Saxophonist Ivo Perelman can be a magician. He practices totally free improvisation, but he does so with a general beauty of tone and mastery of intonation such that his playing seems always under riveting control, headed somewhere—even if that destination isn’t mapped out in advance.
On Garden of Jewels, Perelman is working for the second time in a trio with drummer Whit Dickey and pianist Matthew Shipp, who are quite magical themselves. Dickey and Shipp go back decades as part of the powerful David S. Ware Quartet, and the saxophonist and pianist have a long and deep history of recordings and performance as a duet. The new collection consists of eight performances, each named for a precious or semi-precious gem and clocking between five and seven minutes. They are, therefore, tight constructions, focused pieces of beauty, not sprawling things but reasonably comparable to rings or brooches, pins, or necklaces. There is something durable and sharp-edged about them, even if they emerged out of “nothing”.
Shipp and Perelman have a relationship like few in music, bringing out the spontaneous best in each other. “Emerald” begins with a shared melodic gesture of two notes, repeated and passed back and forth with varying sophistication—something that starts immediately even if it arose at the moment. Then, after two minutes, piano and tenor sax develop a new motif — three rising notes in simple sing-song — played in each instrument’s most upper register. With allowance for only a bit of transitional searching, this element becomes a rising pair of tones in a squiggle and then other forms that ultimately bring Shipp to a stately set of chords with which Perelman fuses and steers into chiming conclusion. This improvisation exhibits the thrill of spontaneity but the sense of order that we attribute to design. The vocabulary and larger product that Shipp and Perelman use and create is not random or unthoughtful for its being entirely improvised.
Other examples of melodic and harmonic simpatico abound. The opening title track finds tenor and piano working lovely, tonal territory that sweeps up both gospel and anthemic qualities. “Tourmaline”, which follows, is entirely different—craggy and contrapuntal, all three voices weaving and not quite intersecting as they jumble along in a Monk-ian way, only to happen upon a chiming melody on which Perelman and Shipp can agree very quickly, then finding a throbbing theme that is repurposed a couple of ways later on. “Onyx” begins as a tone poem that evolves into connection in high harmonics, but it later uses a jumping and syncopated melodic line that reminds me of Monk’s “Work” to bring the trio into coordination. On “Turquoise”, piano and altissimo tenor playing a game of chase in the upper registers, as swirling knots from Shipp’s right hand become rotating figures of answer and overlap from Perelman. “Sapphire” contains at least two melodic motifs that sound reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s melodic vocabulary, creating moments of connection for musicians with shared reference points.
As the pianist in the trio, Shipp might seem to be most bound to traditional tonality and song form. But this is Matthew Shipp we are discussing, a musician who manages to combine elements of freedom and structure with ease. Shipp rarely resorts to playing clusters or atonal messes of notes—he is more typically precise, clear, and locally tonal in his playing. But he also allows the tonal center to shift from minute to minute or moment to moment, rarely staying with a single key center if the advantage is in moving more flexibly. At the same time, Perelman approaches his instrument as if it were a piano rather than a horn on which notes can be bent at will. He is equally precise and ringing, hitting his notes clearly and with a beauty of tone—but he is also free in shifting away from any static tonal center. The result is music that sounds sparkling and clear all the time, with the decisions to play in harmonic/melodic synchronicity always apparent and realized with almost classical precision. It’s free but never fuzzy.
Dickey deals with precision of a different kind. That is only occasionally (and only by discovery) a kind of groove music, so the drummer here responds, prodding, latching onto moments of momentum, or coloring the feeling—but he is rarely the one who drives a rhythm section. But that doesn’t make him less vital. Instead, Dickey is ready when the time comes, which is fairly often with this trio. On “Sapphire”, for example, the counterpunching between Perelman’s cascading lines and Shipp’s muscular low chords begs for a sense of time, which Dickey provides in a manner that remains loose but also propulsive. On “Diamond”, all three musicians get into a flowing 4/4 time, with piano and sax playing an up-and-down pattern on eighth notes as Dickey accent each upbeat with a sense of cymbal swing.
The collective expression that emerges on Garden of Jewels, then, balances several elements that are always present in jazz or creative music, but not usually in such extremes. Both precise and free, tonally sterling yet loose as a goose, this music suggests the kind of expression that can emerge from astonishing levels of skill, attentive listening, and simpatico history.
These seemingly themeless free improvisations were created after months of COVID lockdown in the city that carried the brunt that the pandemic’s spring rage. Perhaps Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp, and Walt Dickey were particularly curious and in need of connection amidst it all, after months of playing only with themselves, alone. For whatever the reason, this Garden contains a flowering of spontaneous theme and connection.
Unlike some music unbounded by pre-decision, it sings.