Dexterity and declarations.
All in a Night’s Work (dir. Joseph Anthony; Paramount, 1961) (recorded early 1961?)
Previn’s score for this Dean Martin-Shirley MacClaine screwball farce is mostly light and orchestral. But he exercises his jazz skills for a couple of scenes, both on his own (a bit of cocktail piano) and in some small-group charm, with Capp, Mitchell, Barney Kessel on guitar, and Bernie Mattinson on vibes:
A Touch of Elegance: The Music of Duke Ellington (Columbia, 1961) (recorded March 1961)
In 1961, the idea of recording an entire album of Ellington compositions (if you weren’t Duke Ellington, that is) was not as common as one might think. Monk had done it; Johnny Guarnieri had done it; Shirley Scott had done it. Previn had done it, albeit in piecemeal fashion, in the form of the Sunset sides that Monarch later compiled into an album. And, while, Ellington had been given the occasional mood-music treatment—Les Baxter and Morton Gould had recorded Ellington songs—this was, as far as I can tell, the first full LP of piano-and-strings-style Ellingtonia. Previn revered Ellington’s music, esteem reflected in the attentive production of this record. The selection of songs is a connoisseur’s mix of familiar paragons and deep-cut rarities. The string charts are assiduously polished. For rhythm, Previn made sure to recruit Mitchell and Capp this time around. He even got a premiere (of sorts) from the master: “Le Sucrier Velours,” a silky Ellington-Strayhorn original that had been part of the suite Ellington privately recorded as a gift for Queen Elizabeth II. (Previn’s recording was the song’s first and, for a number of years, only commercial release.)
For all that, what one thinks of this album vis-à-vis jazz probably depends on how easily one can put Ellington’s originals temporarily out of one’s mind. Compared with those versions, Previn’s strings sound decorous and gracious, but without the point and texture of Ellington’s more subtle rhythmic sense and often-unexpected orchestrations. One of Previn’s most well-known appreciations of Ellington is revealing:
Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture, and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, “Oh, yes, that’s done like this.” But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is.
Previn’s extravagant compliment is also an admission of his own relative distance from the folkloric source of jazz, a distance study and expertise could only go so far in shrinking.
At the same time, though, this has got to be one of the classiest and most musically rewarding easy-listening albums ever made. It’s a perfect example of Previn’s singular niche in the mood-music sphere: too smooth and sweet to be jazz, but, compared with most other mood-music albums, on another level altogether in terms of jazz feel and savvy. And the source material proves amenable to Previn’s treatment. If Previn’s Fats Waller album put the focus on that music’s inherent ingenuity, this one is dedicated to showcasing just how, indeed, uncannily elegant Ellington’s compositions are. The arrangements are like analytical appreciations—of how well the call-and-response balances in “Portrait of Bert Williams”; how the soft-shoe voice-leading of “What Am I Here For?” does so much with so little; how the motivic basis of “Prelude to a Kiss” opens and closes like a flower. The title song, a Previn original, is an apt homage, the disjunct antecedent phrases setting up the tightly-wound consequents in a plausibly Ellingtonian way. And, behind the gauze, Previn, Mitchell, and Capp still can bring some heat. After its archly straight, classicized opening, Previn settles into “It Don’t Mean a Thing” with some of the most sparkling playing he ever put on record.
The Faraway Part of Town (Columbia, 1962) (recorded June 1961)
Previn’s next piano-and-orchestra album for Columbia is a comparatively miscellaneous collection. Even when it’s thematically consistent, it feels sundry. To play a stylized blues over woozy, parallel tall chords in the strings is something of a Previn go-to; to do it on back-to-back tracks, as he does here (in “Travlin’ Light” and “Gone with the Wind”) is capricious.
But this also a much more subdued album than Previn’s last two strings-and-piano outings, both in terms of mood and adventurousness. The jazz and easy-listening modes that, on previous records, Previn did his best to integrate are here kept far more separate. Introductions and interludes are in the ruminative, transmuted style of his solo piano albums, but the tracks invariably settle into conventional paragraphs.
