New collaborators, new horizons—and new angles.
Dory Langdon: The Leprechauns Are Upon Me! (Verve, 1958) (recorded February-March 1958)
Dory Langdon was a survivor. She grew up with an alcoholic mother and a father whose World War I PTSD left him—and them—battered by wild mood swings and bouts of paranoia. (At one point, Langdon’s father imprisoned her and her mother in the family’s dining room for months.) She had dreams of becoming an actress, spent some years touring as a chorus girl, made it through an abortive marriage, and, along the way, honed her skill and passion for writing lyrics. She finally landed at MGM, at the tail end of the Hollywood musical era. Langdon clicked with Previn, both professionally and personally; in 1959, Previn married her.
Before that, they made this album, with Langdon on vocals, joined by Previn, guitarist Kenny Burrell (uncredited on the original release), and an unidentified bassist (I suspect it might be Doug Watkins). The numbers, all Langdon’s own, with music by, among others, Previn, David Raskin, and Langdon herself, mirror Previn’s own proclivities, in a way: highly-polished yet distinctly off-center extensions of American pop standard traditions. Previn acknowledged such in his liner notes. Langdon’s lyrics “are thoughtful, sensitive, and often surprising,” he wrote. “She is literate and painstaking, but has full cognizance of what constitutes a popular song.”
At the time, that cognizance was becoming a bigger deal to Previn, it seems. His liner notes frame Langdon’s efforts in opposition to that other, ascendent strain of pop: rock-and-roll. Previn’s attitude toward rock is rather like Joan of Arc’s toward the English in Henry VI: this too shall pass. “While it is certainly an unpleasant truth that the mainstay of the Hit Parade today is the kind of material best sung and performed by unkempt young men with large guitars and no voices,” Previn laments, “it is also true that there always has been a fad of some kind or another plaguing the musical public since the first American pop song hit the crystal sets.” Previn was hardly alone in assuming rock to be yet another in a long line of ephemeral novelties; there’s an argument to be made that rock’s subsequent longevity is, in fact, one of the great anomalies of music history. But one gets the feeling that rock’s arrival and success either consciously or unconsciously spurred Previn to pick sides, and he came down firmly in the Great American Songbook camp. And that will shape his approach to both pop and jazz in the years to come.
Polemics and posturing aside, The Leprechauns Are Upon Me! is a thoroughly diverting album. Langdon’s voice is slight, but with an incisiveness and expressiveness that, not surprisingly, perfectly matches the material. And Previn provides sensitive, lively, intelligent accompaniment throughout. To indulge in a pun: he’s fully engaged.
André Previn Plays Fats Waller (Tops, 1958) (recorded ca. 1957-58?)
There’s a bit of historical fog surrounding this album. Tops Records was a small Los Angeles-based label specializing in discount cover records that, in the mid-50s, began to aspire to bigger artists and releases. Dave Pell joined the label as an arranger and producer in the mid-1950s, and was in charge of this session. The drummer and bassist are uncredited on the original release, but it sounds like Manne and Vinnegar, though maybe not the latter (see below). Tops, it seems, was never that robust a business operation, and would soon be sold to Precision Radiation, Inc., a geiger-counter manufacturer looking to diversify; PRI hung on until 1963 as a label before giving up the ghost.
That explains why this album, more than any other of Previn’s, has been reissued on such a variety of small labels—each of which seems to have an opinion on when it was recorded. A 1970 Everest Records version claims 1958; a 1961 Gala Records issue says 1957; a 1986 Imagem Jazz release opts for 1954; a 2002 Group 7 Music release (currently the easiest to find on streaming services) credits Vinnegar and Manne, but puts the date as 1953. That’s the date the internet largely has settled on, probably via Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography, though the original source seems to be Walter Bruyninckx’s Sixty Years of Recorded Jazz, first published in 1977, which also put the session in June 1953. Both Bruyninckx and Lord list also have Buddy Clark on bass for the session.
