In stride, in flux.
Elmer Bernstein: Blues and Brass (Decca, 1958) (recorded January, February, July 1957)
Elmer Bernstein’s score to Otto Preminger’s 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm seemed to make the composer an overnight success—that’s the phrase the liner notes for this album adopts—but, in reality, Bernstein had spent a few yearslanguishing among B-movies after refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. One could say that his Golden Arm music conquered both Hollywood and the Red Scare; Bernstein was immediately bumped to the film industry’s A-list, soon to work on pictures like The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, and another terrific jazz-tinged score, to Sweet Smell of Success. The Man with the Golden Arm is still one of the best film scores to incorporate jazz, with Shorty Rogers and Shelly Manne, in particular, given ample room to improvise in a modern style. And it was successful enough on record that Decca approached Bernstein to write and conduct a follow-up.
Despite some advance press from Billboard (“A remarkable album in many ways… some of the most imaginative big-band jazz to be heard”) Blues and Brass didn’t make much of a splash upon its release and soon went out of print. But it’s a solid and striking album, somewhat in the Kenton vein but very much its own thing. Some tracks show Bernstein on the cutting edge: “Blues at Five” and “Lament in Five” beat Brubeck and Desmond et al. to that meter by two years, and (at the other extreme) the Carnival-kitsch-parody of “The Poor People of Brazil” summed up the exotica trend almost just as Martin Denny was kicking it off. But most of the album is in Bernstein’s best big-city-noir manner, and it’s pretty sensational. Many, many familiar California names blaze away: Bud Shank, Dave Pell, Maynard Ferguson, Milt Bernhart, the Candoli Brothers, Manne.
Previn and Ernie Hughes share piano credit; I’m guessing that Hughes took over for the July 1957 sessions, as I’m pretty sure that, by then, Previn was already in Paris working on Gigi. (See below.) Previn sets the jangly tone for “Poor People” and stretches out a little on the classically-tinged “Smooth,” but is otherwise part of the band. Hell of a band, though.
The vogue for jazz-informed Hollywood film scores grew throughout the 1950s, led by composers like Bernstein, Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), Kenyon Hopkins (Baby Doll, 1956), and even Duke Ellington himself (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959). That Previn, eminently qualified for such a score but still beholden to MGM’s luxe aesthetic, did not get his chance to join this roster until The Subterraneans, recorded in 1959, perhaps contributed to his eventual discontent with the movie business.
Shelly Manne & His Friends: Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from Li’l Abner (Contemporary, 1957) (recorded February 1957)
Previn, Vinnegar, and Manne followed up their My Fair Lady success by taking on the other hit musical of 1956, a Michael Kidd-directed adaptation of Al Capp’s satirical comic strip that ran for 693 performances on Broadway. But Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer’s score is a very different beast than Lerner and Loewe’s, the music very much in utilitarian, serviceable service of Mercer’s twisty, funny lyrics. By all accounts, the show was a fine time; on their own, the tunes don’t have nearly the profile or presence of Loewe’s string of jewels. The album comes off as a series of very loose excuses for the trio to rehearse a particular style or mood. The best moments are the weirdest: a Previn celesta solo on “Unnecessary Town”; Previn’s nearly avant-garde selection of colliding grooves and keys in “Progress Is the Root of All Evil”; and, most far-out of all, the pull-it-apart-and-put-it-back-together rhumba of “Oh, Happy Day.”
Not every track clicks, but the trio’s chromium-steel polish is constant.
This was Vinnegar’s last recording in a trio with Previn and Manne (unless it was Vinnegar on Previn’s 1958 Fats Waller album; see below). One listens in vain for any sort of musical dissatisfaction; and Previn and Vinnegar would work as fellow sidemen on several dates in the future. Instead, the success of their My Fair Lady album may have had something to do with the end of the collaboration. David Baker, who had known Vinnegar in Indianapolis, recalled some friction.
[Vinnegar] had a big hit with My Fair Lady…. I remember Leroy telling me much later that—obviously, and it was justified, because sidemen don’t get royalties; the royalties go to the leader or to the people who write the music—I can remember [him] starting to get a little bitter then. Leroy said in an article, “Can’t work in L.A. unless you’re a man, a friend,” or whatever it was, because it was Shelly Manne and His Men, Shorty Rogers and His Giants—yeah, yeah, “a man, a friend, or a giant.” [laughter] It probably had some truth to it.
Previn had his movie work to fall back on, but, for freelancers, the economics were not so forgiving. Indeed, Vinnegar would release his first recording as a leader the following year.
