Far-Out Jazz From Ivo Perelman and the Sirius Quartet

Passion According to GH

PERELMAN: The Passion According to G.H. / Ivo Perelman, tenor sax; Sirius String Quartet (Fung Chern Wei, Gregor Hubner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; Jeremy Harman, cello) / Leo Records CD LR 642 (available at Amazon) (Recorded November 21, 2011 in Brooklyn)

  1. Part 1 7:19
  2. Part 2 7:55
  3. Part 3 15:33
  4. Part 4 6:16
  5. Part 5 3:37
  6. Part 6 8:45

I really must thank jazz singer Sophie Dunér for introducing me to the music of the Sirius Quartet. She has just finished making an album with cellist Jeremy Harman of that group, who is utterly fantastic on it (I thought at first he was a jazz bassist), and she told me via e-mail that he is a member of this quartet. I investigated online and, voilá, ended up here with The Passion According to G.H.

This is about as far out jazz as I can tolerate and still consider music. I like, to a certain extent, the World Saxophone Quartet and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but not Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, or most of the squeal-and-scream jazz saxophonists (or trumpeters). I’m not certain if Perelman (like Ayler) knows exactly where he is, musically speaking, some of the time, where he’s going, or what he’s doing other than squealing and hoping his overblown high notes fit into the overtone series. By this I don’t mean that Perelman doesn’t understand harmonics, just that when screaming on his instrument he takes leave of musical rules in trying to express “emotion.” Nonetheless, I found about 90% of what he played to be musically valid, which gave a good basis for all to improvise on.

Some critics have questioned whether or not the Sirius Quartet really improvised around Perelman’s playing, since several stretches of it sound composed. These writers possibly don’t know much about the fine honing classical musicians give to their skills; they’re comparing apples to organges if they think that because the music is complex and at times polyphonal, that some of it had to be written. Anyone who has played the string quartets of Bartók and possibly Elliott Carter can certainly improvise figures behind Perelman’s lines on tenor. In fact, I would go so far as to wager than none of the critics who question the Sirius Quartet’s ability are even familiar with the works of Bartók or Carter. In essence, what the quartet does is mighty impressive but not at all impossible for musicians of their high caliber. Hearing the general mode or key that Perelman is in, they improvise polyphonically around him, at times combining bowed and pizzicato figures simultaneously. Once in a while the viola and/or one of the violins plays an arching, sustained passage, but only when Perelman slows down. They employ a lean, fast vibrato and tend towards a bright sound as a quartet, which is ideal for both modern music and jazz.

And please don’t forget that Perelman is listening to them as much as they are listening to him. This work is a two-way street, and the fact that it is the quartet that occasionally drags Perelman back to tonality tells me that everyone’s ears are a-buzz in this session. As a matter of fact, second violinist Gregor Hubner has uploaded Part 1 from this suite on YouTube, including video footage from the recording session. There isn’t a music stand in sight, so either everyone memorized every note or phrase of this ever-evolving and highly complex music or they were winging it. My money is on winging it.

Perhaps one reason why some listeners are skeptical that this music is improvised is that, although there is rhythm, the rhythms are irregular, asymmetric, and often tend towards the slow side. This, of course, gives the strings more of an opportunity to play legato, but it can easily distract the listener who wants or needs tempo guideposts in their jazz. Even the faster sections of The Passion do not really acquire a “jazz beat;” even Ornette Coleman’s jazz-classical works, George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept and Henry Threadgill’s multi-layered jazz compositions (in which different instrument are sometimes a half-beat behind others) have a more regular pulse than this. I personally found it fascinating, but also admit that it’s not easy music to absorb and certainly has zero entertainment value.

Indeed, it’s difficult to say what this music would sound like if it did have more structure, if parts of it were written out. Perhaps the closest any section of it comes to sounding thorough-composed, to my ears, is Part 4, one of the most relaxed and lyrical sections. Otherwise, I can’t hear this music as being preconceived in any way. The constantly-moving lines within the string quartet, often independent of one another and sometimes in counter-movement, are obviously the result of many hours of woodshedding, not only in jazz but also in the kind of modern classical music cited above. (The string quartets of Leif Segerstam, far less well known but equally challenging, would also provide the kind of “homework” this kind of playing calls for.) The string quartet’s soft voicings at the beginning of Part 6, possibly using mutes, sound the most like wind instruments (oboes, to my ears) for a brief time. Again, this is the result of pre-practice and, perhaps, advance woodshedding, with Perelman and the string players getting to know each others’ proclivities and strengths.

In short, The Passion According to G.H. (Gregor Hubner?) is a one-of-a-kind tour de force. I wonder if there were any rejected takes or sections left out of the finished product…you never know with a free-form session like this. But what is here is certainly challenging and meaty, well worth listening to.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

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