Singers and sea changes.
Helen Humes (Contemporary, 1960) (recorded January-February 1959)
At the time of this recording, Helen Humes was a veteran several times over: a big-band swing chanteuse (with Harry James and Count Basie), a blues shouter, a consummate ballad singer, a rhythm-and-blues doyenne. It all turns up on this loose and sundry gem of an album, with a band led by Benny Carter and (on most of the tracks) a reunion of the Previn-Vinnegar-Manne trio in the rhythm section. Humes sounds great. Carter gets to display his trumpet chops. Many of the numbers hover pleasantly between small-group clarity and jam-session fizz. Along the way, you can hear all manner of alternate-universe Previns, from the Previn who somehow landed in a Basie-esque band (“You Can Depend on Me”) to the Previn who settled into the Kansas City R&B scene (“Trouble In Mind,” close to a straight-out rocker) to the Previn who updated and deconstructed trad jazz for a Cold War audience (“Ain’t Misbehaving,” complete with an incongruously torrential solo). On the ballads (“Among My Souvenirs”—with Mel Lewis taking over from Manne—and, especially, “Star Dust”), Previn sounds so at home that he might as well be playing from an easy chair.
With only a couple of exceptions, Previn stays in the background, but Humes brings out his attentive, judicious best as an accompanist.
Diahann Carroll and the André Previn Trio: Porgy and Bess (United Artists, 1959) (recorded early 1959?)
Diahann Carroll / The Andre Previn Trio (United Artists, 1960) (recorded early 1959?)
The making of the film version of Porgy and Bess was a legendary minefield even by Hollywood standards. Ira Gershwin had jealously guarded the work from producers for a quarter-century before relenting and handing the reins to veteran producer Samuel Goldwyn, who must have immediately realized the Pyhrric nature of his victory. Goldwyn promptly found himself squeezed between the demands of Gershwin and his wife and the deep suspicions of black performers over the suitability and dignity of the material. The experience drove Goldwyn out of the movie business. It helped drive Rouben Mamoulian—who had directed the original productions of the opera, but nevertheless was fired by Goldwyn mere weeks into filming—out of the movie business. The final product received mixed reviews, and, once Goldwyn’s 15 years of rights to the material expired, became so hard to see that rumors spread that Ira Gershwin had actually ordered Goldwyn to destroy all the available prints. Previn, hired to arrange and conduct the score, was one of the few people to escape the project relatively unscathed: he and Ken Darby shared an Oscar for their efforts.
Diahann Carroll had played Clara in Goldwyn’s Porgy but, at Goldwyn’s behest, her singing was dubbed by soprano Loulie Jean Norman, which must have been a real insult to a singer of Carroll’s caliber. As Previn scholar Frédéric Döhl has noted, Goldwyn’s reverence for the material, both asserted from within and imposed from without, led him to fill the soundtrack with classical singers in order, as Döhl puts it, to “orient the aesthetic emphasis of the sound towards opera.” That might be why Carroll and producer Jack Lewis wanted to tilt away from the source toward jazz. With Previn’s trio with Mitchell and Capp alternating with one featuring Joe Mondragon on bass and Larry Bunker on drums, it’s much as one might imagine a “modern jazz interpretations of” Porgy and Bess, though perhaps more well-behaved and determinedly tasteful than, say, Bill Potts’ 1959 album The Jazz Soul of Porgy & Bess, played by a band including Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, and Bill Evans (and featuring liner notes by Previn). Still, Previn and Carroll do their best to add their own sort of texture, Carroll with some growl and fry around the edges of her silky voice, Previn with some hard-bop-blues framing devices. (Otto Preminger, Mamoulian’s replacement, had pushed Previn to jazz up Gershwin’s score à la Preminger’s earlier Carmen Jones, but Goldwyn overruled him; maybe Previn found a place for his rejected sketches.) Previn and Carroll were probably too intrinsically smooth to ever knock, say, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s Porgy from its pedestal, but the high points—Previn’s jaunty harpsichord on “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” a fine, late-night-on-the-bandstand “I Loves You Porgy,” and Carroll’s Olympic-class insinuations on “It Ain’t Necessarily So”—are worthwhile.
Their second album gathers a group of standards both familiar and half-forgotten, along with a couple of Previn-Langdon originals. (One personal benefit of Previn’s burst of collaborations with singers around this time was to get his songwriting efforts some extra public attention.) The trio with Mitchell and Capp is on duty throughout. And, on the whole, it’s a more satisfying collection than the Porgy album. Carroll gets to be a straight-up jazz singer, and she’s very, very good, mixing something of Dinah Washington’s dirty-martini, high-proof saltiness with Carmen McRae’s meticulous melancholy.