André Previn & Russ Freeman: Double Play! (Contemporary, 1957) (recorded April-May 1957)
Freeman was a go-to West Coast pianist who recorded and played with a bunch of the scene’s stars that Previn didn’t—Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, and, especially, Chet Baker. One point of connection was Manne: Freeman was one of the drummer’s Men. This baseball-themed album of duets (backed by Manne, keeping the proceedings on rhythmic track) is, thus, a display of like-minded showing off. The opening “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” starts off both intriguing and not, with some compellingly murky harmonies interrupted by Previn bumping up the tempo with a favorite (and, if you’ve been listening to as much Previn as I have, excessively familiar) blues-bop riff. But the album turns out to be fine listening. While many two-piano jazz efforts can devolve into more-is-more density, Previn and Freeman each show a real sense of and appreciation for space and transparency.
Also distinguishing the album is that most of the numbers are originals, four from Freeman and three from Previn. Overgeneralizing a little, Freeman writes tunes and Previn writes songs, the former giving the musicians a course to run, the latter an object to tease apart. To put it another way: Previn’s compositions are practically crying out for lyrics. Any group in search of an unfairly-forgotten ballad might check out Previn’s “Called on Account of Rain.”
The blues continues to be both crisis and opportunity: “In the Cellar Blues” (according to the liner notes, improvised on the spot at the recording session) puts a few too many quotation marks around the form, but Freeman’s blues-based “Fungo” is more interesting, with Previn actually fashioning the more lucid and convincing solo. The whole record is a nice example of the sort of spontaneous arranging-in-real-time that, one suspects, most strongly drew Previn to jazz.
Les Brown and His Band of Renown: Composer’s Holiday (Capitol, 1958) (recorded June 1957)
For this album of all-new original tunes, big-band stalwart Brown tapped an interesting cross-section of film composers, West Coast artisans, and swing pros: Frank Comstock, Elmer Bernstein, Marty Paich, Dominic Frontiere, and so on. Previn’s contribution, “Night Blooming Jazz Man,” is a lot of Kenton-esque sound and flurry signifying the beginning of an album or, maybe, a concert: loud and brassy and fast-moving enough to grab your attention, but perhaps not so intricate or melodically valuable to waste on those listeners still finding their seats.
André Previn & His Pals: Modern Jazz Performances Of Songs From Pal Joey (Contemporary, 1957) (recorded October 1957)
Adding another entry to the book-musical-survey ledger (and, perhaps, having learned a lesson from Li’l Abner), Previn and Manne mined Pal Joey’s rich vein of Rodgers and Hart gold, first heard on Broadway back in 1940, conveniently revived in 1957 via Columbia Pictures’ film version. Their new bassist was Red Mitchell, who had been working steadily among the West Coast jazz players since the early 50s, recording with Bob Brookmeyer, touring with Gerry Mulligan, and (perhaps most importantly to Previn and Manne) spending a couple of years in a trio with Hampton Hawes and drummer Chuck Thompson.
Hawes was one of Contemporary’s stars. (According to Hawes’ memoir, after his tumultuous army stint in Japan, Hawes was literally steered to the label by Shelly Manne after a chance meeting on the street.) The Hawes-Mitchell-Thompson trio had released three critically-acclaimed albums, then another three with guitarist Jim Hall (all recorded in a single session). Three months after recording Pal Joey, Mitchell and Manne would join Barney Kessel to back Hawes on Four!. The comparison with Previn’s recordings with the same personnel is almost apples to oranges. Previn’s swing is a clean surface, and when he veers away from it, it’s to fill up time on a macroscopic level. It’s a kind of Newtonian sense of rhythm, in contrast with Hawes’ quantum approach, deeply inside the beat, generating a powerful swing by microscopically varying orbits around the tempo. The articulation is very similar but still very different. As a teenager, Hawes had been playing with Charlie Parker while Previn was still emulating Nat Cole, and Hawes’ rhythm and touch are bound up at a molecular level. Previn, as noted, created his own hybrid by grafting bebop articulation onto lines that evolved out of Cole’s style.
In the future, Previn will continue to lean more and more on that dimension of touch and accent. On his first outing with Mitchell, though, Previn opts for a light, detached touch almost throughout, contributing to the album’s cross-hatched texture. (It’s almost like a texturally simpler version of Tatum’s firmly-etched but delicate sound.) Mitchell proves to be a busier player than Vinnegar, and perhaps Previn is responding to that, giving many of the tracks a more contrapuntal feel: “That Terrific Rainbow,” for example (featuring some expansive bass solos), or the dual-feel drive of “What Is a Man?” On the ballads, Previn seems to be more in his film-arranger vein—“I’m Talkin’ to My Pal,” being a prime example, a simple, straightforward statement without much in the way of “modern jazz interpretation.” His take on “Bewitched” (which diverges completely from his earlier takes, on By Request and Pell’s Love Story) is a little more complex: very little of Previn’s usual “jazzy” style, but unspooling a seemingly inexhaustible thread of harmonic shadings and improvised melody.
