… although he was sitting here on this step he was still in motion. He was traveling (on the train that never stopped). His self, his mind, raced on and he felt he hadn’t stopped going wherever he was going because he hadn’t yet arrived. Where hadn’t he arrived? Here.
—Bernard Malamud, The Natural
The lowered curtain that Alone implies was an illusion. Previn was constitutionally incapable of retirement. His guest-conducting engagements continued unabated. The occasional live sets with David Finck continued for a few years. As arthritis slowed his performing career, his career as a composer of concert music expanded. As Previn put it: “The next thing is always the favorite, I think you have to feel that way.”
Recording seemed to be a thing of the past. But then he made one more album. Michael Feinstein, perhaps the most industrious modern exponent of American popular song, talked Previn back into the studio for Change of Heart: The Songs of André Previn (Telarc, 2013), a survey mostly drawn from the 1960s Previn-Langdon catalog. With Finck on bass, Previn’s accompaniments are as deft as always, the expert arranger in his element. (One nice detail: since Feinstein’s baritone sits in the same range as the meat of Previn’s piano harmony, Previn doubles the melody at the octave more often than he does with female singers, giving Feinstein an extra overtone’s worth of prominence in the mix.) But Previn’s jazz touches are muted, his flourishes abridged, and, with the exception of a sparse solo on “Give a Little More,” his solo choruses simply restate the melodies in decorated form. Previn seems content to let the songs speak for themselves.
In 2014, a duo concert was scheduled, with bassist Christian McBride. It could have been a fascinating summit: a neo-traditionalist with omnivorous range meeting an old-school traditionalist with a profound whimsical streak. But Previn was forced to cancel. (His replacement was Brad Mehldau, a pianist whose formidable technique and revisionist inclinations are not unlike Previn’s.) After seventy years, Previn’s jazz career was a closed book.
If Previn was ever close to the center of jazz history (as opposed to jazz’s mechanism of publicity and celebrity), it was very briefly and very early on. When Previn first started playing, the parameters of jazz history were still fluid; the musicians who had invented jazz were, in many cases, still around, still performing, still exploring what jazz could be. By the time Previn went on his hiatus from jazz in the late 60s, that history had become, like the history of classical music, a history of innovators, the narrative reoriented around those artists who had pioneered new styles, originated new sounds, pushed the art form in new directions. Previn, decidedly and purposefully not one of those artists, ended up on the margins.
Previn didn’t seem to mind all that much—or, at least, he convinced himself, in the end, not to mind. When he assessed his concert compositions, he might well have been talking about all his music: “I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages.” Previn took his music as it came, focusing his attention on the making of it, without much thought of posterity. Styles and genres were not doctrines to be dismissed or overhauled, but vocabularies to be exemplified through skill and taste, before moving on to the next job. Music, to Previn, was more an activity than a platform for manifestos or a message to the future.
And yet, whether because of that stance, or in spite of it, Previn did make his own jazz, and made jazz his own. For all the accusations of imitation, Previn’s playing is distinctive and recognizable: the ebullient touch, the spry technique, the dynamic range, the mutable shuffling of flicks and flourishes, the striking reshuffling of harmonies. Through the work, the personality was made plain—unassuming but confident, discriminating but accommodating, conscientious but playful. Previn had told us so, back in 1946, when Sinatra was goading him to play like José Iturbi, to show off the versatility that defined his public profile and his long career. I will try, but I think it’ll only sound like me.