I am hesitant to second-guess those authorities, but this just doesn’t sound like Previn’s playing in 1953, or even 1954. (And I don’t think Dave Pell had started working for Tops at that time.) When Metronome magazine reported on Tops’ signing of Previn in 1958, it sure made it sound like the album was a new project. In that case, the presence of Clark is actually more tenable; in the summer of 1953, he was not quite done touring in Tex Beneke’s band, but, by 1958, he had been settled in Los Angeles for five years, and had worked with both Previn and Manne on occasion. (One conceivably might mix up Vinnegar and Buddy Clark—they’re similar enough players.) On the other hand, when they were on The Navy Swings in 1957, Previn, Mitchell, and Capp played an arrangement of “Honeysuckle Rose” practically identical to the one on this album; if that performance was a reprise and not a tryout, then 1957 would be a plausible date (and the personnel probability might tip back to Vinnegar and Manne).
Whenever it was made, it is, on the whole, a smartly—and, maybe, surprisingly—agreeable album. Previn and Waller might seem like an odd pairing, stylistically, but Previn leans on and highlights both Waller’s considerable songwriting skill and his sense of humor, reinterpreting Waller’s rent-party waggishness as cocktail-party wit. A lot of it, to be sure, is in a now-familiar vein: the fancy runs, the sharp accents, the rich, orchestral perorations. But, on “Fatstuff,” for instance (a Previn original), Previn’s grab-bag of riffs often ends up with those riffs inside out, to sly effect. And Previn’s solo on “Black and Blue” has an architecture that his solo on Pettiford’s “Collard Greens and Black-Eyed Peas” didn’t.
Benny Carter: Jazz Giant (Contemporary, 1958) (recorded June, October 1957, April 1958)
Right around the middle of his 70-year career, saxophonist and trumpeter Benny Carter made a pair of albums for Contemporary. This collection (recorded across four sessions spanning nearly a year) featured the label’s regulars on rhythm: Previn (on five of seven tracks, with Jimmy Rowles on the other two), Barney Kessel, Leroy Vinnegar, Shelly Manne. The repertoire is a mix of Carter originals and truly venerable 1920s standards. Carter’s treatment is as straight-ahead as it comes—easy, swinging, relaxed. Previn’s approach is a little more mischievous. His comping on “Old Fashioned Love” sounds like he’s trying to prod the track into something friskier than it is; his own solo (around the four-minute mark) kind of proves his point, Previn bopping around the beat to charming effect.
The tracks recorded last, in April of 1958, find Previn in an even more coltish mood: his solos on “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” are off-center enough to seem to surprise Previn himself. They don’t cohere the way his take on “Old Fashioned Love” does, but it’s fun to hear him push past his usual polish.
Later in 1958, Carter recorded a similar album, Swingin’ the 20s, with Vinnegar and Manne, but with Earl Hines on piano. It’s a fascinating comparison. Hines brings an awfully big personality to a quartet setting—his tone is full and forceful, at the fore even in accompaniment—but his style is maybe too similar to Carter’s: everything is comfortable to a fault. Previn doesn’t mesh as well with Carter, but the friction occasionally sparks something pleasantly unexpected, rather than just pleasant.
André Previn & His Pals: Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from Gigi (Contemporary, 1958) (recorded April 1958)
Previn was the music director for Lerner and Loewe’s 1958 film musical. Despite that advance access, the Previn-Mitchell-Manne trio was actually third out of the gate with their jazz-impressions-of, following albums by Dick Hyman and Shorty Rogers. Perhaps inspired by the film’s leisurely, spare-no-expense, almost stereotypically Parisian production (in his memoir, Previn recalled a four-day effort to film a brief ice-skating scene), this version is the most casual, lived-in of the three. (It’s interesting to hear, for example, what Previn finds important in the now thrice-familiar “I Remember It Well.”) One can imagine Previn, during what seems to have been a fair amount of downtime, playing around with the songs on his to-do list, saving up ideas for this album.
The result is a tour of Previn’s facility, with each track seeming to take on a different style. “It’s a Bore” was the track Leonard Feather played for Paul Desmond’s blindfold test, and it does have some of Horace Silver’s thumping, swinging industry; but then, Previn’s take on “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” seems like a throwback to the pre-bop filigree of Tatum or Cole, and “À Toujours” (a song cut from the film, surviving only in the background of that ice-skating scene) alternates stylized drive and light-footed swing in a very West Coast way. “She Is Not Thinking of Me” jumps between meters with a dexterity that anticipates Brubeck’s imminent experiments.
