Ivo Perelman is not as big a name in jazz as his output and artistry demands. Perhaps his output — with dozens of recordings released in any given year — numbs us to his brilliance. In 2017 alone he put out 14 discs of music: a seven-volume The Art of Perelman-Shipp (all featuring pianist Matthew Shipp) and now the six simultaneous releases reviewed here (one a double-disc), five with Shipp and two featuring trumpeter Nate Wooley, among other musicians.
Perelman is originally from Brazil, where he grew up and studied several instruments before going to the Berklee College of Music in 1981 to study jazz and the tenor saxophone. His first recording, made in Los Angeles was a reasonably conventional date with Airto, Flora Purim, John Patitucci, and Eliane Elias. But soon gravitated toward free improvisation. For a couple of decades now, nearly all his music has been composed spontaneously, usually working with other musicians schooled in the art of free improvisation.
It is immediately notable that Perelman’s tone and melodic choices are lovely rather than harsh. The tradition in free-blowing jazz is that horn players take freedom not only with the structure but also with sonority — and their “sound” tends to be caustic or blaring from the jump. Perelman, however, opts for beauty to start and for long stretches, even when he is playing outside of traditional harmony or swing rhythm.
What makes his music harder to approach than most jazz is, rather, that it is all spontaneously improvised. This practice is often mentioned but rarely analyzed. When Keith Jarrett does it in his solo piano concerts, it is considered semi-miraculous, but it really shouldn’t be. Composing “in the moment”, alone and on an instrument that was designed to be a mini-orchestra unto itself, poses only one problem: what should I play? Once a direction is chosen, it is within a good player’s ability to make it all fit together because she doesn’t need to communicate with other players. Perelman’s art is in spontaneously improvising in duos or groups, which means that the musicians face the challenge of choosing what to play, at the moment, but such that their choices connect musically. That can mean: finding a tempo, deciding on a time signature or pattern, choosing a tonal center or key, exploring motifs that arise — and then knowing when to move on to something different.
Let’s look at a single performance from these six hours of music, “Part 4” from Octagon, with Nate Wooley’s trumpet joining Perelman, along with Gerald Cleaver on drums and Brandon Lopez on bass. It starts as a tenor/trumpet duet, with Perelman playing the first phrase and Wooley joining a split second later, hearing a tonal space and joining it quickly. They play a counterpoint, matching each other’s phrasing and rough tempo, even as it changes and breathes. Cleaver hears the sense of tempo and joins, creating a busy counterpoint of his own below them. At about 1:30, Wooley plays a sharp, two-note downward phrase (concert G-F) and Perelman immediately answers with an identically phrased G-Eb — which sends the two tumbling into series of variations of that phrase, partly in a (lucky?) unison. That brings Lopez into the conversation, playing low tones and then a bowed melody that inspires the horns into a series of unswung eighth notes that are in the same key. At about 3:10, the playing becomes more legato, with bass and horns both playing long, lovingly played phrases, and then settle into near-silence at 4:00 with Perelman just blowing air through his horn in a whisper. The remaining 1:25 of this performance starts with Wooley and Lopez abandoning traditional technique and playing squeaks and swirls outside any tonal center. Perelman remains “melodic” at first, then moves to his own (quite controlled) extended technique. Cleaver follows as the three other instruments play a slow downward spiral leading to a set of a dozen or so eighth notes on a floor to the bring it to a conclusion.
Parts of “Part 4” are simply ingenious: like How did they do that? amazing. Of course, composed music contains such moments as a matter of routine, so the dazzle of those moments comes from knowing that the music was wholly improvised and from that fact, somehow, creating a dynamic of exploration or discovery that colors the music in essential ways. That is a profound question that jazz writers sometimes reach for, but I’ve never read a wholly satisfactory analysis: how does the spontaneity or improvising make the music inherently different in emotional heft or otherwise? Why do we sense the crackle of the improvising even when we hear it on a recording? (Or, for that matter, do we really hear it?) Is that crackle increased when the improvising has fewer constraints (no required tonal center or rhythmic pattern) or might it be lessened by too much freedom?
Perhaps these questions are part of the investigation that makes up Perelman’s music. As you listen to these six different recordings, you might test answering these questions for yourself. Although all the music is improvised, each setting subtly adjusts the variables.
I lean favorably, for example, toward Heptagon, featuring Shipp’s piano, William Parker on bass, and drummer Bobby Kapp (who is relatively unknown in the United States, though he played on a 1967 Gato Barbieri recording that is well known). Perhaps I’m betraying a certain conservative affection in my listening for classic quartets (sax, piano, bass, drums), but this band feels extremely balanced and dancing. “Part One” finds Kapp and Parker locking into a delightful feeling of free time that is nevertheless in 4/4, and Shipp and Perelman connect above this like old friends. “Part Two” is a knotty kind of ballad, with Perelman starting his playing in a low register, then appearing more and more often “above water” in short dolphin-like leaps of melody. I could go on, but the point is simply that this music feels good to me, even though I can’t hum along. Why?
Perelman is a supremely inviting melodicist. Listen to his very high tone at the end of the aforementioned “Part Two” from Heptagon and how he gets to it. It is not a snarl or cry or a squeak but a creamy high note that be winds up to in a ladder of beauty. I think that his arrival there strictly through improvising makes it more astonishing, yes, but I think it would be astonishing whether it was improvised or composed. There is more than one way to skin the cat of musical beauty.
Among this music, there are many marvels. Live in Baltimore consist of a single, flowing performance of 51 minutes: Shipp and Perelman begin it with a beautiful telepathy, and they are joined by the super-intuitive drumming of Jeff Cosgrove, a Maryland drummer who deserves wider recognition. Philosopher’s Stone bring Wooley and Shipp together with the leader for what may be the most complex and compelling set. And the two-disc Live in Brussels returns us to just Shipp and Perelman, the spine of it all, in their astonishing continuing conversation.
Inside each package are liner notes by Chicago’s great jazz writer, Neil Tesser, who listens with care and guides us through the music to some extent. He has mastered the old art of liner notes — they’re short but insightful, cheerleading but also correct. They enhance each disc.
I got lost in this Perelman music for the week of Thanksgiving 2017 — not exactly seasonal fare but good music with which to change the basic rhythm of my life (wake, work, eat, play, sleep) and to remind me that patterns need not be fixed. Now I want to hear him in person and feel the vibrations of his horn and his musical intelligence in real time. That’s his canvas.