The title song—introduced by Judy Garland, making an incongruous cameo, in Pepe, a stateside vehicle for the Mexican comedy star Cantinflas—was the first Langdon-Previn (as they continued to be credited) number to receive an Academy Award nomination. In fact, most of the second side of this album is a miniature (and, ironically, wordless) Dory Langdon showcase, with “The Faraway Part of Town” alongside another Previn-Langdon song, “Meet Me Halfway,” as well as songs she wrote with Bronislaw Kaper and Leonard Feather. It’s a hint, perhaps, of how much Previn was now reserving his pop and jazz energies for composing and songwriting.
Doris Day and André Previn: Duet (Columbia, 1962) (recorded November-December 1961)
Man, could Doris Day sing. After starting out with Les Brown’s big band, she had gone into movies, honing her voice into a pure pop instrument while crafting an image of pure (but Rock-Hudson-bewitching) femininity. At the time of this album, she was the biggest female box-office draw in the country. While the presence of Previn, Mitchell, and Capp hints that this is meant to be a jazz album, Day’s singing is in even less of a jazz vein than usual. There’s no improvisation; there’s no scat-singing; even the passing flourishes you’d expect from almost any pop singer (or from Day in her big-band years) are virtually absent. On every song here, Day sings a partial or full reprise of the tune, and the tune and the words are exactly the same, exactly as written—and yet very different. If you’ve ever wondered just how much juice can be squeezed from an unaltered melody and lyric, Doris Day is your woman.
On the surface, this might seem like a spiritual sequel to Dinah Sings, Previn Plays. It turns out to be something different: a singer and a pianist/arranger indulging their mutual love of the craft and effect of classic songwriting on an almost granular level. (The back cover—which features another appearance of the sweater—claims that Day and Previn had never met before this album, which I find far-fetched, but this is the first time they worked together.) Most of the tracks are on the slow side, giving time and space for Day to shade vowels and linger over consonants, and for Previn to adjust his touch and placement and harmony with exquisite precision.
(There’s an alternate take of “Fools Rush In” which is just a hair faster, to its detriment. Day is a singer for whom “slow enough” is an important consideration.) Mitchell and Capp join in on five of the eleven tracks, but only two of them could be called up-tempo—including “Control Yourself,” one of three Previn-Langdon originals. (In keeping with the overall popular-song-maven atmosphere, the three songs seem to channel some of Day’s favorite writers: “Daydreaming” hints at Johnny Mercer, “Control Yourself” has a real Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn feel, and “Yes,” which would go on to be one of the Previns’ bigger hits, triangulates the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart.) This, then, is an album where Previn’s jazz experience lends distinctive depth and color to pop stylings. It’s first-rate.
André Previn and J. J. Johnson: Play Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife and Bilbao-Song (Columbia, 1962) (recorded December 1961)
Singers would almost always bring out Previn’s best as a tasteful, smooth accompanist, but a simpatico collaborator also could spark Previn’s sharper instincts. On the face of it, Previn and trombonist J. J. Johnson might seem only distantly related. Johnson was a main practitioner of bebop and cool jazz while Previn was still regarding those styles from the outside in. Previn had made a habit of surrounding himself with familiar West Coast comrades; Johnson’s collaborations ranged wide. Even their respective compositional ambitions diverged: at the time, Johnson was experimenting with Third Stream ideas, a notion Previn always warily regarded. But they absolutely clicked on this session. In his review of the album, Nat Hentoff called Johnson “an ironist,” which gets at why the pairing feels so natural and fertile. Both Previn and Johnson combine respect for the source material with a flair for yanking the material apart in a way that amplifies its quirks.
Their version of the overture to Die Dreigroschenoper, for instance, starts out as a straight-up transcription before dropping into a loping, angular swing that is both a long way from the original and completely faithful to its ambiance. “Seeräuber-Jenny” alternates stentorian pronouncement with a rickety, Kenton-esque fast swing, letting Johnson encompass both the trombone’s bombast and his own fleet virtuosity. The songs, already pointy—all from Weill’s Brechtian period rather than his Broadway musicals—seem tailor-made for Previn and Johnson to poke with more and novel needles. Mitchell and Capp are fully in the brazen spirit. Even “Mack the Knife,” already over-familiar, gets a fresh, fitting bitonal makeover. (At various times, Previn attributed the idea to either spur-of-the-moment planning or in-performance spontaneity.) Previn and Johnson proceed to goad each other to ever-edgier improvisational heights.