On the ballads, you can hear Previn continue to move toward the simpler, melody-forward manner that will mark his easy-listening forays. Out of all the show albums made by the Previn circle, this might be the breeziest.
Shelly Manne & His Friends: Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from Bells Are Ringing (Contemporary, 1959) (recorded April, July 1958)
Some leftover champagne from the Gigi sessions may have made it into this one as well: the trio’s take on the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne Broadway hit flips back and forth between effervescence and tranquillized casualness. On up-tempo numbers, Previn blankets the canvas with fleet, light-fingered sparkle, while the ballads are laid-back, to the point that some tracks verge on jazz ASMR. Even the one slightly-bizarre treatment—here, “Mu-Cha-Cha,” with Previn’s strategically-wrong counterpoint giving way to a long, murmuring Manne solo—remains essentially mellow. “Just in Time” unwinds with such a relaxed affect that Previn’s eventual freewheeling aside practically fits inside a beat.
André Previn Plays Songs By Vernon Duke (Contemporary, 1958) (recorded August 1958)
Up until this point, Previn (perhaps, pace that later interview with Peterson, still steering around any lingering Tatum influence) hadn’t recorded a solo piano album. To be sure, in the wake of Tatum’s solo sides, not many pianists had. Teddy Wilson had made some solo records early on, but spent the 1950s recording in a trio. Erroll Garner had alternated between solo and small-group work, as had Bud Powell. But a more pertinent precedent was, perhaps, 1956’s Brubeck Plays Brubeck, which featured that pianist in a ruminative, intimate, at-home setting. Brubeck, who had been propelled to fame by his 1954 album Jazz Goes to College, took an appropriately professorial tone in the liner notes for Brubeck Plays Brubeck.
In my mind there are three basic categories or levels of creativity in jazz.
(1) That which I consider the most desirable is the sub-conscious, almost effortless flow of material from the creator. The performance at this level has neither desire nor need for a preconceived pattern because he knows that the music comes from a source of infinite imagination and limitless variety.
(2) At a lower level is an imaginative performance interspersed with “quotes” (either personal or derivative) which intrude like the human ego into the flow of creative ideas.
(3) At a still lower creative level is the performance based on a backlog repertoire, in which runs and patterns, cadences and progressions are worked out to meet each situation. This artist strives for perfection on his instrument. The real creativity of this type of jazz artist is displayed at the moment he chooses the arpeggio, or chord pattern, which he will practice and eventually use.
With the same artist performing in each category mentioned, a “third level” performance, in most cases, will be the most polished, display the most technical skill, and will be the one with the most swing—but it will lack vital involvement with the moment of creation.
I don’t know if Previn ever read Brubeck’s notes. But Previn’s own first foray into solo piano recording might have taken Brubeck’s tripartite scheme as a source for improvisation in itself. Previn bounces between Brubeck’s three levels, mixing and matching the approaches as the mood strikes.
The raw material was an anthology of songs by Vladimir Dukelsky, a.k.a, Vernon Duke: maybe not an unrecognized composer, but definitely high on the “wait, he wrote that song, too?” leaderboard. (Duke had also started occasionally contributing slightly arch, slightly aristocratic liner notes to some Contemporary albums around this time.) More than his trio albums or sideman work, and even more than his later solo albums, this collection sounds like nothing so much as Previn brainstorming, sketching production numbers in real time, putting the tunes through all sorts of paces—harmonic, rhythmic, stylistic—just to see what comes out the other end. And, boy, is it fun.
Previn inverts a mood here and there: “I Can’t Get Started” becomes a pure ballad, while “The Love I Long For” becomes a thumping hard-bop scrap. “Ages Ago” starts with and weaves around some rumbling modal chords that wittily and weightily recall Duke’s Russian heritage. Here and there, one senses Previn trying out ideas for later use—“I Like the Likes of You,” in particular, sounds an awful lot like a first draft of “Like Young” (see below).
