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.
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.
Pianist Julian Shore’s new Filaments is not a particularly edgy album, but it is an unselfconsciously attractive one – and it isn’t shallow by a long shot. While a student at Berklee, Shore found a muse in Gretchen Parlato, and jumped at the chance to sub in her band when Taylor Eigsti was out of town. That influence is clear here: it could also be said that this is a less demanding version of what Sara Serpa is doing with vocalese-based third-stream sounds. For Shore, less is more: his soloing is spacious, usually establishing a warm early-evening ambience in tandem with the plush vocal harmonies of Alexa Barchini – who also wrote lyrics to a couple of the tunes – and Shelly Tzarafi. Phil Donkin on bass and the reliably excellent Tommy Crane on drums maintain a deceptively energetic pulse underneath.
The album’s opening track, Grey Lights, Green Lily sets the tone, a distantly bucolic theme that reminds of Jeremy Udden, or Bill Frisell but without the persistent unease. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s biting prowl contrasts with Shore’s terse, warm approach and Tzarafi’s nebulous atmospherics. Barchini’s clear, high soprano shows off a Jenifer Jackson-esque wistfulness on Made Very Small, Rosenwinkel’s high-beam sostenuto lines mingling tersely with Shore’s crepuscular twinkle. Big Bad World, a jazz waltz, takes chances with clutter as Jeff Miles’ guitar spirals around the piano, but they sidestep it, the women’s harmonies driving a series of lush crescendos.
Whisper, a fetchingly direct, hushedly lyrical Shore/Barchini co-write, shows off a crystalline purity throughout her range; the song is reprised briefly at the end of the album as a piece for Kurt Ozan’s solo dobro. Give brings Rosenwinkel back for oldschool charm and then spacious bite as Godwin Louis’ alto sax, Billy Buss’ trumpet and Andrew Hadro’s baritone sax join forces for a catchy late-period Weather Report style chart. Donkin nimbly intersperses his own muted solo amidst the glimmer of the tastefully, low-key jazz waltz I Will If You Will, while Crane does the same with a surprisingly effective, hard-hitting drive alongside Miles’ judicious incisions and the wash of vocals on Like a Shadow.
For one reason or another, the single most intense track here, Misdirection/Determined is a lot closer to art-rock than jazz, Barchini evoking a Mingus-era Joni Mitchell longing over Shore’s moody modalities. And the most overtly balladesque of the tracks, Venus, features Noah Preminger’s tenor shifting artfully between the boudoir and the highwire. This album sneaks up on you: there literally isn’t a bad song on it. It’s a step in an auspicious direction: let’s hope there’s more where this came from.
The press release for jazz bassist Michael Feinberg’s new album With Many Hands calls it “unfettered by the canonical notions of tradition.” In other words, iconoclastic, which ought to make it right up our alley. To put an end to the suspense right off the bat, it isn’t particularly iconocolastic music, unless you define jazz as abstruse and inaccessible, and by that standard it’s extremely iconoclastic. This is an album of ideas, some of them “why didn’t I think of that?” ideas, which to be completely truthful, sometimes you have to wait for. But they’re worth it most of the time. Feinberg has an excellent band behind him – tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, altoist Godwin Louis, Alex Wintz on electric guitar, Julian Shore on piano and Dan Platzman on drums. They explore ballads, modalities, cleverly overlapping solos and circular themes, which are all the rage in the indie classical world: it would be nice to know they learned that from Fela, although a more cynical assumption would be that they got it from Vampire Weekend instead.
The title track, a ballad, opens the album and takes awhile to get going, but when the saxes shift it from balmy to wistful and wary, that makes it all worthwhile. Temple Tales, by Platzman, introduces the first of the circular numbers, and an artfully arranged, steady series of solos that finally wind up with a grin as Louis leads the reeds in on Shore’s heels, rejoicing. Another circular number, a Feinberg co-write, lets the bass run the hook but not before a genuinely suspenseful solo that serves as a springboard for some judicious crescendoing from Shore. By the standards of heavy metal, the next track, The Hard Stuff, is awesome; jazzwise, you can see it coming a mile away, yet Feinberg’s booming modal chords are impossible to resist. When Wintz takes a solo that you can also see coming a mile away, it’s like watching a roller coaster from the top of the first loop: when you reach the first turn, you’ve been expecting it, but it’s still fun to feel those g-forces.
It would be nice if the “where did the summer go” wistfulness of August went beyond Wintz’ unselfconsciously vivid opening lines, but it doesn’t. Fighting Monsters, a briskly walking swing tune, benefits from aggressive piano work from Shore and Preminger’s boisterous excursions – and a neat outro where the drums switch roles with the piano. The album winds up with another swing number, Feinberg’s catchy, circular bassline half-hidden beneath Platzman’s boisterous rumble and bounce. All this is enough to make Feinberg someone to keep your eye on in the next few years. The entire crew here play the cd release show for this one this Friday the 25th at 7:30 at Smalls.
