INTERLUDE: On Improvisation (Musical and Otherwise)

One of the more common criticisms of Previn’s conducting was that he was inconsistent, that his interpretations (and level of engagement) would change from night to night, that he would spring unfamiliar ideas on the orchestra in the midst of a performance. The positive way of framing this is that Previn prized, above all, the energy and possibility of live performance. One of the early high points of Previn’s conducting career was the set of Rachmaninov recordings he made with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and the LSO. The story is that the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was done in two takes, with no inserts.

Are there smudges and scuffs along the way, bits that another conductor might have gone back and fixed? Sure—but that would have compromised the electric sense of a room full of musicians acting and reacting in the moment. Is that improvisation? In a way, it is, and in a way that, I think, is not very far from Previn’s idea of jazz improvisation.

For Previn, improvisation was the distinguishing feature of jazz practice. Recall the interview with Peterson, who asked Previn how he felt after diligently transcribing and mastering Tatum’s “Sweet Lorraine.” “Like a jerk,” Previn replied. He had learned something about the style, but he still couldn’t improvise. But I think Previn’s style of improvisation was at a slightly oblique angle to other jazz performers. What Previn seems to have enjoyed most about improvising is the chance to make an arrangement on the fly, without the mediation of scoring and rehearsing and tweaking. A lot of Previn’s favorite moves—the often-elliptical introductions or re-harmonizations, the momentary modulations, the way he’ll take a bit of another player’s solo and weave a little counterpoint underneath it, the way he’ll use that trick to dovetail into his own statement—parallel common tools in the arranger’s box, ways to maintain interest in the arrangement, to keep it moving forward. Previn certainly could improvise in the sense of making up new lines and melodies and transitions on the spot. But the best of his jazz performances come when his improvisations are working on that spontaneous-arranging level.

As with most jazz artists, Previn regarded a song, a tune, a performance as a set of possibilities, waiting to be realized. But, as Previn’s reliance on riffs and licks indicates, it’s less important that the realization be musically novel than musically present, charged with the risk and reward of being live. You can sense this in another non-jazz performance, which any writing about André Previn is more or less obligated to mention.

There’s a lot of lore about this very famous sketch, most of it asserting some measure of improvisation, and most of it not entirely true. Previn did learn the final version of the script in a car on the way from the airport to the BBC, but then had the opportunity to run his lines the night before the sketch was taped. There had been far less rehearsal than Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise were comfortable with and accustomed to, but they did rehearse. And none of Previn’s lines were ad-libbed. But it seems like it unfolds in a way that repeatedly surprises the performers. You could say that Previn—and, in turn, Morecambe and Wise—are improvising everything but the material: the timing, the reactions, the shape of the performance. Previn’s jazz was never as scripted as this. But his approach to jazz performance shows many of the same qualities.

So Previn’s withdrawal from jazz was, maybe, less of a switch and more of a pivot than it seems. And, as for possibilities, Previn kept them decidedly open. He wrote a pair of musicals: Coco, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, and The Good Companions, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer; the latter, particularly, would reappear when Previn returned to jazz. (Demo versions of five of the songs from The Good Companions, with Mercer singing and Previn at the piano, would later appear on Johnny Mercer Sings, a compilation released in 1991 on the Memoir label.) And Previn only mostly abandoned the movie industry. Interestingly enough, his two final efforts both touched on rock and jazz-rock fusion. Previn arranged and conducted the soundtrack for Norman Jewison’s 1973 film of the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar and, two years later (and as a favor to Jewison) handled the music for Rollerball (dir. Norman Jewison; United Artists, 1975), a classic piece of dystopian pulp. Most of the music was classical: Bach, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, which Previn deftly trimmed and tweaked. But he also added a few original cues, including some background music for a lavish get-together attended by the amoral rich people who own and control the deadly title game. Previn’s pitch-perfect 70s jazz-funk mixes over-the-top wah-wah guitar and a spacey Moog lead into a perfect sour slickness, redolent of sleaze.

Even when he’s satirizing a style, Previn can’t help but do it right. (Or, at least, do it more diligently than in his 1971 (classical) Guitar Concerto, in which an electric guitar, bass, and drums make repeated Ives-and/or-Tippett-like incursions into the last movement that make Previn’s point without adding much musical interest.)