That an album this terrific has, over the years, been so hard to find and listen to is a market-based crime about which, one suspects, Weill and Brecht could have written a pretty good song.
The Light Fantastic: A Tribute to Fred Astaire (Columbia, 1962) (recorded May 1962)
A trio album offering further evidence, possibly, that Previn had been listening to more Bill Evans. And maybe reading Bill Evans—specifically, his famous liner notes for Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.
There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
Not that Previn sounds that much, if at all, like Evans—his playing is still very recognizably his. But Previn’s solos on this album breathe; the space and sound work together. And the feel of Previn riding a wave of melodic invention—rewriting, rather than just decorating, the source material as he goes—is strong. Of course, that could just be the inspiration of the album’s subject. Astaire’s art was dedicated to the illusion of ease: he never wanted you to see how hard he was working.
The set list is the usual Previn mix of standards (mostly Gershwin and Berlin), rarities (Berlin’s “I Used to Be Color Blind,” or Astaire’s own “Not My Girl,” the latter given a particularly rollicking treatment reminiscent of Astaire’s idiosyncratic piano playing and drumming), and a Previn original (“Light Fantastic”). At first blush, this seems like a lighter, more pop-oriented effort than, say, Like Previn! That’s what I thought, anyway, and then I listened to it again. Previn is digging deep, even as his touch and phrasing suggest otherwise. Even his favorite gambit of wild re-harmonization (via an elegantly menacing rewrite of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”) plays as a casual witticism. His improvisations take much less for granted than usual.
Mitchell and Capp are making it sound easy, too. (Capp’s fills, always simple but never rote, are revealed here as one of the trio’s secret weapons, especially in comparison with the more prosaic anonymous drumming on some of Previn’s piano-and-orchestra albums.) Maybe this album was, in part, a lightly-tossed gauntlet. Previn’s perception was that jazz style was moving toward more intentional displays of work, at the expense, he thought, of musical substance. But, again, nothing about this record sounds even that effortful.
Addendum: Here’s a live sample of the Previn-Mitchell-Capp trio around this time, performing Previn’s West Side Story arrangement of “America” at the November 1962 National Pageant of the Arts, a gala to raise money and attention for what would become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC.
Two for the Seesaw (dir. Robert Wise; United Artists, 1962) (recorded summer 1962)
Robert Wise’s film version of William Gibson’s play emphasizes the urban-romantic orchestral aspect of Previn’s score (with studio legend Uan Rasey, on trumpet, anticipating his work on Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown score), while the jazz elements mostly function as in-story background music—and they stay well in the background. On the soundtrack album, though, Previn’s jazz tracks come to the fore. Previn, (probably) Mitchell, and Capp play “Salty Sophie,” a minor blues with a nervous straight-eighths refrain, while a pair of big-band tracks, “Everyone’s Got a Radio” and “Two for the Twist,” show Previn’s mellow and bold sides, respectively. The trio accompanies Jackie Cain on the theme song, “Second Chance” (lyrics by Dory Previn)—again, a performance barely there in the actual movie, but compelling enough to garner the Previns an Oscar nomination for best song.
Jackie and Roy Kral: Like Sing: Songs by Dory and Andre Previn (Columbia, 1963) (recorded July 1962)
Jackie Cain and Roy Kral had made a name for themselves in the 50s, when their tightly-arranged, impeccably tailored pop-jazz vocal duets exemplified finger-snapping, cocktail party cool. For the next twenty years or so, they kept busy, turning up in seemingly every jazz and pop-music context there was—standards, bossa nova, easy-listening covers of the top 40, even, come the 1970s, a hint of psychedelia. And yet, they were always just… Jackie and Roy, doing their thing as various accompaniment styles came and went. (Their agent, the legendary Joe Glaser, complained to them that “the jazz guys think you’re cabaret and the cabarets think you’re jazz.”)
