Today, Andre Previn is viewed by many jazz fans as a jazz pretender—a dyed-in-the wool classical pianist and conductor and a prolific film composer who can manage jazz impersonation but shouldn't really be considered among jazz's piano greats.
All of which is complete nonsense if you are aware of Previn's early jazz recordings. If you aren't, it's not your fault. Most of his pre-1956 leadership sessions for RCA languish in vaults someplace, so all you probably know are his West Coast jazz sideman dates of the late '50s for labels such as Contemporary and MGM.
While it's true that Previn made his name in the movie business and that he is an accomplished classical pianist and conductor, his pre-1956 jazz chops were impeccable—as sharp and as swinging as George Shearing's and as robust and as fast as Oscar Peterson's.
Now, before you get all twisted in a knot over what I've just said, find and listen to the recordings I'm writing about today. If I had simply put up a track today and asked you to guess who was playing, I'm fairly certain few if any readers would have guessed correctly. And that's my point: Previn may be jazz's most overlooked and undiscovered piano monster.
Previn was born in Germany in 1929 or 1930 (his birth certificate was lost). He escaped Nazi Germany with his family in 1938, moving to Los Angeles the following year, where Charles Previn, a relative, was music director of Universal Studios.
For whatever reason, Previn's Wikipedia entry skips over his early jazz piano period as though it never existed, beginning instead in the mid-'50s, when he was an integral part of the emerging West Coast jazz-pop scene.
But for 10 years prior, Previn was an enormously gifted and formidable jazz talent—from a technical standpoint and from the perspective of his fluid and brashly confident improvising ideas. Except for a handful of initial recordings for the growing number of micro labels that surfaced in Los Angeles after the first musicians' union ban was completely settled in 1944, most of Previn's leadership trio dates were for RCA.
And yet in his YouTube interviews, Previn is never asked about these years nor does he talk about them. Even his website ignores this period. As for the handful of books written about Previn, I'm not sure which if any probe deep into these years, since none of the books allow you to search the contents online. As a result, this is a lost period and a tremendous shame for jazz fans.
No one can dispute that Previn, at age 81, has had a 100 mile-per-hour career in music—jazz, pop and film, classical pianist, composer and conductor. It's all very frothy and brilliant, to be sure. But for the jazz fan, his most spectacular works remain hidden—eclipsed by his many other pursuits in music and a music industry seemingly indifferent to the genius of Previn's initial prowess. For the record, Previn began as a jazz pianist, and a spectacular one at that.
JazzWax tracks: Previn's first recordings for Hollywood's Sunset label (1945-46) are on Previn at Sunset (Black Lion) here.
A sampling of Previn's work during this period can be found on Andre Previn: Hallelujah! (Avid) here.
Previn's 1955 and '56 recording can be found on Previn's Touch (Fresh Sound) here.
JazzWax clips: I made a bold statement above that few readers would have been able to tell who was playing if I had put up a clip or two without naming the artist. Here's the blindfold test I would have given you if you were over at my place on a Saturday morning:
From March 1946...
From November 1947...
From August 1950...
And from April 1955...