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

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On this kind-of sequel to last year’s live Pivot, saxophonist Noah Preminger, trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman take on a set of traditional blues and spirituals and reimagine them as vehicles for free improvisation. Among the program are songs by Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, along with “Future Blues,” credited to ’60s-era blues rockers Canned Heat but first recorded by Mississippi’s Willie Brown in 1930.

In some cases Preminger and his bandmates invoke the original songs directly; elsewhere, references to melodic themes are more oblique. But the primary focus is the flights of improvisational fancy that arise, phoenix-like, from the emotional cauldron of the source material. Those flights often depart pretty radically from the songs’ given frameworks; within a few bars, stated themes are entirely abandoned. Preminger brings a bebopper’s tone and a post-Trane acolyte’s vision of truth-seeking to his explorations; Palmer tends toward a more subtle approach, stoking the fires with gradual intensity, answering Preminger’s declamations with lightly textured skitters and configurations. Cass and Froman, meanwhile, provide an unobtrusive, solidly realized grounding.

Blues aficionados may miss the stark emotional terror and barely submerged erotic threat that darkened the original versions of most of these songs. Even the title tune, in Blind Willie Johnson’s hands one of the most soul-chilling spiritual meditations ever recorded, sounds like a Sunday hymn, the specter of brimstone safely removed. But then none of these men have lived through the experiences that shaped the music-and the souls-of the original artists, so their relative emotional detachment may simply be a matter of honesty. The music, on its own terms, is inventive, satisfying and of lasting value.

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