So this album—the first consisting solely of songs by the Previns—feels not only very much of a certain time, but, like all Jackie and Roy albums from that period, of a time somehow slightly displaced. The style is very bop-like, but so frictionless as to slip out of the groove of history. The numbers in which Dory Previn indulges her fascination with hip slang and topical reference as a lyrical resource are dated in such a specific, all-consuming, and idiosyncratic way that they almost seem oblique to any actual era. Listening to this album is both constantly entertaining and a little disorienting.
Previn doesn’t perform—the arrangements and piano are all Roy Kral—but the album makes plain how his songwriting at the time ran on parallel tracks. There’s the lush ballads conspicuously in the style of classic, standard American song, and there’s the faster numbers that heavily draw on bop- and hard-bop styles—riffs, essentially, translated into song. Those two strains were always strong in his jazz playing; in his songs, they’re distinct identities.
Jackie and Roy had an impressively long career. They continued to perform “The Runaround”—a song the Previns wrote for them, which they introduced on Like Sing—in their live sets for years.
André Previn in Hollywood (Columbia, 1963) (recorded August 1962)
In 1962, Previn essentially was working five jobs—movie work, songwriting, jazz playing, classical conducting, and fashioning jazzy mood-music albums—so it’s not surprising that he would start turning the duties on the last over to someone else. His first ringer was a friend: John Williams. Up until this point, Williams’ career had looked not unlike Previn’s. Williams had also been juggling studio work, arranging and composing for films and TV, and jazz piano, playing in some of Dave Pell’s groups, accompanying singer Johnny Desmond, trying his hand at Kenton-like big-band albums, and occasionally recording as a leader (usually credited as John Towner or John Towner Williams, to distinguish him from the other John Williams, also a very good pianist, who opted for a much lower-profile career).
This collection of movie music ranges from melodramatic themes to straight-up pop songs (Previn’s song from Two for the Seesaw gets a prompt showcase, but, a little surprisingly, it’s the only Previn original here), but the treatment is, on the whole, as far into easy-listening as Previn has yet ventured.
There’s still a little bit of jazz here: “The Last Time I Saw Paris” frames Previn’s hard-bop style with some luxury-sport string harmonies, and Previn takes a chorus on “It Might As Well Be Spring,” but the rest of this album barely even feints in the direction of jazz, which means that it is an excellent opportunity to hear what two extremely accomplished musicians can do with the mood-music style. Even at this date, the orchestrations are recognizably Williams’—no matter how much you love the French horn, you will never love the French horn as much, or as well, as John Williams—and show a somewhat more contrapuntal bent than Previn’s, with a lovely sense of space: all the lines have plenty of elbow room to move and breathe. Previn puts on a classical-romantic touch for most of the tracks, and the control and judgement is impressive. (Also: is that some Rosenkavalier at the end of “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All”? Yes. Yes it is—and it’s a motivic name-drop Previn will exercise several more times over the years.)
Even the Grammys were starting to draw borders on Previn’s musical map. Back in 1959, Previn had picked up a jazz nomination for “Like Young,” but, for the 1963 awards, André Previn in Hollywood was nominated in a new category: “Best Performance By an Orchestra or Instrumentalist with Orchestra—Primarily Not Jazz or for Dancing,” which is a very long-winded way of saying that jazz and easy-listening were now, as far as the industry was concerned, two different things. At least they recognized it. I’ve listened to an awful lot of mood-music albums in my time, and, believe me, it’s almost never this good. Still, if it’s a jazzier affect you’re after, Williams and Previn’s next collaboration will have you covered.
(Aside: Since moving to Columbia, Previn’s records had been produced by Irving Townsend, who also worked with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, but this album, along with Previn’s final four 1963-65 Columbia releases, were produced by Ed Kleban, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize as the lyricist of A Chorus Line.)
Eileen Farrell and André Previn: Together With Love (Columbia, 1962) (recorded autumn 1962?)
