Andre Previn was always something of a mystery to jazz critics and listeners. By common consent, he had astonishing instrumental technique. On the other hand, a lot of listeners were sure they could hear everyone but Previn in his playing. Along with Shelly Manne, he sold a lot of records and probably made a good deal of money doing so. That alone would have been a problem for somecommercial success and jazz are not supposed to be compatiblebut then Previn simply made matters worse by refusing to be pigeon- holed. He loved jazz, but also the classical repertoire. Previn won a Grammy for his recording of Mahler 4 with The Pittsburgh Symphony (Angel Records, 1980) as perhaps the Symphony's best-known conductor since William Steinberg.
And, to top it off, he did film scores, light orchestral music, married movie star Mia Farrow, and spoke his mind plainly, to critics, fans, and musicians alike. By the time younger jazz fans even became aware of him, which may have been in the '80s or '90s, some were stunned to find he had ever been considered a jazz pianist at all, let alone a good one. Of course, Previn came out of Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell (or maybe Hampton Hawes). Listen carefully to his playing on this recording and Peterson emerges very clearly as dominant. Previn was not an original voice on the jazz piano but he was, by all accounts, a virtuoso player. He was also a difficult person, very difficult; but an easy-going type is not likely to win four Academy Awards for his music or direct any number of world-class symphony orchestras.
Listening to Previn and his companions play West Side Story at this remove is by no means a simple thing. It is not just because people know how the Previn story or even how the musical evolved. Yet there is that. How many jazz listeners really took West Side Story seriously until they heard Buddy Rich do it? Some listened to Buddy's version so often that it is difficult to unhear. Previn doing tunes which younger players overlearned from Buddy is a bit of an odd experience. Occasionally one checks to make certain. Is that really "Maria" or "Something's Coming"? Perhaps coming to this 1960 recording (in audiophile vinyl and all-analog mastering from the original tapes by Bernie Grundman) without benefit of Buddy might be an ideal, if unattainable, goal. At the least, Rich's arrangements emerge in an altogether different light, as brilliantly original. Oddly enough, for some, the real story of the recording may be Red Mitchell on bass. While the liner notes by Lester Keonig do make brief reference to Mitchell's extraordinary playing, Red really sounds ahead of his time. He is the unsung hero of the performance. Mitchell truly causes someone to wonder why the more Blantonesque version of the instrument dominated mid- to late '50s discussion of who played what best? His solos sound the most modern, the most original, the most enduring, and are the highlight of this very well-done reissue.
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