INSIDE AND OUT Preminger’s big, mature sound and erudite improvisations are informed by everyone but beholden to no one.
Noah Preminger is 25 years old. But close your eyes when he's playing - or talking - and you might think you're hearing a gruff jazz sage with 40 years on the road.
The cliché about a young artist with an old soul is overused in jazz, where the latest young lion is always charging out of the box. But it's especially fitting for Preminger, who comes to Scullers on Wednesday with the veteran band from his latest CD, Before the Rain (Palmetto): pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Matt Wilson. Preminger has a big, soft, lived-in tenor sound and an erudite way with improvisation. Maturity is in every move - the relaxed intensity of his attack, the spontaneous dips and filigrees, the way he sneaks up behind Kimbrough's solo at the turn-around on the ballad standard "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" with a flurry of notes to land on the downbeat. You can recognize bits and pieces of other tenor players everywhere -Coltrane and Rollins, of course, but also Warne Marsh and the Big Three of Italian tenors: Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, and Joe Lovano. But Preminger doesn't sound like any one player - they're all just part of the mosaic. His sound is informed by everybody but beholden to no one. Which makes him continually unpredictable, and continually satisfying.
Preminger also sounds old when we get together for tea near Kenmore Square. Shaggy haired and darkly handsome, he's got a basso speaking voice, and when he talks about his career in music, he peppers his language with casual, adjectival f-bombs - not angry or unhappy, just matter of fact. "I think that it's really important for someone to want to check out a lot of different kinds of music," he tells me, regarding his cultured sound, "and really understand what they're fucking doing, not just like, 'Oh this sounds cool, I'm going to learn that lick.' "
Preminger grew up in Canton, Connecticut, where in the elementary-school music program he couldn't make the cut for drums and was "too small" for tuba, "So I said, 'Okay, fuck it, I'll play the saxophone.' Whatever, you know? And then I just started to love it and practice all the time, all day long, six, seven, eight hours a day." This regimen led to his enrollment in the advanced music program at Hall High School in West Hartford and, eventually, New England Conservatory. (He now lives in Brooklyn.)
When I mention being impressed by his uncanny sound, he gives much credit to Dave Liebman, with whom he studied privately and "who I think is the brightest person I've ever met in my life, and the nicest, kindest guy. Everyone should put the guy on a fucking pedestal."
Liebman took the usual jazz pedagogy of solo transcription to another level. "Where people get caught up in sounding like other people," Preminger says, "is they check out Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, maybe some Trane, maybe some Wes Montgomery, and they transcribe what they did. And they play that stuff. That's their arsenal. Maybe they have a little bit of their own vocabulary, but they're really just playing that stuff."