André Previn, Shelly Manne, and Red Mitchell: Sessions, Live (Calliope, 1976) (recorded August 1958)
The five tracks on which Previn plays on this bootleg are taken from the Previn-Mitchell-Manne trio’s appearance on the short-lived but amazing television series Stars of Jazz, produced and broadcast from 1956 to 1958 by Los Angeles’ KABC-TV. Has that appearance made its way onto the internet? Do you really need to ask? As a bonus, you get the interstitial features and interviews, including Previn complaining that film studios are still resistant to putting jazz, played by “famous jazz artists,” on screen (“So far, we’ve only used it for underscoring for when somebody steals a car”—a line Previn recycled from his Downbeat interview with John Tynan).
Four of the five songs—“Ascot Gavotte,” “Zip,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” and “Collard Greens and Black-Eyed Peas”—are drawn from the Friends/Pals discography, with Previn’s long solo on the last a better one than what he put on record. Previn had recorded an easy-swinging “But Not For Me” on his RCA Victor debut; here it returns in a much more hard-bop guise.
The performance is as good an opportunity as any to talk about the way Previn approaches time. On the up-tempo numbers, his playing stays close to the beat, anticipating or delaying an accent or entrance here and there, but mostly just riding the current of swinging eighths. As soon as the tempo slows down, even moderately, Previn will drop into one, or the other (or both) of two modes: rubato, in which he’ll stretch out a series of beats, meeting up with the rhythm on the other side, and an almost modular conception, in which the tune is divided up into blocks of time that he’ll fill up with virtuosity, only connecting with the beat on key harmonic changes. (You can really hear this in his “Collard Greens” solo.) That block-of-time approach—which, when you think about it, would be a natural reflex for someone who scored films all day—has already becoming one of Previn’s stylistic calling cards, and it will become even more prevalent going forward, especially as his more pop-leaning efforts simplify the rhythmic grid.
Benny Goodman: Happy Session (Columbia, 1959)
Benny Goodman: Benny Rides Again! (Chess, 1959)
(Previn’s tracks recorded September 1958)
Since the advent of bebop, Benny Goodman had maintained a vigorous ambivalence toward modern jazz, again and again hiring top players and arrangers to give his bands an up-to-date air, again and again deciding that the new material was unsatisfactory, retreating into his familiar “King of Swing” guise. In 1958, when, concerned that an aversion to arts funding among members of Congress was hampering American cultural-cold-war aims at the upcoming Brussels World’s Fair, the Westinghouse Corporation hired Goodman to perform a week’s worth of concerts at the Fair, Goodman repeated the pattern, commissioning new numbers and arrangements from the likes of Gil Evans, Bobby Gutesha, and Previn. The Brussels performances were diplomatically successful but artistically middling—Goodman was under the weather with sciatica for the entire run—so, upon his return, Goodman went into the studio to perfect some of the tour’s repertoire, including Previn’s chart, originally titled “Brussels Briefing,” but renamed “King and Me” by the time it made it to theHappy Session LP. The album is a miscellany, assembled from four different sessions with four different groups. Previn only plays on two tracks—both recorded in September of 1958—but his fame and “King and Me” were enough to get him the second-largest font size on the cover.
As for “King and Me,” maybe it’s just the performance, but the number seems to be making up in brassiness what it lacks in groove: Previn uncorks some great big-band sound, but the whole thing remains noticeably earthbound. (Russ Freeman takes over piano duties on this and most of the rest of the album, although several sources put Roland Hanna on some tracks, despite not being credited at all on the original release.)
A handful of quintet performances featuring Previn are more successful. With Kessel, Vinnegar, and drummer Frank Capp, Previn backs Goodman on Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “Having a Ball,” a blues workout credited to Goodman. The rhythm section really clicks on both tracks, with Goodman serenely swinging while the other four trade more puckish notions. (On “Having a Ball,” the contrast between Previn’s and Kessel’s solos and Goodman’s placid re-entrance puts this dynamic in high relief.) Between this and his work on Jazz Giant, one can sense the relish with which Previn bounces his own musical personality off elder statesmen; in an off-kilter way, it foreshadows his pivot to classical music.
The rest of that September 1958 session turned up later in 1959 on Benny Rides Again!, another big-band/small-group grab-bag, with Goodman again revisiting old hits. “All the Things You Are” proves surprisingly scrappy; “It Could Happen to You” is easygoing and elegant, Previn unleashing his spontaneous-pop style to nice effect. “Stereo Stomp,” a Goodman original, is more than a little reminiscent of his swing-band heyday; similarly, Previn’s solo effortlessly drops back into his 1940s style. And “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You” is fleet fun, with Previn particularly good on his solo, keeping his powder dry before firing off some climactic cascades.
