CHOPIN: Nocturnes: Op. 27, No. 1; Op. 9, No. 2; Op. 62, No. 2; Op. 32, No. 2. Preludes: Op. 28, Nos. 2, 24, 8, 6 & 9. Etude, Op. 25, No. 7 / Noah Preminger, t-sax; Nate Radley, gtr; Kim Cass, bs; Rob Garcia, dm / Connection Works Records (no number)
Well, here’s something completely different: modern jazz interpretations—and that is exactly what they are, interpretations—on themes by Frydryk Chopin. A far cry from the similar approach given to famous Chopin pieces back in the late 1930s by the John Kirby Sextet, Preminger and his talented quartet, which goes under the name “Dead Composers Club,” give here the first of a planned series of albums dedicated to exploring the music of older composers through the eyes of contemporary jazz musicians.
Whereas the Kirby band played the melodies somewhat straight, Preminger does no such thing. He hints at the original melodic line but redistributes the beats and almost immediately begins improvising on them. The result is a strangely forlorn-sounding album in which mood and invention override the original structures. Even in as famous a piece as the Op. 9, No. 2 nocturne in Eb major, notes are eliminated from the basic melody and a swinging pulse drives the music forward. The Prelude Op. 28, No. 24 in d minor, taken at a brisk 6/8 rhythm, is given almost in shorthand before Nate Radley’s guitar solo switches briefly to a straight 4 and takes the music out on a limb. Preminger and his fellow musicians have so completely internalized these pieces that they can do almost anything with them and still come up with inventive surprises.
Interestingly, despite all their melodic-rhythmic alterations, they generally respect Chopin’s original harmony. Preminger plays “outside” a few times on the album, but for the most part he stays firmly in the written key(s). yet he and his band prove that you can still say quite a lot that is new in conventional tonality if you have the imagination to do so. You simply can’t take anything for granted as you go through the tracks on this album; each number is a constant surprise.
In the Etude Op. 25, No. 7, the band takes the music into an irregular meter, completely shifting its melodic contour into new shapes. The Prelude Op. 28, No. 8 is one of the wildest pieces on the entire set. Preminger alludes to the melody in its original tempo as the top line, but the bass plays a wild running figure in quadruple time beneath him with the drums, and the quartet really takes a ride on this one!
And here’s the most amazing thing: in nearly every instance, the Preminger quartet’s interpretations of these Chopin themes are actually an improvement on the original music. No, I’m not kidding. After putting up for a half-century plus listening to Chopin’s music, I’ve come to the point where I collect it but rarely listen to it because its patterns are so regular that after a few listening you know exactly where the music is going, and where it goes is usually into la-de-da soft relaxing zone-you-out-mode, and my regular readers know by now that I generally hate that kind of music. By removing the comfort zone of this music, Preminger has tapped into an entirely new way of looking at Chopin’s music: as themes to be improvised upon, not as museum pieces to lull you into a semi-comatose state. It’s wonderfully bracing. Even at his most relaxed, i.e. in the Nocturne Op. 32, No. 2, Preminger and Co. consistently pull the rug out from under our expectations of how this music “should” sound. It’s like listening to John Cage with real music inserted into his crazy funhouse structures.
This is absolutely one of the most imaginative and interesting jazz releases of the year, right up there with Preminger’s previous release, Genuinity, which I reviewed in March.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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