Perelman’s “Brass and Ivory Tales”

front cover

CD 1:
PERELMAN-BURRELL: Chapters 1 & 2 / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Dave Burrell, pno
CD 2: PERELMAN-CRISPELL: Chapters 1-9 / Perelman, t-sax; Marilyn Crispell, pno
CD 3: PERELMAN-ORTIZ: Chapters 1-7 / Perelman, t-sax; Aruán Ortiz, pno
CD 4: PERELMAN-PARKS: Chapters 1-3 / Perelman, t-sax; Aaron Parks, pno
CD 5:
PERELMAN-COURVOISIER: Chapters 1-11 / Perelman, t-sax; Sylvie Courvoisier, pno
CD 6:
PERELMAN-FERNÁNDEZ: Chapters 1-9 / Perelman, t-sax; Agusti Fernández, pno
CD 7:
PERELMAN-TABORN: Chapters 1-5 / Perelman, t-sax; Craig Taborn, pno
CD 8:
PERELMAN-SANCHEZ: Chapters 1-9 / Perelman, t-sax; Angelica Sanchez, pno
CD 9:
PERELMAN-IYER: Chapters 1-5 / Perelman, t-sax; Vijay Iyer, pno / Fundacja Słuchaj, no number; available via digital downloads or physical CDs/LPs
at Bandcamp

I often reflect on the sad fact that readers of my blog who enjoy classical music probably read absolutely none of my jazz articles and reviews and vice-versa. One hundred and twenty years after the birth of jazz, and at least 75 years since it reached its first level of harmonic sophistication on a part with classical music, and these two worlds are still miles apart.

Of course, completely atonal music that has neither a grounding in any conventional harmony, not even the harmony of Eastern cultures, is frequently off-putting for a great majority of listeners, even jazz fans in general. The free jazz community is, in a sense, a world within a world within a world, at least twice removed from more conventional jazz and three times removed from even the most avant-garde classical music.

And yet, somehow, tenor saxist Ivo Perelman continues to persist and continues to record. Leaving aside the past two years, when live performances by any musicians of any genre were exceedingly rare, one really does begin to wonder if Perelman essentially lives in the recording studio. With more than 100 recordings under his belt, he is surely one of the most-recorded artists in jazz history if not the most recorded, but more often than not those recordings have to come out not just on small labels but on specialty labels devoted to the comparatively small free jazz market, sometimes on labels so esoteric that one has to scour the Internet to even find them. (Fundacja Słuchaj is one such, until I received these downloads for review, I had never even heard of them.) Yet he keeps making these recordings, trying to share his gift with a world that, in the universal sense, either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he exists.

Perelman once posted online that it was the bird songs he heard as a child that inspired him to take up this form of music. Most people take birds and their warbling so much for granted that they don’t really listen to them, but if you take the time to do so, as both Perelman and Olivier Messiaen did, you’ll notice that their songs are essentially non-tonal and in fact take their own turns and directions. That is the underlying basis of Perelman’s style.

In my many reviews of his CDs with different combinations of instruments, I’ve commented that pianists generally tend to focus Perelman better than guitarists, violinists or fellow reed players, for the simple fact that unless one is playing a prepared piano tuned atonally or, more extremely, in microtones, the player has no choice but to play pre-ordained tones built into the framework of the instrument, and this in turn forces Perelman to react not consistently tonally but essentially more tonal in order to keep up some semblance of a real dialogue. I particularly treasure his many recordings with Matthew Shipp simply because Shipp is a pianist whose highly advanced grasp of modern harmony leads both him and Perelman into some of the most interesting avenues, and I stand by that, but on this new set, which took Perelman nine years to complete, he is partnered by nine different pianists, some of whom are among my absolute favorites among modern jazz keyboard players.

Dave BurrellI admit to not being as familiar with Dave Burrell’s playing as I would like to be, but on the initial CD in this set Burrell is the first player up. What’s striking about this disc is that they only produced two takes which both artists felt worthy of preservation, yet by way of compensation they are the two longest improvisations in the entire set, the first running 37:10 and the second 20:01. Burrell, at least on this session, tends to favor the free-fantasia form of playing, mostly single notes that meander across the keyboard. He does not play fast and is not flashy, but by continually spacing his notes and occasional chords he sort of locks Perelman into a slower, more ruminative mood, and the saxist responds with some of his warmest and most lyrical improvised phrases. Interestingly, I’ve finally managed, here where his playing is slowed down a bit, to analyze his timbre. It’s very obviously that of a tenor saxophone, even when he extends himself into the altissimo register for some squeals, but although it has a tenor timbre he does not emphasize the richness of the instrument’s lower range. On the contrary, it seems to me (and I may be wrong) that he plays with a fairly hard reed, which gives him greater control of what he produces but also makes his tone sound cooler. This is what gives his playing, at times, an alto-like sound while still retaining a basic tenor feel. You might liken it to those rare classical baritone singers who have an unusual high range that they can access at will, into the tenor atmosphere. You recognize that they really are baritones, but their sound lies on the breath somewhere between the two worlds.

