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Haymaker
Noah Preminger

Those who have enjoyed Noah Preminger's first two CDs, Dry Bridge Road and Before the Rain, should be even more impressed by Haymaker, as the tenor saxophonist continues to grow in terms of depth and expressiveness. Preminger is aided immeasurably by his attuned quartet, featuring the distinctive guitarist Ben Monder and the provocative rhythm team of bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Colin Stranahan. "This band can do anything-- we can play a pretty ballad or take a left turn or just rock out," says Preminger. The group performs mostly Preminger's diverse, well-wrought originals, plus one tune each by Monder, Dave Matthews, and Martin Charnin / Charles Strouse. It's perhaps on the latter composers' "Tomorrow" that Preminger's maturity and significance as a player are most strikingly evident.

Preminger's "Morgantown" is dedicated to the town in West Virginia and its "get-it-done vibe," and the legato theme has a fittingly serious attitude. The leader's solo adds a jauntiness and a swirling, searching curiosity in its development, as Monder's chiming tones provide a soothing backdrop. Stranahan's lively drum solo edges towards an African sensibility, and his ongoing rhythms are flexible but always apt. The deliberately paced melody of "My Blues for You" is reminiscent of "Unchained Melody," and just as insinuating. Monder's sparse comping for Preminger's storytelling solo is perfectly realized, and his own improv shows his mastery of inflection and overall refreshingly unique conception. Preminger has trained as a boxer, and his title tune, "Haymaker," in the end delivers a knockout punch, although its atmospheric textures are deceptively lulling. Stranahan's propulsive drumming and the saxophonist's cascading, long-lined solo furnish the forcefulness and spark, while Monder's glowing, refined chords are an effective contrasting element.

Monder's "Animal Planet" has a poignantly floating theme that Preminger intones above the guitarist's sympathetic accompaniment. Monder's solo is exquisitely lyrical and heartfelt as communicated through his lovely tonal quality. Preminger's exploration is more outwardly emotional, and no less moving. The welcome reprise allows Stranahan to come forward with artfully controlled aggression. Much like Sonny Rollins, with "Tomorrow" Preminger takes an unlikely Broadway show tune (from Annie) as a vehicle for improvisation. His riveting intro is enlightening in its logic, as it gracefully merges into a winsome treatment of the familiar melody. The harmonic blending of tenor and guitar is especially rewarding, as is Preminger's concise coda. Another of Preminger's avocations is skydiving, hence the title of his tune "15,000." Pavolka's bass ostinato and Stranahan's rambunctious percussion set the suspenseful stage for the composer's delivery of the legato, sailing theme. Monder introduces a motif that Preminger's solo varies and expands upon, as he gradually gravitates from wonder to outright exhilaration. Monder's thematic solo is notable for its crisp articulation and sustained invention. The piece then comes full circle for a powerfully passionate conclusion.

Preminger wrote "Stir My Soul" as an "uplifting tune" intended to "make people feel good," and its hopeful nature indeed has that effect on the listener. Pavolka contributes an affecting solo prior to the saxophonist's slowly building statement that ranges from elegant to soaring. "Rhonda's Suite" is dedicated to the late wife of Preminger's revered first saxophone teacher, and the somewhat mournful, scalar theme is eloquently enticing. Preminger's solo takes an unexpected, cathartic direction, followed by an ethereal interlude led by Monder. Pavolka's resonant bass accentuations are a key asset throughout this deeply felt track. Dave Mathew's "Don't Drink the Water" is transformed by a faster tempo and additional variations, including an airy prelude. Stranahan's back beat then kicks things into gear for Preminger's forthright take on the melody. Monder's dissonant stream and the leader's churning configurations come together next in exciting, unabashed fashion that lasts for the duration, over the drummer's relentless rhythms. "Motif Attractif" is a beautiful 1:50 Preminger-Molder duet that is both touching and harmonically satisfying, as the tenor's tenderly melodic exposition is echoed by Monder's organ-like sustained notes.

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Scott Albin