It was another friendly colleague that convinced Previn to wade back into jazz. In 1975, Previn and violinist Itzhak Perlman had jumped on the then-rolling ragtime bandwagon, recording The Easy Winners (Angel, 1975), an album of Perlman’s violin-and-piano arrangements of Scott Joplin rags. The album is both charming and a little ragged (Perlman likes to slightly anticipate syncopations, Previn likes to delay them, and there be dragons), but the affinity was enough that, five years later, with Previn now back in the United States more-or-less full-time as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Perlman talked Previn into a jazz collaboration. In May 1980 the pair got together in Heinz Hall to record A Different Kind of Blues (EMI, 1980), an album of Previn-penned tunes. For the session, Previn reunited his trio with Mitchell and Manne, adding guitarist Jim Hall to round out the group. There were many, many ways for this session to go wrong. Previn was rusty (and, especially in the repetitiveness of his solos, sounds it). Perlman was a novice, however skilled. (Previn sketched out Perlman’s solos for him, and you can kind of hear where Perlman goes on and off script.) And yet, somehow, this album vindicates Previn’s conviction that chemistry matters, that good musicians who like each other will make good music. Previn’s bespoke compositions, designed for the situation, help a lot. There’s no shortage of riff-based crowd-pleasers (the rakishly-titled “Who Reads Reviews” is especially fun) or ear-catching progressions that can, perhaps, cover for any lack of melodic invention while improvising. But there’s some inspiration, too. The title tune is defiantly minimalist, what might result if someone called the slow movement of Ravel’s second violin sonata in a jam session. And “Chocolate Apricot” is a real beauty.

The album made enough of a splash that, in November 1980, when Perlman was back in Pittsburgh, the same quintet reassembled for a follow-up. It’s a Breeze (Angel, 1981) is, perhaps, evidence that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, though it mostly suffers by comparison. It’s a much more leisurely session, Previn’s tunes aren’t as tightly constructed, and the general vibe is less energetic, which, next to its predecessor, makes the whole thing feel slack. But, taken on its own wavelength, it’s, again, still a better album than one might have expected. “A Tune for Heather” is especially nice, an expansive ballad that rests on Manne’s flair for melodic invention on a non-melodic instrument.

It’s a suitable valedictory for Manne, who died suddenly in 1984. This is the last time Previn worked with him and Mitchell.

In Pittsburgh, Previn had appeared on television in Previn & the Pittsburgh, basically refashioning his successful BBC program André Previn’s Music Night for an American audience. For one 1979 episode, Ella Fitzgerald was the guest star.For most of the show, Previn let Paul Smith handle the piano duties, but he sat in at the end.

(This concert might have been the origin of another Previn story. Backstage, Fitzgerald told Previn how much she admired him. Previn was floored. Really? he said. Yes, Fitzgerald replied, she admired anyone who could live in Pittsburgh.) 

A few years later, in May 1983, Previn and Fitzgerald went into the studio with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and came out with Nice Work If You Can Get It (Pablo, 1983), an album of Gershwin standards. It’s a bit of a mismatch. Fitzgerald was not in the best of voice, and while her trouper’s resourcefulness in working around the limitations is impressive, it affects Previn’s playing: he’s often a little too eager to jump in, filling in Fitzgerald’s lack of long phrases and held notes. (Compare this album with the ones he made with Doris Day, say, or Leontyne Price, and the difference is noticeable.) The rhythmic language is sometimes at odds, too, Previn trying out shifts between subdivisions and polyrhythmic ideas to fill up the time, while Fitzgerald just wants to swing. (In “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” Previn experiments with playing jazz-waltz time underneath Fitzgerald’s swung four, an actually-interesting idea that just doesn’t pan out.) When it works, though, the combination of Fitzgerald’s aristocratic earthiness and Previn’s fizz is engaging.

(There’s another callback here: on “But Not For Me,” Previn inserts the same little minor-major bait-and-switch that he did on Previn at the Piano nearly forty years earlier.) 

Still, these all feel like one-offs. Previn would only return to jazz in earnest at the end of the 1980s. Typically for Previn, it was part of a major career shift: he would record his next album only a month before he resigned as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Also typically for Previn, the shift was only partial: he would remain principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic until 1991, and continue to guest-conduct well into the 2010s.) And, when he did return, it would no longer be as the protean talent hanging around the vanguard of West Coast jazz, or as the mainstream star holding the line against the avant-garde. It would be as an elder statesman, unswervingly but undemandingly working in the same old style. Previn’s remaining jazz recordings would be exercises in fluent, straight-ahead, retro jazz. Except when they weren’t.

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