INTERLUDE: On Influence

Efforts to discern the influence of other pianists in Previn’s playing began while he was still a teenager. As a way of describing Previn’s sound and approach, the instinct is an understandable critical gambit. But often there was something more to it, as if the writer were looking for a door by feeling along walls. Such was the tone of John Roberts, who, in a brief 1948 profile in Saturday Review (in the wake of Previn at the Piano’s unexpected success), thought the combination of Previn’s youthful appearance and playing “suggested a young European who had listened avidly, and profitably, to Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum.”

(Aside: I have a sneaking suspicion that the author of this profile was actually John R. Pierce, the Bell Laboratories scientist and prolific writer of essays and science-fiction stories, often under assumed names, including “John Roberts.” Pierce would later lead the development of Echo, the first experimental communications satellite, before becoming an early expert on computer music.)

The comparison with Tatum was common in Previn’s early days, as was then typical with any jazz pianist of unusual dexterity and melodic inclination. However, as Previn’s career moved into what was then called “modern jazz,” it became an established truism that one of Previn’s main influences as a jazz pianist—perhaps the main influence—was Horace Silver. The initial source for this genealogy seems to be Leonard Feather. Contemporary Records’ Feather-edited, label-centric newsletter, GTJ & CR News, in announcing the 1956 Shelly Manne & His Friends album, mentioned that Previn “has developed along the Horace Silver, out of Bud, out of Monk, tradition”. (This, already, is a slightly curious statement; Bud Powell, sure, but Monk?) For a 1958 Downbeat blindfold test, Feather played Paul Desmond a Previn recording.

Paul Desmond: And André seems to be getting closer and closer to his goal of sounding like Horace Silver.

Leonard Feather: Yeah, he sure does.

From there to Feather’s 1958 survey Jazz: An Exciting Story of Jazz Today: “André Previn, who today probably swings as much as any pianist within range of a studio call, owes much to Horace Silver, whose incisive and highly personal style he admits as a major influence.”

If Previn ever admitted this to anyone else, I haven’t been able to find it. That, by itself, isn’t all that significant, but Previn rarely hesitated to mention his other influences. He frequently and consistently cited his formative encounter with Art Tatum’s playing, and his love of Nat “King” Cole. (In his memoir, there’s a great photo of Vic Damone, smiling at the camera, Cole at the piano, smiling at the camera, and Previn, carefully watching Cole’s hands on the keyboard.) In 1974, Previn interviewed another touchstone, Oscar Peterson, at length, and Previn’s fanboy delight is palpable. Interestingly, for much of the evening, they talked about the perils of influence.

The discussion of Tatum is especially illuminating, with both performers surprisingly frank about the difficulty and necessity of resisting such a powerful influence. Previn actually rehearsed some of this viewpoint back in 1960, when he wrote the liner notes for Tatum’s More of the Greatest Piano of Them All, a posthumous release of some of Tatum’s final Verve recordings. 

Even his most proficient imitators can be detected on records after a few bars; maybe it’s the touch (not quite as elegant and singing), maybe it’s the long swirling runs (not quite as evenly executed), maybe it’s the harmonic structure (not quite as inevitably in good taste), or maybe the time (not so relaxedly perfect), but whatever the failing, it becomes as obvious as that of the most talented painter up against Picasso. 

“In re-reading these notes, I find that I have consistently referred to Art in the present tense,” Previn writes. “That may be considered grammatically incorrect, but musically it is quite right; I doubt whether anyone could ever correctly refer to him in the past tense.” You can feel the knife cutting both ways.

Delineating the influence of contemporaries is even trickier. Later in their interview, Peterson and Previn got to talking about Cole, and Cole’s use of what Peterson calls “stabilizers”: repeated riffs that settle and anchor the beat. Here’s the thing: if you play those kinds of riffs with the sort of accents and phrasing that Previn absorbed from bebop, you’re going to end up with something that sounds a lot like, well, Horace Silver. 

Which is not to say that Previn wasn’t influenced by Silver! Of course Previn was aware of what Silver was doing, and of the advent of hard bop. (Previn’s left-hand technique alone—punctuating his right-hand runs with heavy, grace-noted dominant stomps—would warrant comparison with Silver.) Previn was a musical omnivore, and, despite his early ignorance of Charlie Parker, had become well-versed in what was going on in jazz.  In 1957, Previn was recorded live at Chicago’s London House for One Night Stand, a long-running program produced by the Armed Forces Radio Service, and the set list included “Walkin’,” the seminal hard-bop blues made famous by Miles Davis and his sextet (which included Silver). And it’s clear that, while his solo is nothing like Silver’s, Previn learned the tune from that recording.

André Previn Trio: “Walkin’” (1957)

But, over the years, the “influenced by Horace Silver” idea gradually seems to have hardened into a kind of perfunctory shorthand. Take that 1986 New York Times profile (in which Previn recounted his Charlie Parker experience). Writer Joe Goldberg tells of Previn’s “facile style, derived from Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Horace Silver.” That one-line description perpetuates the sense that Previn took his jazz playing off the shelf, like a score in a library. The notion that he could have synthesized much of his style on his own is left unexamined.

Previn was conscious of his skill and style in relation to the rest of the scene. In 1957, riding the success of the My Fair Lady album, Previn was the subject of Downbeat profile by John Tynan in which he gave a blunt assessment of his own playing. “Two years ago I was playing like a bum. Let’s face it. All I was playing was good cocktail piano. Since then, there’ve been some fundamental changes in my basic outlook. I like to think of it as musical maturation.” Previn credited the changes to the influence not of another pianist, but of Shelly Manne. “We worked out a deal. I’d teach him to arrange if he reciprocated by giving me lessons in swinging,” Previn said, adding, “I’m gassed by this arrangement because I believe it worked.”

Still, there are other pianists one could credibly cite as influences on Previn—Hampton Hawes, for instance, or Ahmad Jamal, or Bill Evans (all three of whom will bear further mention as we work through Previn’s catalog). In listening to Previn play jazz, one influence I hear is a pianist that almost never gets mentioned in relation with Previn: Red Garland. In my mind, there’s a straight line from Garland’s playing, both on his own albums and his Jamal-influenced recordings with Miles Davis, to Previn’s: the scrupulous attention to the original songwriting; the elegant, decorative single-note lines; the crunchy, block-chord shout-chorus evocations. Previn’s gradual turning-away from modern jazz in the 1960s can easily be framed as a kind of negative affirmation of the sort of approach that Garland epitomized. Then again, Previn never talked about Garland as an influence, either. Influence is a complicated thing. 

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