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Alone: Ballads for Solo Piano by André Previn

I think this kid, Andre Previn, has a lot of talent and a hell of a good chance,' said Frank Sinatra in a conversation with your writer, wrote Sharon A. Pease in a February 1947 Down Beat article. "Sinatra's opinion is subscribed to by many musicians who have worked with this sensational 17-year-old pianist. In fact, some believe he is a genius destined to become one of the big names in American music."

And so he has--one of the biggest, according to his own publicity material. And therein lies the problem. There are times when the hype about an artist gets so far ahead of the artist him or herself that nothing he or she can do can live up to it. Last year's tour by Alice Coltrane et. al. was a case in point. All the talk about the spiritual importance of her, and her former husband's, music created expectations that could only be satisfied by her walking on water. As it was, she merely came out and played the piano. She did so very beautifully but it was not enough to cause the heavens to open or the messiah to appear.

Andre Previn's situation is a little different. It is not his fault that he has been knighted, that he is referred to as Maestro Previn, as "one of the most accomplished musicians alive today," that he is a recent recipient of the coveted Glenn Gould Prize, that his latest release before this one was of Mozart piano trios on Deutsche Grammophon, or that the one before that, of his own violin concerto, won a Grammy, or that he has won Oscars for his movie music and held the chief artistic posts with such orchestras as the Houston Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, and Royal Philharmonic. He has done all those things--he is all of those things. But it is hard to know how to respond to the publicity hype that refers to him as "the most widely-accomplished musical renaissance man of his time or any other." My goodness! It is certainly hard to know what should result when he brings all of this to bear on a jazz recording.

It should be noted that Previn was attracted by jazz at an early age. Initially trained for a classical career, he heard Art Tatum as a teenager, and later Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and responded by incorporating jazz into his aesthetic, producing a number of jazz recordings--the bulk of them between 1956 and 1962--most, if not all of them, of a very high quality. I can remember being thrilled, as a teenager, by his 1956 My Fair Lady album with Shelley Manne and Leroy Vinnegar that went on to become a best seller. It was dynamic and imaginative and swung like the dickens.

More than five decades later maestro Previn went into the studio to make his first jazz recording in ten years and came up with something very--nice. My English teachers always warned against the word 'nice' as being wishy-washy -- damning with faint praise. I don't mean to do that but the word seems exactly appropriate here. This is an enjoyable session, yielding low-key renderings of some great standards plus a couple of Previn originals, but it does not--it never could--live up to its advance billing. It is as though Moses descended from Mount Sinai and delivered a recipe for gefilte fish. I love gefilte fish but it can be overrated.

The gold standard of solo jazz piano is the Maybeck Hall Recital Hall Series on Concord. It is high praise of this set that it is comparable with many of the 40 or more volumes of that series--comparing Previn's version of "Skylark" with Kenny Barron's in Vol. 10 of the Maybeck series places Solo in perspective. Previn plays beautifully, with a lovely touch and a sense of great respect for this repertoire. But there are dozens of jazz pianists, not one of them a household name, or a "world renowned pianist," or "the most widely-accomplished musical renaissance man of his time or any other," who can routinely turn out comparable performances. This is not meant as any slight to Mr. Previn; it is just the nature of the business. Andre Previn: Solo will undoubtedly sell well on the basis of his name recognition. Those who purchase it will undoubtedly enjoy it. True jazz lovers should dig a little deeper.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: André Previn
  • CD Title: Alone: Ballads for Solo Piano
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Decca U.S.
  • Rating: Three Stars
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