Addendum: In April of 1959, for a television special called Swing into Spring!, Previn, Manne, and bassist Jack Fesberg joined Goodman and Lionel Hampton for a medley. Judging from the music, the camera angles, and Previn’s expression, I think Goodman barged his way into part of Previn’s solo. The band is watertight, though.
André Previn / David Rose: Secret Songs for Young Lovers (MGM, 1958) (recorded summer/autumn 1958?)
David Rose was born in London, grew up in Chicago, cut his musical teeth on radio, then moved to Los Angeles, where he became one of the leading in-on-the-ground-floor arrangers and conductors for television (including a long and high-profile stint as music director for comedian Red Skelton). He scored movies and made string-heavy instrumental albums. (Rose recorded his greatest hit as a lark at the end of another 1958 session; finally released as a B-side in 1962, “The Stripper” went all the way to #1.) Previn and Rose crossed paths a lot: Rose had put together an easy-listening Gigi album while Previn worked on the film, for instance, and, for much of the 1950s, the two alternated doing the music for Academy Awards ceremonies. So it was probably inevitable that they would make an album together, Previn playing piano over Rose’s bolts-of-satin arrangements of youth-themed love songs.
The album was a hit, a success that inaugurated Previn’s career as a purveyor of mood-music recordings, which did no small amount of damage to his image as a jazz artist. In that light, it’s interesting just how much of a hybrid it actually is. Rose’s strings are pure studio sugar, but, almost throughout, Previn is in a jazz mode. One gets the sense that Previn’s tongue is at least turned in the direction of his cheek—at the end of “Younger than Springtime,” he tosses off a quote from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, of all things. Still, though he’s dialing back his harmonic audacity, Previn’s touch and phrasing are in keeping with his trio playing. (Long stretches of this album might be Exhibit A for showing Red Garland’s influence on Previn.)
Secret Songs for Young Lovers helped make 1959 a signal year for Previn, professionally and personally. That spring, he won his first Oscar (on his fourth nomination) for his work on Gigi. He married Dory Langdon, who had, not incidentally, become his favorite songwriting partner. (The Previn-Langdon song “Too Young to Be True” closes out Secret Songs’first side.) And the collaboration with Rose yielded what had been missing from his collection of hit movies and hit albums: a hit single. The Previn-penned “Like Young”—again, a fascinating mix of shimmering, noir-ish strings and tangy hard-bop piano riffs—made it to #46 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1959. The song was nominated for three Grammys, including Record of the Year, alongside The Browns’ folk-country “The Three Bells,” Sinatra singing “High Hopes,” Elvis singing “A Fool Such as I,” and the winner, Bobby Darin’s take on “Mack the Knife.” Benny Goodman took a stab at it for the “Swing into Spring” TV special, along with a pair of dancers, producing a most 1950s artifact.
It was a big enough hit that Ella Fitzgerald recorded it. (Paul Francis Webster’s retro-fitted lyrics are, charitably, superfluous, but still—Ella Fitzgerald recorded it.)
Given all that, it’s hardly a wonder that Previn would be encouraged—and eager—to repeat such success.
The Mitchells (Red, Whitey, and Blue): Get Those Elephants Out’a Here! (MetroJazz, 1958) (recorded October 1958)
Whitey Mitchell, Red’s brother, was also a bassist, and he came up with the idea of bringing together he, Red, and trumpeter Blue Mitchell for this effort; it might have originated as a lark, but the result is interesting enough to make one wish that Whitey Mitchell had continued recording as a leader. (The younger Mitchell disliked the touring that was necessary to sustain a jazz living; within a few years—encouraged by Previn—he would trade music for a career as a television scriptwriter and producer.)
