André Previn's heyday as a jazz pianist peaked in the late fifties with a memorable series of solo and trio albums for the Contemporary label. In the course of his subsequent international career as a symphonic conductor, Previn occasionally finds time to return to the jazz fold, either among erstwhile colleagues Mundell Lowe and Ray Brown, or providing sumptuous accompaniments behind Sylvia McNair. The present CD, however, marks Previn's first solo outing since the 1967 All Alone for RCA Victor.
Like its distant predecessor, the premise behind Ballads was that Previn leaf through a pile of sheet music spread across the piano rack, pick a tune at random, and try it out. If he couldn't arrive at an on the spot conception in either one or two takes, he would put the song aside and move on to another. While Previn certainly conveys his intentions of a dimly lit living room, long after the dinner guests have left, and the dishes piles up in the sink, a little "laid back-ness" goes a long way. Not much variety is present tempo, register, or dynamic-wise. Most of the tunes settle into a comfortable, loping kind of automatic-pilot swing that becomes predictable after two or three numbers. Moreover, Previn's phrasing often obscures the tune's shape, not by embellishment or taking untoward liberties, but by not providing stronger rhythmic definition within the phrase. Listening without looking at the contents list, I nearly mistook The Second Time Around for a Sondheim waltz (the Cahn/Van Heusen classic is, of course, neither!).
Still, there are marvelous moments aplenty. Previn recasts the hoary old Melancholy Baby à la Blue Monk, and peppers As Time Goes By with slight of hand modulations intended to catch listeners unaware. Interestingly, this tune, along with Here's That Rainy Day, More Than You Know, and Angel Eyes also appeared on All Alone. Comparing both discs, the older versions are, by and large, more harmonically sophisticated and imaginatively worked out. Yet the essence of Previn's style remains intact: out of temp intros abundant with piquant reharmonizations, teasing, half-remembered Tatum runs, and, of course, his impeccable pianistic control, finesse, and unfaltering taste.
Copyright © 1996, Jed Distler