Uncompromising Tenor Saxophonist Noah Preminger Releases the First Protest Jazz Album of 2017 at Smalls This Weekend
Noah Preminger started writing his new album Meditations on Freedom the night of the 2016 Presidential Election. A collection of originals and four judiciously chosen covers, it’s the first protest jazz album in a year that will no doubt be full of them. History will probably judge this among the best.
Preminger works fast and likes to record live in the studio as well as onstage. His expansive but purposeful previous concert album Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, with his long-running quartet, reinvented famous Skip James blues tunes. The songs on this one are shorter and even more impactful. Preminger and the quartet are playing a weekend album release stand at 10:30 PM at Smalls this Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8.
Preminger and trumpeter Jason Palmer open the band’s take of Bob Dylan’s Only a Pawn in Their Game as a cynical, spot-on faux-fanfare. Preminger’s introduction of a couple of Middle Eastern phrases over Ian Froman’s misterioso drums is somewhat subtler; the group ends it unresolved. Likewise, there are hints of Mexican folk in Preminger’s intro to The Way It Is, a top 40 radio hit for Bruce Hornsby before his days with the Grateful Dead. Froman rumbles and prowls, Preminger spirals and squalls a bit, then bassist Kim Cass walks it briskly and they hit a blithe swing shuffle. Is this sarcasm, once again? Either way, the band, especially Palmer and Froman, have an awful lot of fun with it.
Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come has been done to the point where the most desirable change is almost always after the end of the song. Grounded by Cass’ low-key pulse, lowlit by Froman’s flurries, this one’s a welcome change for the better. It sets the stage for the first of Preminger’s originals, We Have a Dream, Cass’ bubbly bass introducing a resolute horn theme that sends Palmer confidently skyward. The message seems to be, stay strong, we’ll get through this.
Froman’s mutedly relentless drums – a rapturously recurrent trope throughout the album – propel the balmy Mother Earth. Women’s March is another sturdy theme that the band eventually rises to swing the hell out of, Preminger picking his spots, Palmer showing up to build a long crescendo of hazily tuneful harmonies.
Froman’s slow build beneath Preminger’s understatedly majestic, Wadada Leo Smith-like twin-horn theme as The 99 Percent gets going is masterful to the extreme. Clearly, we have the numbers, we just all have to add up together. The last of the covers, George Harrison’s Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth has a laid-back New Orleans second line flavor, a smartly contextual choice. The final cut, Broken Treaties, also brings to mind Wadada Leo Smith’s most vivid, politically-inspired work, whether with Froman’s perimeter-prowling, Cass’ elegant bass incisions or the tight, sober harmonies and interplay between Preminger and Palmer. If you think it’s hard to write political music that isn’t strident or mawkish, try writing political instrumentals. Preminger has a monumental achievement on his hands here. May it be heard widely and inspire us all to get our ducks lined up for the 2018 and 2020 elections.
“When I first heard gnawa music, I heard the blues, and jazz, and the Black church,” Randy Weston explained to the sold-out crowd at the New School Tuesday night. The ageless piano sage has made a career of taking jazz back to its ancient African roots and then reinventing them, first inspired by his father and later while living in Morocco, where he immersed himself in innumerable North African folk and classical music styles. Currently artist-in-residence at the university, he brought along his pal Abdellah El Gourd along with a trio of energetic, impressively athletic dancer-percussionists from his group Dar Gnawa of Tanger for an insightful, sometimes trance-inducing, sometimes raptly transcendent performance of both traditional material and some of Weston’s best-loved compositions.
The percussionists supplied a hypnotically polyrhythmic clickety-clack backdrop with their pairs of cast-metal qraqab castanets while El Gourd grounded the music in low, circling, propulsive phrases on his three-string gimbri lute – one of the earliest ancestors of the funk bass. While Weston didn’t mention that particular lineage, he took care to explain that the qraqabs are a descendant of something considerably more disturbing: handcuffs. Centuries ago, in the Berber lands, prisoners in chains would use them to communicate in code.
Since gnawa music continues to serve several roles in the community – as rhythmic backdrop for mass celebration, spiritual ritual and physical healing, among other things – it’s no surprise that the vocals, delivered robustly by El Gourd an the rest of the group, have a mantra-like quality. In conversation with El Gourd along with a younger countryman and New School student, Weston revealed that the music also has a synesthetic connection – different individuals, different songs and even riffs are associated with different colors. Weston took some obvious relish in being someone whose color, predictably, turned out to be blue.
