Noah Preminger Smalls
New York, New York
September 4, 2008
I see the scene in black and white. It’s not the glitterati, but it is a cultured New York crowd, couples and pairs of people sitting at the bar and chatting away. There is an air about the room, a sort of tension. The people aren’t nervous, they’re ready. Just as the clock strikes 11 (because with such a jam-packed schedule, you have to be on time), the band strolls out. The chatter starts to die down. It is a sextet – sax, trumpet, guitar, piano, bass, drums. The saxophonist and leader leans his back softly against the bar, one knee straight, the other bent. He takes a sip of his drink, nods to his bandmates. The chatter is gone now, replaced only by pairs of apprehensive eyes. He snaps his fingers, counts off, and onward they go, boppin’ their way on a true jazz adventure.
What’s wrong with this picture? The leader isn’t a smooth, suave black man wearing a suit and a saxophone. He’s a scraggly, bearded, long-haired man in a wrinkled shirt. He looks more like he belongs in an ad for the White Mountains than at the helm of a jazz band. But he has that presence about him; you always know he’s there, and man, he can play.
That was the setting for Noah Preminger’s set at Small’s, perhaps the last true breeding ground for young musicians in New York, on September 6. At Small’s, there is no stage, no separation of Church and State if you will, of musicians and crowd. This isn’t a concert, which is more of a musical presentation; it’s musical creation. And everyone’s a part of it.
The irony of the date was that this was probably the first year the 22 year old Preminger wasn’t headed back to school for the fall semester. But his relative youth belies a certain maturity, a charisma. His playing is understated. He doesn’t make the mistake of trying to play too much. And his sense of melody is highly advanced; he feels the melody.
Preminger recently released his debut as a leader, Dry Bridge Road, and the set consisted mostly of tunes from that record. His bandmates were also largely the same as on the record – Russ Johnson (trumpet), Ben Monder (guitar), Frank Kimbrough (piano), John Hebert (bass), and Austin MacMahon (drums). “Blues for Steve Lacy” is a haunting Dave Douglas composition. Kimbrough’s chords underpinned the melody, adding to the dark atmosphere. Monder’s solo was surprisingly boppish and mainstream. His tone was almost like a horn, but was more difficult to hear.
This tune was followed by an up-tempo straight ahead bop tune. Kimbrough took the first turn with a meandering, uninspired solo. Never before have I seen a pianist who plays so beautifully on ballads and slower songs and yet seems so lost on the up-tempo tunes. He more than made up for it on the next song though, a beautiful ballad written by Preminger. He took an extended solo, recalling the likes of Keith Jarrett with his use of the entire range of his instrument. Preminger acknowledged the supreme effort, saying “Yeah Frank” and tapping his heart. Johnson then took his turn, fluidly navigating the chord changes and only adding to the beauty of the song. Johnson’s style is simple and not overdone, but he always seems to find the “right” note.
The band finished with another up-tempo tune, this time finding their collective way a bit more. Kimbrough still seemed a bit lost, and Monder’s solo was nondescript, but Preminger was able to break new ground with an innovative turn and Johnson’s turn was excellent as well. Hebert held down the bottom end admirably throughout the set, sometimes not so much keeping time as providing counterpoint to the soloists .
The performance was quite raw and had its bumps. MacMahon was too loud at times and never truly found a pocket, and both Kimbrough and Monder had moments where it seemed they weren’t sure what their role was. But neither was the set short of inspiring moments. Monder’s comping was a hidden gem, at once providing perfect counterpoint to the soloist and leading him in a different direction. Johnson was excellent throughout. And it was a pleasure to hear Preminger for the first time. His talent is obvious, but it was his presence and maturity that was most impressive. Oftentimes, a young player will go out as a leader before it’s the right time, and his playing will suffer as a result. Not so with Preminger. While he is certainly still developing (and will certainly get much better over time), he is more than ready to be a leader, as evidenced by his great compositional acumen and melodic sensibility. Certainly an artist to follow as his career develops.