Noah Preminger: Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
Noah Preminger

Were one to start with the second track on Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger's take on nine blues classics from the pre-war Mississippi Delta, one might prematurely brand the album an affectionate riff on Ornette Coleman's classic quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell. On Skip James' “Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues” in particular, Preminger, trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Ian Froman play with the kind of freewheeling elasticity that so distinguished Ornette's outfit. Stop-start tempos shift from slow to fast with seeming effortlessness, and Preminger and Palmer trade blustery flourishes like newly hatched incarnations of Coleman and Cherry; a hint of “Lonely Woman” even emerges in Preminger's bluesy lines, whatever the difference between his tenor and Ornette's alto wail. And though Froman seems to be channeling Miles-era Tony Williams, “Spoonful Blues” also sees Preminger and Palmer evoking the Coleman-Cherry front-line.

But to label the album an Ornette knockoff would be misleading; yes, his influence is undeniably present on the recording (as is Coltrane's), but Preminger also wisely distances himself from his celebrated precursor by concentrating intently on the album concept. Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground isn't Preminger's debut outing, by the way. Arriving fast on the heels of 2015's Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar, Preminger's fifth album, laid down at the Sidedoor Jazz Club in Old Lyme, Connecticut, finds the quartet hitting its stride on nine raw tracks by figures such as James, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Bukka White (the latter the focus of the 2015 release).

The tone is soundly set when Preminger and company take the title track at a dirge-like tempo, all the better to bring the lament's quiet desperation and soft moan to the surface. The saxophonist would seem to have a special connection to Willie Brown's “Future Blues,” given the way he drapes such long, soulful lines across the rhythm section's relaxed backing. Far from a one-note fixation on pain, a spectrum of emotions is explored on the album. There may well be “Trouble in Mind,” for instance, but the quartet's rendering oozes hope as much as despair; “I Shall Not Be Moved,” on the other hand, exudes the gospel-tinged character of a spiritual. And while one track might unfurl at a plodding tempo, another, such as “I Am the Heavenly Way,” roils with rambunctious ferocity. Preminger says of the project, “I want people to feel something,” and there's little chance that won't happen given the way he and his cohorts dig into the material with such conviction.

May 2016