Selling Out to Freedom
“For freedom’s just another word for nothing left to sell.”
“The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions”
52nd Street is gone, Slug’s is gone, even Sweet Basil is gone, but there’s still something of a jazz world around, populated by musicians, fans, and habitués. Musicians practice and rehearse; writers listen, scribble, and maybe publish; fans turn on the radio or put a record on the stereo and wonder—subliminally or explicitly—if anyone, anywhere else in the world, is listening to the same record at the same time.
Jazz, at least in America, has cult status, meaning small and fervent. So few records sell, there are so few places to play, it is so impossible to make a living, that the jazz world is a community mediated by silence. People in the jazz world hear the music in their homes and their heads, but there’s little sound of jazz in public to connect them in the same space.
New York City, the center of the jazz universe, still has a handful of outposts where the jazz world can congregate. On consecutive nights in early June, I descended the short flight of stairs on Christopher Street into 55 Bar, which is not so much a club as a small, neighborhood-style bar that hosts jazz and blues musicians, to hear tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger.
Fans, family, musicians, tourists, students, and some curious passersby crowded in to hear Preminger and his quartet, with the phenomenal trumpeter Jason Palmer, drummer Ian Froman, and bassist Kim Cass. What boggles the mind about the sub-rosa nature of the jazz world is that it is filled with musicians who are simply tremendous and who you never get to hear, or even hear of, unless you get lucky and pass by a place like 55 Bar at the right time.
Preminger is a tremendous, still-young jazz musician. His technique and sound transparently express his ideas, and his ideas are personal and notable. The group made deep, intense, disciplined, and fascinating music out of the simplest materials, essentially playing two tunes over the course of eight sets across the two nights.
The music built on some of the greatest examples of the modern jazz tradition: Froman’s driving, crisp pulsations and Preminger’s searching and involved horizontal line were responses to the classic John Coltrane Quartet, especially their live recordings, while Palmer and Cass built on the playing of Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. Coltrane and Ornette Coleman once represented the parallel, and leading, paths of the cutting edge of jazz, the latter tuneful, extroverted, and based in the blues, the former setting the soloist’s role as an existential hero, redeeming the listener through spiritual truth. Preminger’s band synthesized these into their own path, playing the blues with expressive freedom and harmonic complexity while keeping an unshakeable discipline and coordination through time.
One piece they played, which sounded like a Coleman tune you had never heard before, turned out to be a phrase from his solo on “Law Years,” from his Science Fiction album. The other was Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues.” More than acknowledging the blues roots of jazz, this was jazz made with the roots themselves, the hard, twisty, strong vernacular music of America.
“Parchman Farm Blues,” especially, was mesmerizing in each performance. Over the throbbing pulse of the rhythm section, Preminger and Palmer played White’s vocal line with a languid, legato sense of freedom. It was the blues, not just the basic twelve-bar form, but the idea of lyrical form, that the music was organized around: where the voice began and where it ended, and if there was an extra beat here or there—like you hear with Lightnin’ Hopkins or John Lee Hooker—it was there because the music demanded it. That is Preminger’s view of the blues, that it’s not just three chords parsed into twelve bars, but a means of bringing out the interior experience and placing it in front of the listener.
The two horns made for the kind of contrast that covered the entire range of improvising and aesthetic ideas. Preminger began each solo like a running back hitting the hole, carrying power with speed, moving unstoppably forward. Each string of notes and turn of phrase was a small revelation helping to both uncover and abstract truth.
Palmer tossed out short fragments, lots of vertical shapes, which he gradually gathered together into amazing, complex, and transparent structures. While Preminger flows through time, time flows around Palmer.
The trumpeter has steady gigs and security in Boston, where he lives. That makes him the greatest trumpet player you’ve never heard. His tone is brilliant, his intonation exact, his stamina astonishing. With his sound and his improvising manner, he reconciles Dizzy Gillespie with Don Cherry, and is easily one of the finest trumpeters on the contemporary jazz scene. The guy is that good.
Cass and Froman laid down a fluid response to the horns—and to each other—on top of an unshakeable pulse. Preminger at times counted off a tempo, but the band eschewed meter and thus measures for an unerring throb that surrounded the music like the turning of the earth or the decay of an atomic clock. The “Parchman Farm Blues” melody, freed from bar lines, followed the cadence and duration of the horn players’ breathing, Froman’s solos swelled with voluminous sound, and Cass’s were painted with exact intonation.
