He’s been called "today’s most versatile classical musician". André Previn is that: he’s an esteemed conductor, a composer of chamber music, song cycles, and opera, and a pianist who has performed with many of the greatest classical musicians of our time, including Yo Yo Ma and Gil Shaham, as well as singers Kathleen Battle, Barbara Bonney, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Reneé Fleming. André Previn is also a Grammy Award winning jazz pianist: every year he returns to playing jazz, most recently with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Mundell Lowe. Their new disc was recorded live at Vienna’s most famous classical hall, The Musikverein.
Jazz at the Musikverein captures an historic occasion. Previn explains: " I have conducted the Vienna Philharmonic every year for the past eighteen in that hall, which is probably the most famous and certainly the best hall for music in the world. And it has the most prestigious history. I’ve been in it many, many times, but always in conjunction with the Vienna Philharmonic. A jazz concert there – it’s the nearest thing I can think of to doing a jazz concert at the Vatican."
The trio hasn’t hit the Vatican yet, but their groundbreaking Musikverein concert struck a chord, even with members of the staid Vienna Philharmonic: "What is nice is that there were a great many members of the Philharmonic who came…One of them, on of the best musicians I’ve ever known, came backstage afterwards, and he loved it! He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I find unbelievable – it’s that you guys memorized all that music!’ Once we explained he was even more open-mouthed. ‘You improvised in public?’ were his exact words."
Previn has been improvising in public since he was in high school: his first jazz recording was made for the Sunset label in 1945. The pianist was born in Berlin in 1930. His parents moved first to Paris and then to the United States in 1939. He was trained as a pianist and as a composer: he studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In the late forties, he started writing film scores with The Sun Comes Up. Soon he was one of MGM’s fabled arrangers, which led him to a life as a freelance film writer. Previn was playing jazz all the while. The general jazz public knew him for his masterful collaboration with drummer Shelley Manne on a jazz version of My Fair Lady (1956), which was one of the best-selling jazz albums of its time. He followed this album of show tunes with André Previn Plays Harold Arlen (1960), for which he received a Grammy, and he collaborated with J.J. Johnson on an album of Kurt Weill tunes.
At the same time, Previn was pursuing a career – or several – in classical music. Since his conducting debut in 1962, he has conducted most of the major orchestras of the world. From 1968 to 1979 he was the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He was the principal conductor of the Houston Symphony before that, and has been the conductor of the Royal Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and, most recently, the principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1985-89).
As a composer, Previn has written, among many other works, a cello sonata for Yo Yo Ma, four songs on texts by Toni Morrison for soprano, cello, and piano, and the song cycle "Honey and Rue" for Kathleen Battle. Often specializing as a conductor in twentieth century music, he has recorded critically acclaimed cycles of Vaughn Williams, Prokofiev, and Elgar symphonies. In June, 1997, he recorded the two Ravel operas, L’Enfant et les sortileges" and "L’Heure espagnole" with the London Symphony Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon.
Previn plays jazz several weeks in the year only, but in recent years he has taken his trio on a tour of Japan, Europe, and the United States. His bandmembers are amongst the most celebrated in jazz. Ray Brown was for over a decade the bass player in the greatest Oscar Peterson trio. Previn says of him: "Ray is the best bass player in the world, especially if you play that kind of straight ahead Basie, Oscar Peterson thing." Mundell Lowe can be counted on, Previn says, "for really reliable and inventive playing. He plays rhythm guitar better than anyone I know. There’s a certain kind of rhythm guitar playing that is always done by people who used to play for Nat Cole. Very light. They comp but they don’t kill you with it. Lowe’s a genius at it, and, therefore, for the likes of me, absolutely perfect."
Previn played a conservative repertoire at the Musikverein, including the 1924 "What’ll I Do," "a pretty tune that Ray played for me. Ray knows every tune in the world." They play an " absolutely good-natured stride piano" version of the great Fats Waller’s "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."
With its cheery versions of Ellington, its basic blues, and exquisitely stated ballads, Jazz at the Musikverein is not only good-natured, it’s not only historic, its full of goodtime music that will have a lasting appeal.