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.
It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?
The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.
The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it
This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.
Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
“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.
A promising, enjoyably listenable debut just out on Cadence from multistylistic baritone saxist/bass clarinetist Brian Landrus. Despite the presence of a full octet here, the compositions are more scaled-down with breaks for consistently gripping solos from a terrific cast of characters: George Garzone on tenor, Allan Chase on alto, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Michael Cain on piano, John Lockwood on bass and a rattling two-percussionist section of Bob Moses and Tupac Mantilla. Landrus likes a modified latin beat, which the percussion is particularly suited for, has a way with a catchy hook and uses the totality of his range, prowling up to the higher registers a lot more than he growls down low.
They open it up with their only cover, an affably bluesy version of Monk’s Ask Me Now, Landrus in casually Harry Carneyesque mode. Most of the originals here follow a time-honored pattern: the ensemble runs a catchy hook for a verse with individual solos following. The full-group passage is the longest and most powerful on the first Landrus composition here, The Stream, Garzone going four over a neat triplet latin groove when it’s time to step out. The aptly titled Shadows is a rubato number with Landrus all over the place while the percussion clatters underneath; Cain comes out of it with remarkable and pleasantly startling bluesy focus. Landrus switches to hushed alto flute for a gentle, somewhat Hubert Laws-inflected nocturne titled To Love and Grow (don’t let the title scare you off), a brisk New Orleans/latin hybrid called Classification, next the hypnotically circling title track and then the album’s strongest song, the matter-of-factly terse vintage 50s swing number Beauty of Change (titles are obviously not this guy’s strong suit). They close with a brief, pensive baritone sax solo and then the equatorially atmospheric tone poem Destination, Landrus featured again on alto flute, distant through a thicket alive with god only knows what. Strong writer, good performances, good choice of supporting cast, let’s see what he brings next time. What we have in the meantime grows on you the more you hear it.