This album came about through the efforts of Schuyler Chapin, then vice president of classical music at Columbia, later general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, even later New York City’s Commissioner for Cultural Affairs. It is Previn’s first go at a pop album sung by an operatic star, a category which would become something of a minor Previn specialty. But Farrell had serious pop-singing skills and experience, heard on her own radio show in the 1940s and a series of Columbia albums arranged by Luther Henderson. (Her work on the opera stage was, in many ways, a second career; she had only made her Met debut in 1960.) Her pop voice was distinctive: pitched a good half-octave below her classical dramatic soprano range, with firm, measured diction.
Most of the accompaniments are orchestral, but Previn’s piano takes the spotlight on Bart Howard’s “Be My All” (just Farrell and Previn, in a somewhat lieder-like atmosphere), and two Harold Arlen torch songs with piano and (unidentified) bass and drums: “I Wonder What Became of Me” and “The Morning After” (a new song, with lyrics by Dory Langdon), both with Previn in his wheelhouse.
Sittin’ on a Rainbow: The Music of Harold Arlen (Columbia, 1963) (recorded late 1962?)
And that’s very different, Previn recasting “The Morning After” as a second cousin of the Andante from Rhapsody in Blue, it seems. To be fair, this piano-and-orchestra collection of Arlen’s songs is not all as determinedly respectable as that. Previn does some up-tempo showing-off on “Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree,” and drops a solo into “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Astaire tribute. But, given how many times he has recorded some of these tunes, this album makes plain just how Previn has been adjusting his style for easy-listening purposes. (As if to symbolize the shift, Previn has donned a new sweater for the cover photo.) Again, it’s still a step ahead of most similar albums (for example, Wynton Kelly’s nearly-contemporaneous Comin’ in the Back Door sounds noticeably closer to the mean of instrumental pop), but still a noticeable change from his trio and, especially, solo albums. Compare, for instance, the “Stormy Weather” on his solo album with what he does here.
It’s kind of the same playbook. The harmonies still have some twists and turns. But the chords now stack up in a more “proper” fashion than the earlier, quasi-Stravinskian, minor-third-below-major-third-above version, and Previn’s playing is more restrained as well. The negotiations are fascinating.
André Previn / Herb Ellis / Shelly Manne / Ray Brown: 4 To Go! (Columbia, 1963) (recorded December 1962)
Previn manages two reunions on this album, his own with Shelly Manne, and, with Brown and Ellis, two-thirds of Oscar Peterson’s most well-known trio. It’s no retread of Peterson’s style, though. The arrangements and originals (one each from the four players) are more complex and even off-center, and the general vibe occasionally veers in a pop direction, except that it’s pop turned inside-out by consummate jazz adepts. And it’s one of Previn’s most rewarding jazz efforts.
“No Moon at All” sets the tone: ambitious both musically and technically, all realized with a kind of preternatural clarity that gives the whole thing a sheen of casual proficiency. Other tracks verge on the rambunctious—“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” starts off in a prankish manner reminiscent of some of the Broadway-show albums but builds to a cheerful hard-bop apotheosis, while Previn’s own blues-based “Don’t Sing Along” has moments that play like a broken-mirror satire of rock-and-roll. Manne’s “Intersection,” on the other hand, has its foot in the door to some modal, Miles-Davis-John-Coltrane abstraction. Everyone’s there to show each other—and us—what they can do.
4 To Go! was Previn’s first recording in this kind of quartet setting since 1955’s Let’s Get Away From It All. If the earlier album was, in some ways, Previn’s last in his early style, this one might be heard as a kind of thesis statement: what Previn, after just about 20 years as a professional musician, had come to treasure and value in jazz. Proficiency and taste were important to Previn, as were polish and craft. He cultivated—on the basis of a deep yet practical engagement with popular song—a know-the-rules-to-break-the-rules approach to harmony, which he exercised most adventurously in jazz settings. He believed a jazz performance should provide pleasure, even if the material was melancholy; violence and anger were foreign to Previn’s jazz. And, possibly most importantly, he cherished rapport: if the musicians were technically and temperamentally sympathetic, then that spark and sympathetic counterpoint would suffuse the performance. 4 To Go! is Previn defining and epitomizing his idea of mainstream jazz. It’s the last album of its kind he would make for the next twenty-five years.