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.
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.
Isn’t it funny how some of the subtlest jazz musicians – Noah Preminger, Monty Alexander and Erica Smith among them – are also boxing fans? For those who misssed Preminger’s album release show for his new one, Haymaker, last night at the Jazz Standard, he’s playing two sets there tonight, May 22 at 7:30 and 9:30, a chance to hear one of the fastest-rising stars in melodic jazz at the top of his nuanced game.
Preminger was in an unexpectedly talkative mood, the house manager needling him to “play some jazz” as the possibly former pugilist explained why his ring career was at a standstill. “She hit me, so I hit her back, hard,” he deadpanned: the punch that landed on his female boxing coach was unintentional. Much as has been made about Preminger being a hard-hitting force on the tenor sax, what’s most remarkable about his playing is how effectively he uses space. Onstage with the crew from his album – Ben Monder on guitar, Matt Pavolka on bass and Colin Stranahan on drums – Preminger was more Ali than Foreman, taking his time, landing everything he threw, casually and expertly. There was one brief free-for-all during a roaring Dave Matthews cover, of all things: otherwise, tunes took front and center for the duration of the evening’s first set.
They opened with the album’s title track, Stranahan’s elegantly ornamented shuffle setting the tone for much of what would come later, rhythmically speaking, Monder’s chords cool and resonant until one of his signature shredding solos, Pavolka maintaining a terse modal pulse as Preminger chose his spots. They followed with another track from the new album, the balmy, gentle 6/8 ballad My Blues for You, Preminger’s marvelously misty, low-register outro more than hinting that the individual who inspired the song is no longer in his life (or maybe he’s not in hers).
The high point of the set (no pun intended) was 15,000 Feet, inspired, Preminger said, by his first skydive, from almost three miles up, over New Zealand (ostensibly the only place on the globe where it’s legal to leap out of a plane from such an altitude). Monder and Pavolka built a Hendrix-like propellerplane roar over Stranahan’s clenched-teeth insistence, Preminger leading the procession (metaphorically speaking) out into airier and ultimately more confident terrain: in Preminger’s hands, the view from three miles high is rather relaxing. Alison Wedding came up to sing harmonies on a gorgeously bittersweet take of Dave Douglas’ Blues for Steve Lacy, then led Preminger and Monder through a plaintive, elegaic original dedicated to an Australian pianist collaborator of hers who died young. After the digression into a different Dave (which could have cleared the room if they hadn’t done it so straightforwardly and confidently), Preminger chose the closing spot to send a brief, characteristically lyrical ballad out to his parents, who were in the house celebrating their anniversary.
If Noah Preminger was a painter, he wouldn’t be Pollock: he’d be Paul Klee, maybe. Last night, in his Jazz Standard debut as a bandleader, what the tenor saxophonist left unsaid wasn’t as interesting as what he played, but it created many, many moments of suspense, most of them brief, some more lingering. It’s impressive enough not to overplay, but Preminger’s use of space is pretty extraordinary. His playing on his new album Before the Rain – whose release he was celebrating last night – is judicious, but onstage he chose his spots with an artful gambler’s resolve. Figuring out what was composed and what he was making made up on the spot was often impossible to tell. And for a relatively young guy (he’s a couple of years out of conservatory) to get a band of veterans as good as the crew he has on the album to back him speaks more than any review could. Early on, he pitched a few riffs that pianist Frank Kimbrough playfully swatted at, but otherwise this was less a clinic in interplay than simply good listening. During his bandmates’ solos, Preminger watched intently, but not with anticipation – he was picking up ideas.
And what the group ran out there was every bit as interesting as what Preminger did himself. Drummer Matt Wilson is always inspiring to watch, but this time out he had the counterintuitivity meter pinned in the red. On the blithely catchy Quickening, a Kimbrough tune from the new record, he took a solo that began as a fugue of sorts, morphed into clave and then a winkingly circular riff that he looped over and over. Otherwise, he’d introduce an unexpected shuffle, prowl around rubato while bassist John Hebert held the rhythm, or the one time that Hebert finally veered off the end of the runway, Wilson pounced and saved the song from a certain dip in the Hudson.
Hebert’s lines were every bit as invigorating, and invigorated, as Wilson’s. On the set’s next-to-last number, catchy but wary with a distant bolero feel, he worked the fringes from a pedal note to a percussive yet tuneful frenzy where it looked like he might break a string. As the band wound their way with an unselfconscious casualness into the warmly inviting first song, a Preminger composition simply titled K, he held the center while Wilson and Preminger slipped around in search of a firm footing; later, when the moment called for it, he’d slip a chord or two into a lull, the effect being as if he’d hit an overdrive pedal. And Kimbrough was his usual lyrical, expressive self, whether playing hide-and-seek with the inner Mexican folk song hidden within Ornette Coleman’s Toy Dance, adding bracing phantasmagorical touches on the next-to-last song of the set or artfully evading any kind of resolution on an otherwise surprisingly straight-up version of the vivid Preminger ballad Before the Rain. They closed the set with a gently lyrical, meticulous version of Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When that brought to mind Brubeck’s calm, bucolic version of Georgia on My Mind, a comfortable landing that drew raucous applause from what looked to be a sold-out room. Preminger is back at the Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch (who has a very captivating solo album recorded at the Vanguard, just out) on March 4-5.