That ability to spin swatches of pop-song mood, pretty much at will, is going to mark more and more of Previn’s work in the studio.
Peggy King and the André Previn Trio: The Navy Swings (Sounds of Yesteryear, 2009) (recorded autumn 1957)
Another set of AFRS programs, this one interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is the presence of Peggy King, late-era big-band singer and early-era television star. King and Previn were an item—they were engaged for a time after Previn’s marriage to Betty Bennett ended—but they hardly ever worked together, at least on record; King was under contract with Columbia, where resident A&R guru Mitch Miller kept her on a tight leash, limiting her repertoire to satiny girl-next-door pop. Previn did arrangements for King’s nightclub shows, though, and the pair did record a couple of sides together, both orchestral-sweet, both songs from fairy-tale television musicals: “He Never Looks My Way,” from Jerry Livingstone and Helen Deutsch’s 1956 version of Jack and the Beanstalk, and, more notably, “In My Own Little Corner” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 Cinderella. But these shows are (to the best of my knowledge) King and Previn’s only recorded jazz collaboration.
The recordings are also the first of what will soon become Previn’s standard trio, with Red Mitchell and drummer Frank Capp. Previn was the one who brought Capp to Los Angeles.
I got into the studios through André Previn. I was working at the Sahara in Vegas with Dorothy Dandridge. André was working in the lounge, and we’d hang out together. In those days every studio in Los Angeles had its own contract orchestra. That means that they had between sixty and seventy-five musicians who had signed contracts to play for the studio. At the time I got back to L.A. from Vegas, someone had just retired from the Warner Brothers orchestra. André called Ray Heindorf—who was the conductor of the orchestra—and said, “I’ve got a drummer for you.”
As the 50s went on, Previn played more and more jazz with Capp, largely because Previn liked to tour but Shelly Manne didn’t, and eventually, Capp would take over permanently. (Plus ça change: one of Capp’s first major gigs was taking over Manne’s spot in the Kenton band.)
The fifteen-minute episodes of The Navy Swings (Previn and King recorded four) didn’t leave all that much room to musically stretch out, the guests fitting four numbers around banter with, and Navy recruiting pitches from, host George Fenneman (best known as Groucho Marx’s announcer/foil on You Bet Your Life). The trio’s instrumental selections are mostly drawn from the “Friends” and “Pals” records—the first outing, My Fair Lady, the just-recorded Pal Joey—with a few others, including “Who’s on First” from Double Play! (here still called “Double Header,” putting the recording date sometime between that album’s recording and release) and a version of “Honeysuckle Rose” that’s intriguing on forensic grounds (see 1958’s André Previn Plays Fats Waller). But they’re all limited to a single chorus of soloing (mostly Previn, though Mitchell gets a shout-out and a spotlight on “I Could Write a Book”). The numbers with King are the highlight, her gauzy croon playfully flirting with a brassier belt, Previn’s accompaniments using less of his usual harmonic legerdemain and more creative voicing and textures: brightly swinging versions of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “It’s Alright with Me,” a pedal-to-the-floor “Mad About the Boy,” a languorous “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” and a deft, deceptively straightforward “Bewitched.”
Pete Rugolo: Percussion at Work (EmArcy, 1958) (recorded November 1957)
“Pete prefers to think of this as an abstract album of interesting sounds rather than specifically as a jazz set,” Leonard Feather wrote in his liner notes. Actually, this might be the jazziest of Rugolo’s hi-fi spectaculars, largely devoted to songs he originally wrote for the Kenton band in the 40s, now expanded and re-recorded in the most splendid of stereo. It’s also an excuse to triple- and quadruple-down on drummers: Larry Bunker, Shelly Manne, and Mel Lewis all appear, often at the same time, and John Costanzo’s bongos are invariably high in the mix. To be sure, there’s no shortage of angular, abstract sounds, but the sounds then casually slide into swinging solos by Bunker, or Don Fagerquist, or, especially, Previn, who contributes the majority of the album’s straight-ahead jazz passages.
Previn’s improvisations are sharp and searching. On Rugolo’s “Fugue for Rhythm Section,” Previn shifts into his solo with an elegant shrug, then examines his ideas with an appraiser’s expert eye.
Even on the obligatory thrown-together blues (here called “Funky Drums,” jointly credited to Previn, Bunker, Manne, Lewis, and Rugolo) Previn’s bag-of-riffs approach shows a nice, slightly-pixilated restraint. The whole album is much of a muchness, but Previn’s contributions are intelligent respites.
(As an aside, this record, like Rugolo’s other, similar efforts, hints at the way the Kenton/West Coast style infiltrated thenew medium of television. If you had told me that Percussion at Work was a collection of cues for say, Lost in Space—which featured some of the best and wildest music ever to make it to the small screen—I’d believe it.)