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.
Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s 2008 cd Dry Bridge Road made a lot of waves, to the point where he’s becoming a perennial nominee for “best up-and-coming jazz artist.” Believe the hype: he is the real deal. This quartet album brings back bassist John Hebert – whose performance backing Jen Shyu at Winter Jazzfest was stunningly purposeful – and pianist Frank Kimbrough along with Matt Wilson, whose drums have anchored so many good jazz albums lately it’s absurd. This is basically a suite that alternates light and dark, emphasis on the dark. There are no gratuitous displays of chops here: the entire band’s understatement is such that they leave plenty on the table. In its own deliberate way, as a statement, an expression of emotion, it is a knockout.
It opens deceptively with a brief, comfortably balmy, drum-less preamble through a couple of minutes of Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When. Then they take the lightheartedness up a notch with Kimbrough’s catchy, jovial Quickening. Methodically prowling beneath the buoyancy, Wilson absolutely owns this track, Hebert taking it to an unselfconsciously joyous, playful crescendo on his solo. Then they bring the lights down for some indoor fireworks, which is where it gets really interesting. The title track, a Preminger original, takes awhile to emerge, Hebert’s lento pulse against the piano: it’s a clinic in effective minimalism, Preminger’s wary lines slowly rising and falling,Wilson finally establishing a gingerly funky bounce before they take it back into the depths again. For lack of a better word, this is a deep song on a deep album.
They maintain the hushed suspense on the next track, Abreaction, even as Hebert and Wilson sync up for a bustling shuffle beneath Preminger’s austere, judicious intensity, Kimbrough finally tackling the darkness head-on with a masterfully developed, slowly expanding series of variations on a simple chromatic riff. Sammy Cahn’s Until the Real Thing Comes Along reverts to the casual optimism of the opening track, with lyrical solos from Kimbrough and Preminger.
They follow with a brief, rubato fragment into a lively version of Ornette Coleman’s Toy Dance, done here with a striking similarity to the earlier Kimbrough tune. November, also by Kimbrough, is where the band glimmers most intensely: following a perfectly stately, gradually unwinding piano solo, Wilson’s slow crescendo that finally caps off with a series of calmly majestic cymbal splashes is the most exquisite moment in an album filled with many. They close with an apprehensively optimistic Preminger ballad, Jamie, an apt way to end this strikingly well thought-out and emotionally resonant album. Look for it on a lot of “best of” lists at the end of the year. It’s out today on the Palmetto label.
Sometimes knowing a jazz group’s latest album before seeing them play from it is a complete waste of time. This time, it was like being handed a key to the secret back room where the party is always happening. A few years ago, guitarist Andrew Green spent some time on the disabled list with a busted wrist and he put the downtime to good use: he watched a lot of vintage film noir and wrote a lot of killer horn charts. The result was the album Narrow Margin (very favorably reviewed here recently), which is more of a homage to noir jazz from the 50s than it is an attempt to completely replicate the style. It’s full of mysterious twists and turns and catchy phrases, the kind of jazz album you find yourself humming as you walk down the street. And if you’re in the shadows, and it’s 4 AM and misty way over on the west side, all the better. Sunday night Green assembled most of the supporting cast who played on the album for a magical run through most of it.
Joining Green were his albummates Russ Johnson on trumpet and JC Sanford on trombone plus Noah Preminger subbing on tenor for Bill McHenry, with an inspired rhythm section of Kermit Driscoll on bass and Mike Sarin on drums. A lot of the songs slunk along with a latin pulse, and they nailed it. Watching the songs – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – take shape was an apt reminder how cleverly and ingeniously Green composed them. Trumpet and trombone would weave and bob around each other while Green worked variations on the theme, often with a bracing tinge of natural distortion. Preminger got the chance to establish plenty of contrast against the suspense and occasional outright menace of the rest of the band and did it with a stunningly nuanced attack and an unassailable calm: as good as McHenry sounded on the cd, Preminger took it to the next level.
One of the oldest compositions, Miro, featured Driscoll working a finely honed, minimalist solo fleshed out with similar judiciousness by Green, sounding like an unconstrained, ballsier Joe Pass. Short Cut, with its wickedly catchy, four-note central riff was a clinic in the use of echo between horn players, Johnson’s trumpet perfectly evoking a blithe obliviousness as Green sputtered and threw off big dirty sparks underneath. Best song of the show was Midnight Novelette, a cinematic number if there ever was one, Green letting loose with a stinging volley of sixteenth notes after Johnson and then Sanford had built an indelibly nocturnal tableau. It was as if Bogart had been overheard at the bar, murmuring, “Play it again, guys.”