Saxophonist Noah Preminger and Drummer Rob Garcia Form Dead Composers Club, Reimagine Chopin Classics on First Outing
Chopin Project, featuring guitarist Nate Radley and bassist Kim Cass, takes a thrillingly imaginative approach to the composer’s Nocturnes and Preludes
“[Preminger and Garcia] are the kind of unblinkered contemporary musicians for whom the restrictions of genre have little meaning.” – The New Yorker
The idea behind the Dead Composers Club is to celebrate and explore the music of iconic composers, the only common thread being their shuffling off of mortal coils. Though the Chopin Project, the first of the quartet’s planned annual examinations of a deceased composer’s oeuvre, is the farthest thing from an overwrought classical-jazz hybrid, Preminger and Garcia took on these classic works with enough respect to realize that they were strong enough to withstand the most radical of transformations. “These are masterpieces,” Preminger insists. “They play themselves. Some of the songs we played pretty straight up and others we deconstructed a little more, but they’re really beautiful on their own.”
“These are great songs that can be played with many different treatments,” Garcia adds. “There’s a lot of room for us to just be ourselves.”
The inspiration for the project came to Preminger during a rare late-night listening session – the ideal setting for a close study of the Nocturnes in particular. In recent years the saxophonist has focused his musical attention far more on output than input, and when he does dust off the headphones it tends to be to listen to the Mississippi Delta blues classics that inspired his stunning 2016 album Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. Though the elegance of the Nocturnes and Preludes would seem to be the polar opposite of these raw early blues recordings, there’s more soul to Chopin and more grace to Skip James and Blind Lemon Jefferson than a surface listen might imply.
All of those elements shine through in the Dead Composers Club’s take on these pieces. As Garcia says, “Blues and folk music happen in a very natural way, and that’s the same attitude with which we approach playing Chopin’s music. We don’t intend for it to sound difficult or intricate, although some of the pieces are quite challenging. We want to to have it feel as natural as possible.”
In part, the success they achieve in meeting that goal stems from the considerable histories shared by the band’s members. Preminger and Garcia first met on a gig with trumpeter John McNeil nearly a decade ago, and since have toured and recorded regularly with Garcia’s critically-acclaimed quartet. Cass is a regular in Preminger’s bands while Radley has played with both leaders in a variety of situations. With that familiarity to build on, the four entered the studio and played the music entirely live in one room, without the safety net of edits or overdubs. That immediacy is palpable despite the intricacy inherent in many of the pieces.
Preminger and Garcia divvied up the arranging duties, each selecting their favorites from among Chopin’s 21 Nocturnes and 24 Preludes. Their takes varied, but at the core each becomes something deeply personal and compelling. “These are basically stories that Chopin wrote,” Preminger says. “We just picked our favorite stories and decided to retell those stories in our own way as a unit.”
It was never the point to place a clever twist or complex reimagining onto Chopin’s work. As with any immortal jazz standard or classic folk tune, it was simply to imbibe and personalize music that speaks to the player and the listener alike. “Basically, we wanted to celebrate this wonderful composer and have a blast doing it our way,” Preminger says. “Most important jazz musicians have checked out Chopin, so this is a major part of our history. So acknowledging that, celebrating it and telling our own story using Chopin’s original works is important.”
“His music is so open to interpretation and can truly stand the test of time,” adds Garcia. “Every one of those compositions has a life of its own.”
© Jimmy Katz
© John Guillemin