And the blues, along with their ancient, more lingering and slowly unwinding roots, were everywhere in Weston’s solo pieces, which he played in between numbers by the Moroccans. Night in Medina, he told the crowd, was inspired by a trip to the bustling Tangiers marketplace he frequented during the day but hesitated to visit after dark: “You know, bring from Bed-Stuy!” he joked. Awash in hushed, low-register, moonlit resonance, saturnine modes and allusive Middle Eastern phases, Weston slowly pulled good-natured postbop out of it. Likewise, he closed the performance with a regal, judiciously crescendoing take of Blue Moses, joined slowly and then joyously by the rest of the group as it unwound out of a gently rhythmic trance groove.
Speaking of the blues, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has a connection with them that goes deeper than most. His brand-new live album, Pivot, comprises two lengthy explorations of Bukka White classics. Last night at Smalls, he made another live recording with his quartet, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums. After Preminger and the group had stayed pretty much within themselves, playing their cards close to the vest, very puristically as they do on Pivot, it was a real rush to watch them finally jump and spiral out of control with a pretty wild free interlude late in the set. They went back to dusky and evocative and tersely melodic with their closing number, Mississippi John Hurt’s I Shall Not Be Moved, Palmer anchoring the sound as Froman built toward a steady hailstorm, Preminger finally cutting loose and wailing to the rafters, making the song’s title all the more ironic. Let’s hope this one makes it onto the record as a pure, unedited thrill.
Tenor Saxophonist Noah Preminger’s New Live Album Revisits the Fresh, Radical Original Spirit of Bebop
In a lot of ways, the Noah Preminger Quartet’s new live album Pivot is retro to the extreme. It captures the spirit of bebop from back when that music was new and fresh and radical, rather than just a McGuffin to justify a whole lot of pointless soloing. And while some people might say that the Ellington band would never have played half-hour versions of Bukka White songs like Preminger’s regular group does here, that’s wrong. In fact, when they played the blues, the early bop crowd often went back to the same source material that White referenced. The two songs on this album are Parchman Farm Blues and Fixin’ to Die Blues, each captured live in the roughhewn confines of 55 Bar in the West Village, where the tenor saxophonist and his band – Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Ian Froman on drums – are reprising them with an album release show on October 7 at 10 PM. Cover is $10.
The album title refers to the device where a band swings the music without a set meter – again, an old early bop trope. From the first seconds of the carefree, shuffling bass-and-drum interlude that kicks off Parchman Farm Blues, it’s an instant immersion: it sounds like an edit, picking up from where the band just starts to simmer. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Preminger and Palmer expand on the song’s brooding minor-key hook as the rhythm section bubbles along: you could dance to this if you wanted to. Cass keeps things very close to the ground as Froman rides the cymbals and the snare, steady but loose-limbed. There’s a lot of space in the soloing: everyone seems in agreement that there’s plenty of time to get the job done and no need to rush.
Preminger’s smoky blues riffage eventually picks up toward glissando territory, but it’s getting to that point that’s just as much fun as the methodically spiraling crescendos, and even there he plays it closer to the vest than is typical in extended excursions like this. Palmer seems to be charged with the job of Secretary of Entertainment and gets that out of the way; otherwise, he mirrors Preminger’s approach, with a tinge of New Orleans rusticity. And even when Cass gets to take the spotlight as the horns drop out, the swing never stops.
He opens Fixin’ to Die Blues tantalizingly and allusively as Froman almost imperceptibly builds a ghostly swirl, the band following the much of the same trajectory as the first number from there but with a generally more hard-hitting drive. Eventually they reach the point where there’s an exchange between Preminger and Palmer mirroring an old field holller, and a handoff that seems to completely catch Palmer by surprise, so he channels a cool Miles vibe in resistance to the fray underneath. If this album can be summed up in a sentence, it’s that the group never loses sight of the simple fact that this is blues, and as long as they go, they never stray far from that underlying poignancy. The album’s not officially up at Preminger’s site yet, but you can get a good sense of his general purposefulness at his music page.