Recent Conservatory grad is making the grade

Boston Globe, September 5, 2008

School couldn’t end fast enough for Noah Preminger.

At 22, the tenor saxophonist and brand-new New England Conservatory grad has the filled-out look and assured manner of one quite a few years older – like that one preternaturally mature kid who seems to stand out in every class.

And his recently released debut album, “Dry Bridge Road,” is no rough-draft, collegiate blowing session thrown together with some buddies from school. Instead it’s an extremely polished program session recorded last year with a sextet of important New York musicians well senior to him, like pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Ben Monder – none of whom had heard of this upstart before.

Having just moved to New York a month ago in the customary rite of passage for so many music-school grads, Preminger returns to Boston on Tuesday, visiting Scullers with this top-flight group in tow.

And though it’s still early, and jazz is a tough way to make a living, all the evidence thus far says Preminger is ahead of the game. He plays with not just chops and composure, but already a distinct voice: His approach privileges mood and reflectiveness, favoring weaving lines that can be complex but are also concise, without a trace of over-playing or bravado.

It’s an approach that he shares with his colleagues in the band – part of the reason they were, as he says in a recent phone conversation, the ones he most keenly wanted to work with.

“These were my first-call people,” he says. “I knew all their stuff, all their playing. Ben Monder’s music has influenced me a lot.” A brief, lovely duet piece with Monder, titled “A Dream,” confirms the fit. It’s one of Preminger’s own compositions, which make up two-thirds of the disc, from the searching, atmospheric opening piece “Luke” to “Rhythm for Robert,” the intense, rock-influenced closer.

“I feel that with my music I try to create settings,” he says. “I didn’t want to make something really easy to listen to, but I spent a lot of time trying to get a vibe of the record as a whole, and to come up with mood settings for every piece.”

To assemble his dream group, Preminger had a needed accomplice in the established New York trumpeter and producer John McNeil. Preminger says the two met at NEC, where McNeil comes to teach once a week, but McNeil has a slightly different story.

He says he first heard Preminger one random night in Brooklyn after drifting into Tillie’s, one of a constellation of small venues where unknowns play for short money.

“And I thought, who the [expletive] is this?” McNeil says. “He looks about 35 and he acts that way. So I talked to him briefly, told him he sounded good.”

Before long, the two ran into each other again at NEC, much to McNeil’s surprise. “I said to him, `What are you doing here? Teaching a master class?”’

“And he said, `Dude, I go to school here!”’

It would prove to be the start of a partnership, McNeil serving as mentor, friend, and producer for “Dry Bridge Road.” When Preminger told McNeil whom he envisioned on the album, McNeil placed the calls and vouched for the kid. He never had to regret it.

“He walked in there, the first rehearsal, the way he carried himself, the way he ran it, they accepted him immediately,” McNeil says. “Because he’s a man, he acts like a grown-up and plays like a grown-up.”

But it’s more than attitude, McNeil says. Artistically, Preminger stands out in a crowded field where there’s no shortage of technical virtuosity.

“New York is the jazz tenor sax capital of the world. There’s so many great tenor players here, shredding tenors,” McNeil says. “They all can play! But in a way that makes it easier to notice someone when they stand out. I like this guy because he’s got his own story, even if it’s not completely formed yet.”

For what he’s achieved thus far, Preminger credits teachers from NEC, like Rakalam Bob Moses and Danilo Perez, and all the way back to middle school in Camden, Conn. Most of all he thanks his parents, jazz aficionados who moved to West Hartford so their son could attend Hall High School, a jazz breeding ground that has produced pianist Brad Mehldau, saxmen Joel Frahm and Drew Sayers, and percussionist Richie Barshay.

Today, though, Preminger is glad to be done with the classroom side of things. “I really don’t like being associated with school,” he says, showing a touch of the new graduate’s pique. “I went to school and liked it, but it makes you seem less professional.”

Now he’s out of the cocoon and ready for his trial by fire, with an impressive recording under his belt but no illusions as to the task ahead.

“McNeil told me that if I have enough money to live three months, then I’ll be fine,” he says. “We’ll see how it goes. I hope I don’t have to get a day job. You starve a little and you hope for the best.”