Gotta love the cd cover of the The Chopin Project, the debut album from Noah Preminger and Rob Garcia’s Dead Composers Club. It’s a bluelit nocturnal shot of a bridge across the Central Park Lake: creepy and Romantic, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this kind of music. Jazz grinches have long made fun of “jazzing up the classics,” but if you were around in the past century and you missed iconoclastic pianist Dorothy Donegan playing Rachmaninoff, that’s tragic.
And there’s more precedent for the Dead Composers Club’s reinvention of Chopin preludes and nocturnes than there might seem. Chopin didn’t have Romany ancestry, but he drew from the same tradition as Django Reinhardt. Yet this isn’t Romany jazz. This music is closer to the trio Little Worlds’ shapeshifting spinoffs on Bartok etudes, and guitarist Dan Willis’ chilling Satie Project. it’s not out of the question that Preminger might air some of these out at his gig on May 31 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, where he’s leading his Genuinuity quartet, with Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.
Among tenor saxophonist/composers, Preminger is on a roll unrivalled by pretty much anyone these days. When he’s not writing some of the most viscerally affecting protest jazz out there, he’s reinventing Bartok and Chopin – and joining Jason Moran for a recording date early next month. Likewise, Garcia is not only one of the most purposeful, melodic, instantly recognizable drummers in jazz; he’s also a ferocious composer with a fearlessly populist sensibility. Joining the two here are Preminger’s longtime bassist Cass and guitarist Nate Radley.
The new album opens with the Nocturne Op27 Nº1 in C# minor, which gets an uneasily tiptoeing intro before the band expands, Garcia rustling while Preminger holds pretty close to the moody melody, fleshed out by Radley’s terse chords. A rather desolate guitar solo gives Preminger a launching pad to lift the music into somewhat brighter territory over Garcia and Cass’ floating swing.
Similarly, the band work unsettling close harmonies at the edges of the famous Prelude Op28 Nº2 in A minor, Preminger shifting between stark blues and fluttery postbop, Radley adding allusive angst over Garcia’s relentless, echoey suspense. it’s very close to Willis’ haunting take on Satie.
The band make aptly jaunty work of the Nocturne Op9 Nº2 in Eb major, a famously less gloomy piece that plenty of others have drawn on. The closest they get to Django jazz here is the Prelude Op28 Nº24 in D minor, a gorgeously bittersweet, jangly arrangement veering in and out of waltz time – although Radley lingers and clangs rather than hitting anything approaching a Reinhardt minor sixth shuffle. Garcia’s calmly predatory solo as the band vamps alongside him, and then the creepy chromatic outro, are the icing on the cake.
There’s a spare, searching quality to their version of the Etude Op25 Nº7 in C# minor; Radley’s plaintive, incisive solo is one of the album’s high points, Preminger floating in to offer some solace over Cass’ moodily dancing lines. They hint at Vegas noir with the rapidfire intro to the Prelude Op28 Nº8 in F# minor, then go as far outside as they ever do here, Radley clustering over a brisk dub-inflected groove, Garcia’s solo delivering as much foreshadowing as bluster.
The group walk the line between the boudoir and the ledge with the Nocturne Op62 Nº2 in E major: this album may be the high point in Radley’s recording career. Some of these Nocturnes, like the Nocturne Op32 Nº2 in Ab major, were Chopin’s top 40 pieces; the quartet give that one subtle latin and then early Ellingtonian allusions over a casual 6/8 stroll.
They bring back the full-throttle intensity, finding the inner bolero in the Prelude Op28 Nº6 in B minor, hanging in the shadows at the edge of macabre. Giving Cass a chance to move toward the forefront is a genius move, as is Preminger’s purist blues. The album’s final number, the Prelude Op28 Nº9 in E major, rises from a muted sway, propelled by Preminger’s colorful upper-register work and Radley’s unexpectedly sweet, spot-on Memphis flavor. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best jazz albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.