At about the 27-minute mark in Chapter One, Burrell takes an extended solo that has a quirky sort of Thelonious Monk-like swing feeling about it, and here he becomes much more pianistic for several bars. When Perelman re-enters, he is squealing happily in his altissimo range before coming back down into the tenor sphere. Chapter Two opens in what, for Perelman, is almost a conventional rhythm, but one must understand that Perelman does not “swing.” It is not what he is all about. He’s about creating abstract structures that may or may not coalesce into concrete musical images. Yet on this track, Burrell does move into a slow, swinging beat, into which Perelman plays his own commentary in his non-swinging way. Later on, both artists surprisingly lapse into a Latin beat, something Perelman can certainly feel comfortable with. Burrell then leads him into a sort of rocking, medium-tempo R&B beat—quite a change of mood! Then it’s back to Latin rhythm for a long stretch of time, and here Perelman really creates some excellent and interesting lines.

Marilyn CrispellCD 2 pairs him with Marilyn Crispell, an essentially lyrical player who uses space in a unique manner. She sings at the keyboard, and Perelman responds with some of the loveliest playing of his entire career—at least at first. In the middle section, he indulges in his trademark upper-range squeals while Crispell keeps playing calmly behind him. Surprisingly, in the second piece Crispell plays a succession of rhythmic, atonal single notes, and on this framework Perelman gives us some of his most convoluted and twisting figures, some of them rather beyond me to grasp. Later on, he plays some superb lower-register figures, surprisingly warm and rich-sounding, often sticking to one not in a variety of fractured rhythms. By the time we reach Chapter Four, Perelman is really out there (I’m not sure where). This is clearly one of the freakiest albums in the entire set. Perhaps this is because Crispell plays such basic patterns, by and large, that she follows the saxist much more than she leads him. Beam me up, Scotty! The wild alien animals are after me! Yet suddenly, in Chapter Seven, the two of them create one of the most beautiful pieces in the entire set, one that could actually pass for a standard ballad. So go figure.

Aruan OrtizOn CD 3 we reach Aruán Ortiz, one of my favorite modern pianists and one whose work continually fascinates me. Ortiz sets up a steady rhythmic pattern built around repeated B-flats in the bass line as Perelman wends his way around them. He works in a few of his upper-register squeals, but as in the case of his recordings with Shipp he curbs some of his more outré tendencies. When Ortiz returns to playing solo, he seems to be combining Dave Brubeck with Charles Ives. In Chapter Two, the duo indulges in some odd rhythmic interplay, Ortiz tapping his piano (perhaps the inside strings) as Perelman follows him blissfully into esoteric territory. But each track on this remarkable CD has something interesting to offer; this duo has their own simpatico going for them, only in a different way from Perelman and Shipp. In Chapter Five, Ortiz plays a sort of asymmetric rocking rhythm while Perelman seems to disregard it and just play his own thing above him. Chapter Six is, again, one of Perelman’s most lyrical creations. and here, too, Ortiz plays an excellent solo based on just one chord. Chapter Seven is equally interesting, with Ortiz playing what amounts to late-night, very personal noodling at the keyboard while Perelman follows him at some points and ramps up the energy level at others.

Aaron ParksCD 4 is with Aaron Parks. Born in 1983, he is one of the youngest pianists featured here; one of his teachers at the Manhattan School of Music was Terence Blanchard, thus free jazz is only one of the styles in which he plays. He feeds Perelman rich chords and a fairly regular rhythm, albeit with moments of rubato, to which the saxist responds with surreal staccato accents, as if trying to break into Parks’ train of music thought. His playing sounds more on the surface of Parks’ rich improvisations and not really an integral part of them. At times in the first selection, his sax sounds like a wounded bird. These two artists often seem to be operating on different levels, and to be honest I found what Parks played to be generally more structured, though Perelman is in there pitching. Towards the end of track one, I’d swear that Perelman was playing Jingle Bells at a very slow tempo against Parks’ piano. The second track is generally more animated, with Parks playing less structured accompaniment and both faster and louder than in the first track, which seems to inspire Perelman to some interesting figures that don’t quite mesh with the pianist’s conception. By track three, Parks seems to have given up on playing his own style completely, instead playing brisk, atonal, single-note figures, and here Perelman is very much in his element. The two get along just fine here, although in the middle Perelman almost sounds as if he his hiccupping through his horn!

Sylvie CourvoisierOn CD 5 we have Sylvie Courvoisier. She opens track one almost tentatively, as if unsure where to go or what Perelman will do when she gets there, but the saxist surprisingly interjects some warm, sensuous playing at the outset. It almost sounds as if they were flirting with each other musically. Both become more aggressive in their approach as the track progresses, and if one were to just listen to Courvoisier alone one would note that she has created a complete structure around which Perelman finds his way. I found it interesting, even telling in a way, that instead of two or three very long tracks this CD is comprised of 11 shorter ones, and for whatever reason this has a beneficial effect on the saxist, whose playing is more terse and less garrulous (but no less edgy in places, as witness the second track). On track three, Courvoisier plays the inside strings of her instrument, creating an almost harpsichord-like effect to which the saxist responds with some of his most interesting and coherent figures. By Chapter Four, things are really rockin’ and rollin’, with both artists prodding and feeding off each other.