Two nights of some of the most involving, fascinating, powerful jazz I’ve heard in years, and then it was done, the musicians off in their own directions. For Preminger, that meant back to Cambridge, and back to work. He has a full-time job as a landscaper, because that’s what it means, economically, to be an excellent contemporary jazz musician.
You can hear Preminger as a leader on several solid studio albums: his debut Dry Bridge Road (Nowt, 2008); two expertly crafted releases on Palmetto, Before the Rain (2011) and Haymaker (2013); and a terrific collective trio date with bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Rob Garcia, Background Music (Fresh Sound, 2014). His sound is warm and slightly burly, clearly modeled after Joe Lovano’s big, enveloping sound—Preminger loves Lovano’s playing. The material across the discs includes a substantial number of originals, and some standards.
The tunes hint at what’s in his mind, even if the sound of the records doesn’t always follow through: “Blues for Steve Lacy” on Dry Bridge Road, “Law Years” and a mournful, soulful “Street Woman” on Background Music. The latter record also has the group playing Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup.” Listening across the records, both before and after the 55 Bar sets (and before that a set at the Rochester International Jazz Festival in 2013), left the impression of a musician who thinks and cares deeply about his art, but who is not his real self in the studio sessions. The contrast between Preminger’s introverted and affecting playing in the studio and his intense and thrillingly obsessive live demeanor, especially at 55 Bar, is startling.
“There was some money behind” the Palmetto records, he told me in July, “but they are so produced. The distance between the need for labels is growing greater every day.” He was back in town for another night at 55 Bar with the same group, to record a bit more music. Because he wasn’t just playing with a band he managed to corral, for a gig he managed to scrape together, he was making a live record. “It’s a statement, that’s all. This music I’m making now speaks to me, I want to document it.”
Live jazz is just more exciting than what gets made in the studio, that’s a feature. On top of that, at that night’s set, Preminger’s entire aesthetic and intellectual voice was transformed. In the studio, his improvising has the quality of a lyrical search through the material, a balanced exploration of harmony, intervals, and line, and an expression of his own idea of beauty and satisfaction. Live, the saxophonist cut a fiery, deep stream of consciousness. He looked inward, but instead of arranging what he discovered into a set musical pattern and context, he tossed out each musical idea into public view, stepping stones on a trailblazing journey with no fixed destination. There was an added bite to his sound that was attractive—and although later he seemed dissatisfied with that quality, it seemed necessary and integral, the machete he needed to carve his path.
This sounded like his pure voice, with no limits from studio practice or the obligations of a record company’s production—no mediation between the interior creative process and what the audience heard. His improvising was spontaneous, but the context was by design. The music that is speaking to him has two fundamental components. One is the blues, the other is a deceptively simple harmonic concept.
With no chordal instrument in the band, the musicians were working with a bass line and a theme, whether Coleman’s or White’s. Each line established a particular scale, and each note inside the scale could be used as the starting point for another, related scale. The musicians could play with consonance and dissonance and build harmonic richness by modulating to another scale. Along with the basic pulse, the musicians had a recipe for extended, but coherent, freedom, a free-flight with a simple, elastic, but unbreakable tether to the central idea. “I want to swing, but I don’t want to worry about rhythm and meter, the number of beats in a measure,” he said. “These guys, they play with intensity, and they have motherfuckin’ chops.”
What happens with the 55 Bar recording “doesn’t really matter,” claims Preminger, although he plans to sell the music in digital format through his website. “There’s no money to be made, no one to impress,” he explained, “you do it for yourself.” He had initially planned to press the music on vinyl, but the group’s explorations were so involved and fruitful that each tune surpassed the duration that can fit on the side of an LP. The music will be available October 6th, if all the mastering and website plans work out, and he expects the title to be Pivot, credited to the Noah Preminger Band. He has a larger vision of working with musicians like Lovano and Dave Douglas. He wants them to record their own live sets—technology has made recording inexpensive as long as you’re not paying for studio time—package them as digital albums, and sell them through his site.
Selling music through the web, without packaging, is a standard idea these days, even in jazz. What’s different, though, at least for Preminger, is this resolution of the impossible conflict between trying to make creative and accomplished music in a genre that has little more than a cult following and trying not to starve. It may not be pointless to make jazz albums in the studio anymore—although I need someone to explain to me what that point is—but jazz is a great enough art that there will always be musicians who must play it, and if a great jazz musician gets a gig, and documents it, then the world just gets a little bigger and becomes a better place in which to live.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.