Previn’s playing alternates between the impish (juggling riffs on “I Should Care,” he nearly twirls himself off the stage, while his Johnny-one-note solo on “The Party’s Over” is downright goofy) and the wistful, even bringing in some celesta on his own two songs (especially effective on “Change of Heart,” one of Previn’s most elegant pop disquisitions). Previn and Carroll seem to be on the same stylistically-fluent, slyly self-aware wavelength. I kind of wish they had worked together more.
André Previn Plays Songs by Jerome Kern (Contemporary, 1959) (recorded March 1959)
Previn’s second solo outing for Contemporary feels a shade less spontaneous than his Vernon Duke collection, but makes up for it in brilliance and even daring. The more familiar songs get etude-like treatments: “Long Ago and Far Away” winding in and around castanet-like cascades of crushed seconds, “Ol’ Man River” floating along on determinedly unusual, fathoms-deep re-harmonizations. “A Fine Romance” is an especially white-knuckled ride, Previn’s motivic deconstruction dancing along an up-tempo razor’s edge, his improvising orbiting one increasingly obstinate riff with increasingly off-kilter conceptions.
Previn advocates for the comparative rarities—“Sure Thing,” “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Go Little Boat,” ballads all—with rich, restrained eloquence. The solo albums continue to be perhaps the best anthologies of Previn’s abilities. It’s easy to hear echoes of other approaches: Peterson, Garner, Cy Walter, Don Shirley. It’s hard to imagine many other pianists being able to do all of it, often all at the same time.
André Previn & His Pals: West Side Story (Contemporary, 1960) (recorded August 1959)
West Side Story must have presented a particular challenge to any would-be jazz versions: the score’s jazz elements, while highly stylized, project a formidable profile, putting any reinterpretation in danger of coming off as either obvious or perverse. That Previn, Mitchell, and Manne manage to sidestep that trap is already impressive. If the Gigi album was, in part, a series of hat tips to other pianists, here Previn seems to be getting deeper into the songs’ DNA with some surprising compositional contrafactuals. What if Duke Ellington had written the “Jet Song”? What if Harold Arlen had written “Tonight”? What if Fats Waller had written “Cool”? What if, say, Neil Hefti had written “Gee, Officer Krupke” for the Basie band?
What might have been jokey proves liberating: Previn is freed up to re-examine the musical elements on their own terms, and the result is some of the best improvising he ever put down on record. The show albums were, on the whole, a mixed (though always diverting) bag, but this one might be the best. It’s the most sheer fun of the albums since that first My Fair Lady outing, and it surpasses it in musical richness.
Still, against the backdrop of the ongoing ferment in jazz, it’s an album and a concept that feels noticeably safe. Previn and company recorded West Side Story in the same year that Miles Davis made Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus made Mingus Ah Um, and Ornette Coleman made The Shape of Jazz to Come. On its own, the album is a delight: witty, stylish, charming, sparkling—all of Previn’s hallmarks. In context, it’s an early sign that Previn’s dedication to his hallmarks will leave him increasingly out of step with the rest of jazz.
It was also the last trio outing with Manne. Previn was finishing up his obligations to Contemporary and increasing his touring—again, in partial support of his burgeoning classical-performing ambitions. Manne, meanwhile, was focused on his non-stop stream of studio work and his own ambition to own a jazz club (realized, in 1960, with the opening of Shelly’s Manne-Hole). Previn and Manne would remain connected through the film-music world, and would still occasionally work together. In his memoir, Previn would call Manne “incomparable” and “fearless” and his “closest friend among the jazz players.” But the three-year run of the Friends and the Pals was over.
Dinah Shore and André Previn: Dinah Sings, Previn Plays—Songs in a Mid-Night Mood (Capitol, 1960) (recorded June-August 1959, March 1960)
Dinah Shore: Somebody Loves Me (Capitol, 1959) (recorded September 1959)
The second one first: Somebody Loves Me, with orchestral accompaniments arranged and conducted by Previn, is mostly, in the context of this survey, a reminder that, yes, Previn was still maintaining a busy career providing (little-R and big-R) romantic ambience for studio orchestras. The album, all standards, hardly strays from its formula of plush, strings-and-woodwinds frames for Shore’s down comforter of a voice. There’s a few passing curveballs—the introductions to “Something to Remember You By” and “I Only Have Eyes for You” stretch out some parallel harmonies in an almost Britten-esque way before settling into their soft, cinematic sweep. But even the exception, a bit of piano-and-rhythm scene-setting and a half-chorus of Previn solo on the title song, which closes out the album, is still just seasoning on what remains a string-heavy track.
