took Advantage of Me,” for instance, have a lot of this flavor: short, punchy cues that frame and illustrate the action.
The other direction Previn is headed is where he will take up residence for a good portion of his releases over the next two decades, at the fascinating (to me) intersection of modern jazz, pre-rock pop, and what we would today call easy listening. The increasing flexibility of Previn’s beat is a step away from the sort of rubato that will be a staple of the easy-listening style, and, on Three Little Words and Piano Program, he starts experimenting with adding a cushion of strings. “Who’s Sorry Now?,” from Three Little Words, hovers somewhere between Carmen Cavallero and Previn’s later piano-and-orchestra albums.
Previn never recorded any full-on classical-pop hybrids in the Cavallero manner. But, apparently, he was not above performing them, to judge from a Billboard review of a 1950 appearance at the Mocambo nightclub:
[Previn’s] tones are rich, his phrasing crisp and his sense of interpretation is matched only by his extraordinary talent for creating unique syncopated variations of the classics…. His informal manner won the crowd and at one point he proved himself quick on the ad lib. When applause greeted his introduction of a Maurice Ravel waltz, Previn cracked about the dead master, “Oh, is he here?”
The May 1949 session also included a single—the Previn-Bain-Pratt-Collier quartet accompanying Mack McLean, a sometime member of the vocal group Six Hits and a Miss (whose personnel included, at times, Martha Tilton and Andy Williams). Previn’s playing behind McLean’s performance of “Dardanella,” an old orientalist novelty, is pretty busy, but often more interesting than the song itself. The flip side, the quartet essaying Moe Jaffe and Clay Boland’s “The Gypsy in My Soul,” is more offbeat, with Previn’s arrangement playing with some fun proto-exotica touches.
Andre Previn Plays Harry Warren (RCA Victor, 1952) (recorded August, October 1950)
After World War II, Arthur Freed, the main producer in MGM’s musical unit, put together a number of films that were each built around the catalog of a single songwriter. While the results certainly varied in effectiveness (it’s telling that far and away the best of the bunch, Singin’ in the Rain, utilized the least high-profile repertoire, that of Nacio Herb Brown and Freed himself), it did mean that Previn, at this point, had spent an awful lot of his working life around the Great American Songbook. One wonders if this album, released a full four years before the first of Ella Fitzgerald’s famous songbooks, was inspired by that experience. It’s a format Previn would return to numerous times in later years.
Previn’s collection of Harry Warren songs—assisted, again, by Bain, Pratt, and Collier—turns out, on the surface, to be closer to the piano stylings of pianists like Cy Walter than his previous albums, but it keeps taking unexpected left turns. It’s easygoing and predictable until it’s suddenly not. The interpretations are much more intricate and composed, with Previn and Bain often coursing through interludes and transitions in some tightly-scripted duet. Previn usually takes a chorus or two to stretch out, but the rest of it is very much arranged. Almost every song goes through some surprising modulations at the climax, often dismantling the tune by shifting each phrase into a new key—a technique Previn will turn to again and again in the future. What the tracks sound like, more than anything, are sketches for imaginary MGM production numbers. It’s easy to imagine Astaire putting together an athletic bit of tricky hoofing to Previn’s version of “Jeepers Creepers,” for example.
The congruences between Previn’s cinematic style and new currents in jazz that were starting to sprout in the California sunshine are not insignificant.