Previn plays on three tracks. The title song, a two-bass feature for the brothers (named after their mother’s apparently-frequent demand to remove their instruments from the family living room), finds Previn making sport with a repeated, gospel-ish I-IV-I riff, but also doing some intriguing accompaniment work behind the very bop/hard-bop lines of saxophonist Pepper Adams, as well as Blue Mitchell. The latter—at the time, settling into Horace Silver’s quintet—seems an especially like-minded partner, sharing Previn’s penchant for abstracted riffs and twitchy double-time flourishes. On Whitey Mitchell’s “Blues for Brian,” which deconstructs the form with more subdominant triads and chain-of-fifths interludes, Previn’s solo seems to run in place, but his less-is-more comping is witty and sharply-tailored. Best is “My One and Only Love,” which starts off as an impressive melodic showcase for Whitey Mitchell, then again adds saxophone and trumpet solos; Previn stays in the background throughout, but in unusually alert and restrained fashion.
André Previn’s Trio Jazz: King Size! (Contemporary, 1959) (recorded November 1958)
The Previn-Red Mitchell-Frank Capp trio’s first studio recording is also one of the most straight-ahead jazz albums in Previn’s catalog: no over-arching trope, no musical-theater frame, not even a unifying theme among the song titles (often a favorite Previn gambit). Instead, there’s four standards sandwiching two blues-based Previn originals, and the group stretches out on all of them. “I’ll Remember April” is given an Afro-Cuban treatment that leads into some fleet hard bop, while “I’m Beginning to See the Light” swings away. “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “It Could Happen to You” are the ballads, the first with a sharp, noir-ish touch, the second featuring Previn’s impeccably tasteful lyrical style. And the originals, “Much Too Late” and “Low and Inside” (one wonders if the latter was an orphan from Previn and Russ Freeman’s baseball-themed duo album), ruminate on the blues at length.
Capp doesn’t have as forceful a musical personality as Manne here—he mainly supplies spare, solid time—so this is Mitchell and Previn’s show. The blues numbers, especially, are showcases for Previn’s thinking about jazz, with both him and Mitchell, more often than not, skating over and around the beat, choosing their points to cross the streams and meet up with the groove.
It’s not a perfect album. I, at least, miss Manne’s penchant for pushing the proceedings around unexpected turns, and Previn’s left hand gets noticeably stuck in neutral for much of “I’ll Remember April.” But, freed up from tight West Coast arrangements and high-concept album restraints, Previn is as loose and funky as he ever was. A few more documents like this might have altered the course of Previn’s jazz career and reputation.
Addendum: Here’s Previn, Mitchell, and Capp on television in 1959, playing a version of “I’ll Remember April” that starts out very much in mood-music territory (a choir!) before pivoting into the arrangement from King Size! Previn’s solo is neither his best nor his worst (and that one lick, with the right hand tripping up the keyboard by fourths before punctuating with a couple of half-step clusters? Previn will keep that in his stockpile well into the 21st century), but this is the best and most extended opportunity I’ve found to actually watch Previn’s hands while he plays jazz.
Barney Kessel: Modern Jazz Performances from Bizet’s Carmen (Contemporary, 1959) (recorded December 1958)
The public’s appetite for show-soundtrack albums, primed by the Manne-Previn-Vinnegar My Fair Lady, was enough that Kessel was able to convince Contemporary to extend the same treatment to opera. It’s a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde album. In contrast with Previn’s more playful genre sensibilities, some of Kessel’s head arrangements err on the obvious side, leaning a little too hard on a Spanish-Mexican family resemblance. (I count at least three tracks with a real Herb-Alpert-scores-a-tame-sex-comedy vibe, which, outside of the context of a tame sex comedy scored by Herb Alpert, is probably two tracks too many.) But Kessel approaches the more lyrical numbers with warmth and sensitivity. And, maybe compensating for the occasionally quotidian jazz framing, everybody seems to have shown up ready to blow: there is some terrific playing going on here, from Kessel, from Herb Geller on alto, from trumpeter Ray Linn, from Victor Feldman’s vibes, from everybody. Manne, on drums, practically redeems “Viva el Toro!” (Kessel’s Cuban-flavored take on the Toreadors’ March) all by himself. Throughout, Previn’s harmonic imagination is hitting on all cylinders, and his buzzy, caffeinated hard-bop mood turns up again and again, with “Carmen’s Cool” (i.e., Carmen’s Act II “Je vais danser en votre honneur” dance) building to a particularly athletic—and spiky—workout.