Young and not so old

By JON GARELICK  |  February 16, 2011

By contrast, Liebman would have Preminger listen to a solo by someone like Rollins and "take the last four bars of every chorus, whatever he plays, like a II-V-I line, and you transcribe it, and you learn that in every key. Then you have his basic vocabulary for that solo, and then you write variations on it." Preminger says he'd sometimes write 10, 30, even 50 variations on a single line and learn them in every key. The variations on past masters, he says, become "your own way of seeing their music." He adds, "It's time consuming, and maybe a little overboard, but it gets the job done. There are all these Trane clones and Rollins clones. Nobody wants to fucking hear that - just go buy a record."

None of this intense analysis suggests the sensual beauty of Preminger's playing, or the elastic freedom of the standards and originals he does with Kimbrough, Hébert, and Wilson. As on his debut as a leader, Dry Bridge Road, Preminger often seems to be playing simultaneously inside and out, whether on the Rodgers & Hart ballad standard "Where or When" or Ornette Coleman's "Toy Dance." And his ease with multiple vocabularies makes for startling and satisfying transitions, as from his own free and burly "Abreaction," with its slow melody line over churning drums, to "Until the Real Thing Comes Along."

In fact, Before the Rain is - despite its occasional turbulence - something of a stealth ballads album, since Palmetto balked at the idea of his first disc for the label's being that narrowly focused. "I kind of weaseled my way into making a ballads record without really saying anything - I wrote tunes that were sort of ballad-esque."

Preminger's attraction to ballads is one of the reasons he enjoys playing with singers, who, he points out, "always pick a fucked-up key, just to fit their voice and shit." Those fucked-up keys have helped stretch his playing and his writing. But what is it about ballads, exactly, that grabs him, when most young players would rather burn at fast tempos? He thinks for a few seconds. "I don't know, it's like a romantic thing. . . . It's the easiest way to express yourself. . . . You're also the most exposed. The melodies are generally all pretty. . . . And, you know, chicks like when you play a fucking ballad."

Two dynamic duos played across town from each other last Thursday night - guitarist Ben Monder with tenor-saxophonist Bill McHenry at Johnny D's, and alto legend Lee Konitz with pianist Dan Tepfer at the Regattabar. The Jazz Nerd Question of the Week: who was more radical, the 83-year-old Konitz with 29-year-old Tepfer, or 49-year-old NYC musician's musician Monder with 38-year-old McHenry? I can say up front that both Monder and Konitz have a martini-dry sense of humor - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

At Johnny D's, opening for Dave Tronzo, Monder and McHenry began softly, with quiet, spare guitar chords and short saxophone statements that grew longer until McHenry took a break and Monder created big orchestral washes of overtones with added volume. There was some more burbling tenor commentary, McHenry sat down, and Monder let his overtones fade into silence. Monder thanked the audience for the applause because "we put a lot of rehearsal into that." Then he added, "We have about 38 more minutes for you, so thanks for coming. And here's this."

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