By Paul Robicheau
Composer Steve Lampert wrote “Zigsaw” at the request of saxophonist Noah Preminger, whose group recorded it for one of 2019’s most provocative albums.
As a 49-minute piece of music that balances the cerebral and the physical with both compositional form and improvisational flow, “Zigsaw” engages the ear much the way a jigsaw puzzle can enthrall the eye. Composer Steve Lampert wrote it at the request of saxophonist Noah Preminger, whose group recorded “Zigsaw” for one of 2019’s most provocative albums — and gave the complex piece an exhilarating full-septet ride at Scullers Jazz Club on Thursday.
Preminger’s group for the project is essentially an acoustic sextet augmented by wild card Rob Schwimmer, who channels electronic elements on a keyboard-like fingerpad called the Haken Continuum and personified a longhaired eccentric at Scullers. Yet personalities shined across the stage, despite two lineup shifts from the album. Pianist Leo Genovese (known for his work with Esperanza Spalding) replaced Kris Davis, and Preminger’s frequent drummer Dan Weiss filled in for Rudy Royston – and they more than rose to the challenge throughout the 75-minute set.
Yes, 49 minutes weren’t nearly enough to convey “Zigsaw” live. The symmetrical structure of the piece’s 12 sections — each subdivided into an opening vamp, a segment of open blowing, a return to melody, and a dreamier fantasy passage — expanded to accommodate solos that burst beyond original seams.
Ironically, the leader of the Noah Preminger Group — himself an accomplished improviser — gave more space to his bandmates than himself. Preminger seemed to favor deliberate turns on tenor sax, tasteful in tone and melodic phrasing, even if he also rode its tonal edges with short squeals and guttural accents. He looked quite content to let alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher steal the spotlight with his more intense energy from pushing torrents of tart, eruptive choruses to climactic peaks. Even during those fiery moments, Schwimmer pulled and stretched his fingertips across the Haken Continuum, summoning ghostly washes of synthetic percussion and choral gibberish that alternately proved intriguing and distracting.
Trumpeter Jason Palmer took a more traditional route with his more accessible melodic flurries, leading a playful blues vamp at one point and a truly swinging section later on. Even when throwing in a quote from “The Star-Spangled Banner” or a hint of “Salt Peanuts,” Palmer didn’t break from the group’s brisk drive.
Genovese also wasted no time making his presence known when the ensemble broke down into a piano trio and he flew into visceral sprays and pounding on the keys, evoking Cecil Taylor. Later, Genovese dipped into more conversational runs, before the rhythm section drifted in tempo and style and the Argentinian pianist seized a chance to jump from avant-garde classical to Latin filigrees. Weiss, whose chattering rhythms regularly kept the beat in place, quickly responded on drums while contrapuntal bassist Kim Cass floated into a plucked repeating note.
The composition kept coming, with Preminger triggering its recurring electronic motif with the touch of a laptop to cue each section. Rather than becoming more relaxed in the process of growing beyond an hour in length, “Zigsaw” continued to zig and zag, near constantly in motion with a relentless pace and a cascade of ideas — until the conclusion finally arrived with bell tones over a drone.
When Preminger announced that would be it for the night, applause turned to a few groans, suggesting the audience (which included composer Lampert) might be hoping for one of the bandleader’s own originals or a standard to round out the concert. But one could have argued that would have taken the focus from the evening’s opus, and listeners had already heard a panoply of styles or sounds tucked within the interlocking curves of “Zigsaw.”
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.