Dinah Sings, Previn Plays is more intriguing. Recorded over three sessions (one with just Previn accompanying, the other two—separated by nearly a year—with the Previn-Mitchell-Capp trio), it’s all torchy and subdued, but with definite blues-and-bop accents. It might have been called Dinah Shore Sings Jazz—except Shore barely alters her pure, finely-drawn approach at all. (I was amused that where Shore most wrinkles the sheets, as it were, is for the heteronormative, you’ll-learn-to-cook-and-love-it admonishments of “Sleepy Time Gal.”) So what we have is, essentially, some reasonably serious instrumental jazz combined with easy-listening vocals. And, except for the couple of songs where Shore takes the “mid-night mood” a little too literally and undersings to a fault, it works really, really well: Shore takes the largely straightforward road while Previn scuffs up the texture in his darting-in-and-around-the-beat style.
It’s a hint, maybe, that Previn’s approach didn’t change all that much, either. Previn’s detractors would sometimes complain that his jazz was, more or less, easy-listening music with rhythm, but records like this show how it might be more useful to think of his easy-listening music as jazz without rhythm, or at least without jazz’s strong and predominant rhythmic drive. It helps explain why his easy-listening albums tend to be more interesting than most others. (Dinah Sings, Previn Plays is one of the few Previn albums to be reissued later with bonus tracks that weren’t on the original release, indicative of how much material was either re-recorded or left on the cutting room floor for this project—an unusual experience for Previn, based on what I’ve been able to glean about his recording sessions.)
Julie London: Your Number Please (Liberty, 1959) (recorded August-September 1959)
Julie London recorded with so many West Coast jazz figures—Barney Kessel, Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, Buddy Collette, Al Viola, the list goes on—that it’s a little surprising it took this long for her and Previn to cross paths. Not that this is any showcase for the West Coast style: Previn may sneak some discreet piano into a couple of numbers, but his arrangements largely hew to the Somebody Loves Me pattern. The surfaces are impeccable, but Previn’s contribution does, perhaps, feel a little hemmed in by London, who remains more ensconced than usual in her breathy, world-weary, close-miked siren mode. Among the less expected moments: some sharp-flavored strings on “One For My Baby,” a bit of operatic flair in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and a sweet-and-sour arrangement of “Makin’ Whoopee” in which Previn and the orchestra seem just a little bit more in on the joke than the star.
Betty Bennett with the André Previn Trio: I Love to Sing (United Artists, 1959) (recorded autumn 1959?)
In his liner notes for this album, Gene Lees offered some reproof to critics and fans (and, one could imagine, Ralph Gleason’s this-isn’t-really-jazz notes for Bennett’s last album) over the way they pigeonhole singers—words that could well apply to Previn.
If the singer is bad or just so-so, the aficionados will let the “popular music” world have him. But if he’s good, and they like him, they will claim him as their own, and as a “jazz singer.”
(Lees’ utopian conclusion: there’s no such thing as a “jazz singer”—just good singing or bad singing.)
After a sabbatical to raise her and Previn’s children, Bennett had returned to the stage, first on tour with Benny Goodman (“What a cruel man,” she recalled) and then in clubs with small groups. This album, in addition to its being a testament to professional amicability (Bennett was working not only with Previn, her ex-husband, but, on a few tracks, Conte Candoli, whom she had left for Previn), nicely preserves much of that two-drink-minimum atmosphere. The “Trio” is a little bit of a fiction: Red Mitchell and Buddy Clark trade off on bass, Irv Kottler and Stan Levey on drums. But the sense of a cohesive evening out is well-realized, with a smart selection of standards and a handful of medley transitions to maintain the momentum. Bennett, essentially a female crooner—clear tone, careful breath control, and canny use of the microphone—is in great form, and Previn’s playing is lithe and loose. Plenty of highlights to choose from: a beguiling take on “Over the Rainbow,” a quick-hit version of “All At Once” that nicely captures Lorenz Hart’s defiantly romantic worldliness. But I’ll go with “Love Isn’t Born (It’s Made),” a nimble, saucy Arthur Schwartz-Frank Loesser apertif that was new to me.