Agusti FernandezCD 6 features Agusti Fernández, a Spanish pianist-composer of whom I had never heard before. His set opens with quiet, spaced-out notes on the piano, in fact the most relaxed-sounding music so far. Perelman is cautious, at the beginning, not to go too far in his improvisation, as if he were loath to tread too heavily on so delicate a framework, and the results are quite beautiful. In Chapter Two, Fernández plays primarily a sequence of single-line bass notes, focusing on rhythm rather than harmony or melody, and Perelman is in his element here. Towards the end of this track, Fernández becomes quite busy indeed, and this carries over to Chapter Three—in fact, it almost sounds like a continuation of the end portion of the previous track, except a bit faster and busier. In the midst of this musical frenzy, believe it or not, Perelman plays a few notes of Sweet Sue, but eventually both build up to a tremendous crescendo that sounds like a freight train bearing down on you at 100 miles an hour. In Chapter Four things lighten up again, with sparser notes played by both. In Chapter Five, it doesn’t so much sound as if Fernández was playing the inside of his piano so much as he was sawing pieces off it. Freaky stuff! (Hey, you better clean up that mess when you’re finished! I’m not your mama!) Chapter Six returns to single-note bass licks, but not for long…after a while, he returns to the pounding heard in Chapter Three, but return to quieter music in Chapter Seven, where Perelman creates some of his most extraordinary figures.

Craig TabornOn CD 7 we hear Craig Taborn, another name new to me. He is known for electronic music (which I simply don’t like) and free jazz as well as contemporary classical music (which I often do like). Oddly, it is Perelman who starts off this set, playing a few isolated, low-range notes very softly as Taborn comes in gingerly behind him. Chapter One here is one of the most arresting and interesting pieces on the set, at least in the early going. Even as things get louder, faster and more intense, Perelman really seems locked into a more lyrical frame of mind as Taborn feeds him richly chorded accompaniments, often with quite tonal arpeggios. Like his frequent pianist Matthew Shipp, Taborn keeps Perelman grounded harmonically…until the halfway mark, at which point all hell breaks loose and Perelman sounds as if he’s off his medications. Chapter Two also gets frenetic but not as much while Chapter Three starts, again, quite melodically but again becomes rather incoherent. These are the risks you take with free jazz: a lot of it works, but some of it doesn’t. The end of Chapter Four almost sounds like the shower scene from the movie Psycho, and Chapter Five also starts out well and ends in a frenzy.

Angelica SanchezCD 8 pairs him with Angelica Sanchez, who opens the set playing single percussive notes. Perelman responds with some excellent playing as well, and it stays very good to the end. By Chapter Three things get a bit more frantic but, by and large, this is still very good, fairly structured playing—until Chapter Four, where things become rather frenetic once again. But Chapter Five returns us to a more mellow Perelman, with Sanchez here playing the inside strings of her instrument, until the latter third of the piece where frenzy once again reigns. By and large, however, this is the most consistently interesting set in the entire series, with Chapter Six featuring both artists playing some fascinating fragmented figures. It also contains some of Perelman’s consistently warmest playing and most intriguing figures.

Vijay IyerOn CD 9 he plays with the wonderful Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. They start out trading fragmented notes which Iyer turns into boogie-like figures on the piano and, although they both become very busy, a sort of internal structure emerges. I attribute most of this to the fact that Iyer is a master constructionist, thus the music he feeds Perelman is likewise structured even at its busiest moments. There’s a very interesting passage shortly after the five-minute mark where Perelman and Iyer engage in creating some extraordinarily interesting musical structures, and the pair continues this for some time. Later on, Perelman  indulges in some low-register growling, very atypical of his playing and yet, again, very interesting. And when Perelman starts his upper-register squeals, Iyer plays some fascinating Middle Eastern harmonies using trills and fluttering minor thirds behind him. Chapter Two is really quite pretty and attractive, and Chapter Three, though containing some high-register squeals, also makes musical sense and develops in a most interesting way, in part because Iyer retains his sense of structure and defuses the high-range explosion with some lovely single-note figures, to which the saxist responds with equally interesting stepwise figures of his own. As Iyer suddenly increases the tempo, Perelman follows, and they create a few moments of very intricate counterpoint which are a joy to hear. Indeed, on the day this session took place, it was almost as if Perelman could read Iyer’s mind. There are also some wonderful moments when it seems as if Iyer has made time stand still, filling the air with soft filigree figures, and when the saxist responds he is not quite as meditative but also not terribly disruptive of the mood. This is a great CD.

To some extent, I can understand why this album had to wait some years to be released and is now only coming out via a small label. It is some of Perelman’s most outré and experimental playing, and as much as I liked much of it, to my ears some of it just didn’t work. Nonetheless, if you are one of his admirers you’ll clearly want to own it because the many good and interesting moments are really excellent, and Perelman’s playing is nothing if not highly emotional. That is the risk you take when you jump off a musical cliff without a parachute.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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