Get ready, 2017 listeners: Here comes the protest music.
"Meditations on Freedom," a new album by tenor saxophonist and Connecticut native Noah Preminger, recorded in December and released on Inauguration Day, is among the first shots fired, a stunning document of intuitive, small-group improv that elevates contemplation over anger.
"As an artist, sometimes I struggle: Why am I doing this? I'm just blowing into a saxophone, a piece of brass," Preminger says. "What is it actually doing for me or for others?"
Preminger is a political guy, a deep thinker. The election, and everything since, has given him plenty to think about.
He's also one of the best saxophone players you'll hear, or want to, with seven albums as a leader ("Meditations" is number eight) in his catalog and a highly developed, personal sound and aesthetic.
Before "Meditations," Preminger self-released two albums of Mississippi Delta-centric music: "Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar," from 2015, consisting of only two tracks of extended improvisation (each lasts a half an hour) on songs by Booker T. White; and 2016's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," with shorter reworkings of songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt and others.
Last fall, photographer and engineer Jimmy Katz, who co-produced both of those records with Preminger, approached the saxophonist about making a protest record.
"I thought it was a really great idea to write some new material and also to cover some material," Preminger says.
They decided to fill half an album with message songs: Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," Bob Dylan's "Only a Pawn in Their Game," George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" and Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is."
For the rest, Preminger composed at the piano, while thinking about women's rights ("Women's March"), racial injustice ("We Have a Dream"), income inequality ("The 99 Percent"), climate change ("Mother Earth") and Native American rights ("Broken Treaties").
Composing was easy. Some research was involved; for "Broken Treaties," Preminger borrowed a rhythmic idea from Native American music. Ideas emerged freely, from thoughts swirling around in his head.
"There's so much great stuff out there [in the news], and so much awful stuff," Preminger says. "There are so many emotions right now, it just flows right out."
On Dec. 17, Preminger assembled his "Pivot" and "Dark Was the Night" quartet — trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman — in the studio, bringing only sketches and not having any previous conversations with the musicians.
"They got the feeling of those songs when I told them what they were about and played the melody for them. That was the rehearsal: three minutes of me telling them how it goes and playing the melody, explaining how I wanted the form to be."
Katz engineered, mixed and mastered the session, and he also took photos. For economic reasons, Preminger releases albums on his own, and quickly; "Meditations on Freedom" came out on Jan. 20, a little more than a month after the studio date.
"It was an urgent thing, because this is sort of an urgent time," Preminger says.
"Meditations" begins with three covers. Dylan's "Only a Pawn in Their Game" was written in 1963, after the assassination of activist Medgar Evers. "The Way It Is" was a massive hit for Hornsby in 1986. Cooke's civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come" came out in 1964. All three, in a sense, wrapped pointed political statements, about racial and income inequality, in accessible folk/pop/soul packaging.
Preminger's take on "Pawn" opens like a slow sunrise, the narrow harmonic range of the original transformed into something like a ruminative drone. Preminger's languid, chromatic runs skitter around the tonal center, while Palmer explores low growls, rapid mid-range bursts and legato leaps, over Cass and Froman's barely present triple-meter groove.
"The Way It Is" finds Preminger and Froman splintering off into a thunderous duet. And "Change," a ballad, showcases Preminger's stately tone and subtle vibrato, until both he and Palmer slice through the chords changes with chilly remove.
Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," a song I've loved forever, offers hope and community. The melody sounds like calypso — buoyant, nostalgic, narrative — before Preminger and Palmer trade lines, dialing up the rhythmic complexity and dissonance.
With covers that good, you might overlook Preminger's five originals. That would be a mistake. Palmer blankets the loping swing of "We Have a Dream," a straight-ahead song form (almost like pre-Elvis pop), with thematic fragments and searing descents, before Preminger juxtaposes hanging-mobile fragments with snaking chromatic lines.
Cass's intro and churning ostinato on "Mother's Earth," a cheeky, melancholic nod to "There She Is, Miss America" (a jab at Trump, perhaps), anchors gorgeous improv by Preminger, Froman and Palmer.
"Women's March" affords Palmer and Preminger a certain time-lapse freedom above Cass and Froman's rocket-ride pulse. Fittingly, "The 99 Percent" begins with a spare, unison melody (played by Preminger and Palmer) that grows slightly, fed by Preminger's long-tone solo, but stays lean (at 3:31, it's the shortest track on "Meditations"). "Broken Treaties," the final song, unfolds from evocative, slow-moving, two- and three-part harmonies into frenzied action and interplay.
Preminger and his quartet will perform at the Side Door in Old Lyme on April 14 and on May 19 at Black-eyed Sally's in Hartford. He'll be there physically, but he'll be trying to get to somewhere else.
"When you're able to completely take yourself off the bandstand, out of body, that's the highest place you can get to as an artist," he says. "That's why I continue to play, period. I don't do it for the money, because there is none."
And while Preminger is proud of "Meditations," he's realistic about its ability to reach a wide audience.
"Jazz music is such a small genre. It's not like I'm standing on the stage at Madison Square Garden talking about these important issues like Bono or Bruce Springsteen or Britney Spears. It's small-time, but it's something I feel I'm able to do to spread the word about issues that need to be talked about."