Elmer Bernstein and the Swinging Bon Vivants: Paris Swings (Capitol, 1960) (recorded October 1959)
Bernstein later called this Capitol Records bid to gain a foothold in the exotica category a “really dumb idea,” but it’s a stylishly, entertainingly dumb idea. He runs a handful of cosmopolitan standards and a few French-titled originals through a Gallic-jazz filter, and the result is a bubbly, modish good time, light as a meringue and crisp as a croûton. The musicians are uncredited on the original release, but it’s definitely Previn and Mitchell and Manne, with Larry Bunker on near-ubiquitous vibraphone. (The internet claims Ted Nash on reeds and Barney Kessel on guitar—sounds right to me—and I would hazard a guess that it’s Pete Candoli on trumpet, only because Bernstein used him on a number of other projects.) It’s a long way from the resplendent grit of Blues and Brass, but everyone’s still sharp. And Bernstein’s quintuple-time fascination remains intact in a nifty rewrite of “Autumn Leaves.”
André Previn, Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, and others: The Subterraneans (dir. Randal MacDougall; MGM, 1960) (recorded August, September, December 1959, January, February 1960)
Four years after Bernstein’s success with The Man with the Golden Arm, Previn finally got the chance to write his own jazz film score, for MGM’s Arthur Freed-produced adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel of life among the Beats. Any suspicions one might have regarding the man behind Easter Parade and Gigi shepherding a movie about postwar disaffected Bohemian youth would be well-founded; even if Freed and director Randal MacDougall’s original cut was further compromised by MGM executives, the project was probably doomed from the start, already out-of-date by the time of its 1960 release, incompatibly conventional in its structure and visual grammar, and seemingly deaf to the tonal peril of having heightened, Kerouac-esque argot read out loud by good-looking actors. And did they change the character of Mardou from a half-black, half-Cherokee siren to a French free spirit played by Leslie Caron? Do you really need to ask? (In his study Blows Like a Horn, scholar Preston Whaley, Jr. makes the case that the film’s irreconcilable contradictions make it a more fascinating critical artifact than either intended or remembered, at least.)
The music, though? The music is great. Previn’s orchestral cues are wonderfully brash and moody, big-city melodrama at its finest. (The main theme, “Why Are We Afraid?”—with lyrics, unused in the film, by Dory Langdon—deftly threads the film-scoring needle: immediately recognizable but continually beguiling.) And Previn and Freed did not mess around in bringing to the screen the jazz that is integral to the book. All kinds of terrific players get heard, and get screen time, and get listed in the opening credits. Gerry Mulligan has a role as a saxophone-playing hipster priest handing out free spaghetti; later in the film, he appears in a quintet with Art Farmer, Buddy Clark, Russ Freeman, and Dave Bailey. The Previn-Mitchell-Manne trio also performs on-screen and then backs up Carmen McRae for a song. Since it’s an Arthur Freed production, both numbers are Freed’s—McRae sings a lightly-updated version of “Coffee Time,” written with Arthur Schwartz, while the trio essays the Freed-Nacio Herb Brown chestnut “Should I.”
Conveniently, Previn had recorded “Should I” for Previn at the Piano, his debut album, back in 1947, allowing for comparison. The command of touch and dynamics is the same; just about everything else is vastly different.
(Just one more thing about the film: the Kerouac stand-in, played by George Peppard, was originally envisioned as a role for Dean Martin. Dean Martin!)
André Previn / David Rose: Like Blue (MGM, 1960) (recorded Autumn/Winter 1959?)
The follow-up to Secret Songs for Young Lovers is of a piece with its predecessor, though, if you listen close, here and there the formula yields diminishing returns—the string arrangements feel a little more deliberately smoothed-out (or, alternately, over-intricate), and Previn’s piano more deliberately spiky and strenuous in its jazz accent. Still, for every dubious track (Previn’s playing on “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” for instance, is so self-consciously busy as to strain coherence), there’s one in which the odd-couple vibes relax into something wry and insouciant.
Two of Previn’s originals from The Subterraneans turn up here. The jazz waltz “Like Blue” was clearly the album’s hoped-for hit single, but it’s a more tangled tale than “Like Young,” better off with the clarity and ensemble of a smaller group, perhaps. But “Why Are We Afraid?” (here called “The Blue Subterraneans” in keeping with the album’s musical color scheme) again proves durable in a variety of guises. And the album itself was another hit, reaching #25 on the Billboard charts.
This record also kicks off what will be a string of Previn albums with “like” in the title, as the record industry runs the association with “Like Young” into the ground. So it’s worth relating a story that Previn liked to tell, about meeting Ira Gershwin around the time “Like Young” was climbing the charts, with Gershwin offhandedly remarking to Previn, “Shouldn’t it be ‘As Young?’”