Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendent Jazz Reinventions of Chopin Classics by the Dead Composers Club

Gotta love the cd cover of the The Chopin Project, the debut album from Noah Preminger and Rob Garcia’s Dead Composers Club. It’s a bluelit nocturnal shot of a bridge across the Central Park Lake: creepy and Romantic, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this kind of music. Jazz grinches have long made fun of “jazzing up the classics,” but if you were around in the past century and you missed iconoclastic pianist Dorothy Donegan playing Rachmaninoff, that’s tragic. 

And there’s more precedent for the Dead Composers Club’s reinvention of Chopin preludes and nocturnes than there might seem. Chopin didn’t have Romany ancestry, but he drew from the same tradition as  Django Reinhardt. Yet this isn’t Romany jazz. This music is closer to the trio Little Worlds’ shapeshifting spinoffs on Bartok etudes, and guitarist Dan Willis’ chilling Satie Project. it’s not out of the question that Preminger might air some of these out at his gig on May 31 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, where he’s leading his Genuinuity quartet, with Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. 

Among tenor saxophonist/composers, Preminger is on a roll unrivalled by pretty much anyone these days. When he’s not writing some of the most viscerally affecting protest jazz out there, he’s reinventing Bartok and Chopin – and joining Jason Moran for a recording date early next month. Likewise, Garcia is not only one of the most purposeful, melodic, instantly recognizable drummers in jazz; he’s also a ferocious composer with a fearlessly populist sensibility. Joining the two here are Preminger’s longtime bassist Cass and guitarist Nate Radley.

The new album opens with the Nocturne Op27 Nº1 in C# minor, which gets an uneasily tiptoeing intro before the band expands, Garcia rustling while Preminger holds pretty close to the moody melody, fleshed out by Radley’s terse chords. A rather desolate guitar solo gives Preminger a launching pad to lift the music into somewhat brighter territory over Garcia and Cass’ floating swing.

Similarly, the band work unsettling close harmonies at the edges of the famous Prelude Op28 Nº2 in A minor, Preminger shifting between stark blues and fluttery postbop, Radley adding allusive angst over Garcia’s relentless, echoey suspense. it’s very close to Willis’ haunting take on Satie.

The band make aptly jaunty work of the Nocturne Op9 Nº2 in Eb major, a famously less gloomy piece that plenty of others have drawn on. The closest they get to Django jazz here is the Prelude Op28 Nº24 in D minor, a gorgeously bittersweet, jangly arrangement veering in and out of waltz time – although Radley lingers and clangs rather than hitting anything approaching a Reinhardt minor sixth shuffle. Garcia’s calmly predatory solo as the band vamps alongside him, and then the creepy chromatic outro, are the icing on the cake.

There’s a spare, searching quality to their version of the Etude Op25 Nº7 in C# minor; Radley’s plaintive, incisive solo is one of the album’s high points, Preminger floating in to offer some solace over Cass’ moodily dancing lines. They hint at Vegas noir with the rapidfire intro to the Prelude Op28 Nº8 in F# minor, then go as far outside as they ever do here, Radley clustering over a brisk dub-inflected groove, Garcia’s solo delivering as much foreshadowing as bluster.

The group walk the line between the boudoir and the ledge with the Nocturne Op62 Nº2 in E major: this album may be the high point in Radley’s recording career. Some of these Nocturnes, like the Nocturne Op32 Nº2 in Ab major, were Chopin’s top 40 pieces; the quartet give that one subtle latin and then early Ellingtonian allusions over a casual 6/8 stroll.

They bring back the full-throttle intensity, finding the inner bolero in the Prelude Op28 Nº6 in B minor, hanging in the shadows at the edge of macabre. Giving Cass a chance to move toward the forefront is a genius move, as is Preminger’s purist blues. The album’s final number, the Prelude Op28 Nº9 in E major, rises from a muted sway, propelled by Preminger’s colorful upper-register work and Radley’s unexpectedly sweet, spot-on Memphis flavor. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best jazz albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

In the meantime, where can you hear this masterpiece online? For starters, try youtube and Soundcloud, here and here.

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May 25, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

April 5, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment