Perelman’s Massive Sax Summit


WAP 2022REED RAPTURE IN BROOKLYN / 103 Improvised pieces: 14 with Joe Lovano, C-sax/s-sax; 11 with Dave Liebman, s-sax; 5 with Tim Berne, a-sax; 10 with David Murray, bs-cl; 8 with Lotte Anker, s-sax/a-sax; 12 with Ken Vandermark, cl; 3 with Roscoe Mitchell, bs-sax; 6 with Colin Stetson, contrabs-sax/tubax; 7 with Jon Irabagon, slide s-sax/sopranino sx; 11 with Vinny Golia, soprillo/cl/basset hn/a-cl; 7 with Joe McPhee, t-sax; 9 with James Carter, bar-sax / Ivo Perelman, t-sax on all tracks / Mahakala Music MAHA-043

This massive set, encompassing 12 CDs in which Perelman plays with a different saxophonist on each, is clearly more of a mountain than a molehill, even for many lovers of free jazz. As my readers know, I admire Perelman’s adventurousness but, as someone weaned on music that has structure, no matter how far-out harmonically, I tend to gravitate to those recordings of his in which I can detect at leas some semblance of a musical statement rather than just squealing out high notes. I absolutely LOVED his “Fruition” album with Matthew Shipp, his most common musical partner and one who most often steers him into improvisations with some structure.

One of the reasons I chose to review this set was that it included five sax players whose work I am familiar with and admire: Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, David Murray (former member of the World Saxophone Quartet), Roscoe Mitchell (former member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I actually got to see perform live once…at the Chicago Art Museum, no less) and Tim Berne. I was not previously familiar with any of the others’ work, although I had heard of Lotte Anker and Jon Irabagon.

In a set of this size, it would be too much to give, as I usually like to do, a detailed description of each track since there are 103 of them. Thus I decided to give an overview of each session, pointing out specific tracks or moments in each that I particularly liked or didn’t.

As Ivo wrote me via email, “There is extremely wide ethnic diversity, with some of the musicians having a heritage from various countries: Sicily. Denmark. The Philippines. Africa. Eastern Europe. Brazil. Holland.” This is nice but, in the end, music is music, and although some of these artists may indeed use inflections, rhythms or harmonies based on the music of their native countries, it’s the results that count.

In addition, Dave Liebman contributed the following in the liner notes:

Life is full of choices from when to cross a street or start eating a meal, etc. When it comes to jazz improvisation the element of choice is quite present and has a big effect on the success of the final product. (Note this present discussion concerns jazz improvisation primarily, although the subject of artistic choice has a lot of tentacles to all the arts.)

 What you hear on this recording is from what I know an absolutely unique project. Saxophonist Ivo Perelman has coupled himself with twelve specialists playing sixteen woodwinds, all involved with making choices completely free of any rules, or chords or pulse…all improvised!!  

And all playing with Ivo.

 A musician is completely exposed in the duo scenario. Each of the five elements of music are called on the carpet…harmony, melody, rhythm, texture and form. With the music completely subjected to these elements the duo “single line” artist must tow the line even for examples of harmony with only two lines interacting. The horn players Ivo chose have mastered ways of playing two or even three pitches simultaneously on their horns, so in theory the possible sounds being addressed by two musicians constitutes quite a varied list.

That pretty much sums up what you need to know going into this set.

Lovano is the first saxist up. He appears to be the one playing in the left channel; that sounds to me like Ivo in the right. Despite his free jazz leanings, Lovano has always struck me as a very lyrical player: he even released an album paying tribute to the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, which I really liked. Since Perelman himself generally plays very high up in the tenor range, I couldn’t quite decide if Lovano was playing tenor or alto on these tracks. He plays both in addition to flute, but it sounded to me as if he was on tenor here (I may be wrong). Even though it is Perelman who is heard first, it seemed to me that he allowed Lovano to lead the way, which was all to the good; his penchant for lyricism pays great dividends here as he generally gravitated towards his instrument’s midrange, only occasionally flying up into the stratosphere, and interestingly enough, sometimes Perelman stayed in the middle when Lovano went up and vice-versa. It was also interesting to hear Lovano and Perelman trade ideas. Towards the end of the first track (numbered as take 13), he slows down the tempo and Perelman follows. Interestingly, the very next track (take 8) is generally slow and lyrical. Lovano engages in some microtonal playing, which Perelman does not imitate, but Lovano does draw out Perelman’s lyrical side, which I happen to like quite a bit. (He really should do this more often; he is very expressive in a slow tempo.) In general, this is an extremely enjoyable set, containing several moments of great beauty, even in the very sharp-tempoed, almost pointillistic take 7. On take 4, there is even more microtonal playing than on the other tracks, and here, too, Perelman very graciously allows Lovano to take the lead—again with excellent results. On take 5, Lovano appears to be playing in the right channel rather than the left, and also appears to be playing alto clarinet.

Dave Liebman plays soprano sax on his set, but in such a mellow way that it sounds like an alto—or, at least, like Paul Desmond on alto. (A friend of mine, the late jazz clarinetist Frank Powers, upon hearing Desmond for the first time and not knowing that he was playing alto, assumed that he was playing the clarinet with a really hard reed.) Again, despite some busy moments of outside playing, the principal focus here is on a more lyrical style and often medium to slow tempi—and again, the results are very interesting. A general trend I can say about this album in general is that in each session, both saxists are really listening to one another, and always with excellent results. Perelman even uses some flutter-tonguing in take 5, which is quite unusual for him. A bit later in this same track, he actually plays a repeated rhythmic figure, acting as a walking bass for Liebman. In take 10, they exchange some “flying” figures before again settling down to lyrical statements. These aren’t so much like chase choruses as they are like each saxist feeling out the best way to accompany what the other is doing. At one point in this track, you even hear, very briefly, the opening notes of the “I Love Lucy” theme! Interestingly, take 4 almost has a swing beat, something I never thought I’d hear Perelman play. And he does it very well. Indeed, this entire set is marked by tremendous diversity in Perelman’s approach to accompanying his saxophone partner, and all of it is both fascinating and very diverse musically. Near the end of take 4a, Liebman gradually slows down the tempo and Perelman is right there with him, never missing a step. Even in the abstract pointillism of take 9, they are two minds operating as one.

The set with Tim Berne on alto sax is much more outré than the first two. The music, though somewhat lyrical in shape, uses many more microtones and thus freakier harmonic clashes, but even here there is a musical line running through each piece. And each improvisation is considerably longer than the ones that preceded them, running 12 minutes or longer, which means that there are only five tracks on the entire CD…and for once, they are presented in chronological order. This is a real “Beam me up, Scotty!” sort of album—yet there are, even here, some surprisingly lovely moments when both musicians pull back from the edge and create almost incredible two-part inventions that would have been the envy of a composer like Handel. (Not necessarily Bach, had Bach been more into mean-tone temperament.) Yet the music keeps veering off into microtones and buzzes on the reeds, particularly from Berne. Because of the greater length of these pieces, the musical structure sometimes breaks down into these freaky passages, but both musicians are so good that they always seem to be able to pick up again where they left off after the outside playing is done. Some of their playing, as in take 2, almost sounds like old cartoon music on acid, if you know what I mean. (This merry-go-round really broke down!) And yet, they still manage to find their way out of the musical labyrinths they create. The bottom line is that they trust each other implicitly and thus are willing to follow one another down their respective rabbit-holes—and back out again. The only performance I didn’t like was take 4, which isn’t much more than just holding long, squealing high notes for as long as their breath holds out, followed by disconnected, serrated figures, again primarily in the upper range.

The David Murray set is, if anything, even more abstract than the one with Berne. The famed tenor saxist of the World Saxophone Quartet plays bass clarinet here, and mostly in sharp angles and tongued notes. Both he and Perelman are all over the harmonic map in the opening take 2; it’s the aural equivalent of some of Picasso’s most far-out cubist paintings of the 1930s and ‘40s. What amazed me, however, is that Perelman is the one who pulls the music together as best he can to provide form while his musical partner is the “wild man” of this session. It’s almost as if Prelman is saying to Murray, musically of course, “Now, now, let’s not lose our heads here!” In the second track, which is actually take 1, both musicians play more slowly and a bit more lyrically; in this instance, the roles seem reversed. It is Perelman who is creating the melodic line while Murray fills in behind him, in this case with long-held low notes. One could argue that Murray’s role here is as a sort of basso continuo, but what actually happens is that each of these two musicians create their own lines that complement and contrast with each other…think of the Irving Berlin song from Call Me Madam, “I Wonder Why,” for a much simpler example of what I mean. But eventually this take, too, picks up in tempo and becomes a display of pointillistic figures played by both. This sort of contrast between abstract, atonal figures and surprising lyricism continues throughout the set. The best way I can describe this set is that it is played by two master free jazz improvisers who have matured to the point where they have nothing to “prove,” they just lean back and make real music. Even the most outré moments, as in take 4, eventually assume a structure of their own (there are a few moments on this track where Murray, playing in the bass clarinet’s altissimo register, almost sounds like a trumpet), and in take 5, Perelman plays surprisingly bluesy figures, introducing some rough, guttural notes reminiscent of King Curtis or Sam “The Man” Taylor.

Next up is Lotte Anker, playing both alto and soprano sax. If you thought some of the other sets were a bit weird, this one is even weirder, with Anker playing almost continual microtones, but once again it is Perelman who “grounds” the set in musical structures. His early studies in classical music clearly give him ideas in how to do this, and I was thrilled to hear how well he was able to incorporate Anker’s excursions into the overall fabric of the music.  In the second track, which is take 5, both musicians go out on a limb, but here Anker follows, to some extent, Perelman’s lead. In the third track, take 4, they indulge in some of the wildest and least structured music in this entire set; here, Perelman let himself be wrapped up in Anker’s angular atonality, I think, just a bit too much, although both tend to calm down and get into some really nice playing in the last two minutes. Track 4 (take 1) is also rather wild but has much more structure; in fact, this is one of the most complex musical structures on the entire album. It almost sounds as if there are four saxophonists creating complex cross-lines at such an incredible speed that they create almost a four-part atonal canon. But I would pose this question to my readers (and also, perhaps, to Ivo Perelman): is free improvisation of this sort, which includes absolutely no jazz rhythms or the usual signposts of jazz, to be considered jazz improvisation? Free improvisation, in and of itself, is not necessarily jazz. For me, at least, there must be at least the feeling of a jazz beat, as one heard in the Lovano, Liebman and Murray sets. Sometimes, European jazz musicians forsake a real jazz feeling for the intellectual exercises of creating complex structures spontaneously, but not all spontaneous music falls into the “jazz” category. This is not to belittle what Anker does here, with Perelman often following her lead, but this set is, to my ears, more of an experiment in fast playing in extended chords and atonal figures. Once in a while, Perelman will throw in a lick that is jazzy (as, for instance, very briefly in the middle of take 6), but this is a fleeting moment.

The CD with clarinetist Ken Vandermark picks up where the Anker set leaves off, at least in the first track. In the second, both musicians pull back from angular, cubist figures and again give us a more lyrical piece. This set also has the most “missing” takes; the highest number here is track 3, which is take 16, yet there are only 12 tracks in this set. Vandermark’s clarinet often sounds like a soprano sax or even a sopranino, as in take 16. The two musicians alternate angular, abstract structures with lyrical pieces, which adds variety to the program. In the faster, more complex pieces, however, Vandermark sounded much less coherent than Anker, as if he were just splattering notes up against the wall to see what would stick. There are some jazz fans who consider this sort of playing a form of genius. I am not one of them. There are just too many moments here in which Vandermark sounds like mice scurrying inside the walls of one’s house, thus I consider this the weakest album in the set.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Roscoe Mitchell play, and in this set he’s on baritone sax. As someone who was used to playing, sometimes, hour-long pieces with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the entire set here consists of only three very long pieces. The first, which clocks in at 13:16, sounds very much like an AEC performance: a few minimal notes played at the outset, to get things started, eventually expanding and building on them as the piece develops. Typical of an AEC piece, it also has a lot of “space” in the music, some of which is filled in by Perelman and some of which isn’t. Nonetheless, Mitchell’s playing is just enough to inspire Perelman without losing track of the long line of the music. Perelman is the lyrical player here, Mitchell more percussive in style, but they mix well and it works. Mitchell also gets a very good, full tone on the baritone, adding luster to his playing. At the 12:05 mark, the two saxists set up some nifty counterpoint. Much the same goes on in take 3 except that Perelman plays more “outside” on this one, and it’s a rather short piece at 8:03, but they make up for this on take 2, which lasts a whopping 39:40. This is the most abstract of the three, too: Mitchell offers Perelman just a few isolated, spaced-out notes on the baritone; Ivo responds with similarly terse but not as minimal responses. This, I think, was a particular challenge for Perelman—not that he isn’t a resourceful saxist, but that minimalism isn’t ordinarily his thing—but for the most part he responds very well, managing to fill in the spaces while still maintaining a musical “line.” I give him great credit for this; even moreso than his hectic, note-filled solos of the past, it really shows the depth of his musical knowledge and experience. It’s not so much a case of making a mountain out of a molehill as it is creating whole cloth out of a few musical threads. Once or twice he seems to be feeling his way along, not exactly unsure of himself but not decisive, but for the most part what he creates is a brilliant but skeletal structure. At around 18:15, Mitchell sets up a drone on a single low note (I didn’t have my pitch pipe out, but it sounded like a low E-flat) which he holds via circular breathing for nearly a half-minute before again starting to change the pitch. At the 31:30 mark, they become very abstract indeed.

Things get back on track in the strange but interesting set with Colin Stetson on contrabass sax and tubax. Unlike Mitchell, who in his set on bass sax created rhythmic lines, Stetson creates snaky figures, sometimes rather atonal and some using the sort of circular figures that John Coltrane cribbed from Nicholas Slonimsky’s book of etudes. Realizing that Stetson is feeding him a moving bass line, Perelman creates fascinating figures on the tenor that run somewhat counter to Stetson’s and sometimes complement him in opposing, running lines of his own, but again we hear, for the most part, interesting structures. Even in the second track (take 5), where Stetson, playing  very high in the tubax range, creates sustained buzzing notes, Perelman counters with some excellent, lyrical lines that try to gravitate towards tonality. Here it sounds more as if Perelman is letting Stetson operate on his own while he plays his own thing. There are some high, squealed notes here, which is Perelman’s trademark sound, but they are exceptions in a well-structured response to Stetson’s didgeridoo-like drones in the right channel. Near the midpoint of this rather long track (10:31), Stetson calms down, blowing soft, sustained notes in the low range of the contrabass sax while Perelman ruminates in his mid-to-low range, creating a quite lovely effect before both of them begin wailing in their high ranges (Stetson sounds as if he’s playing both instruments at once!), sounding like two angry elephants challenging each other. It gets rather freaky from this point on, mostly on Stetson’s side although Perelman also takes up the challenge and begins squealing overblown notes on the tenor. Yet even this music calms down in the middle and contains some fascinating improvised figures by both musicians. As the set continued, however, I wondered if Stetson could really do anything on his instruments except sound like an angry elephant.

Jon Irabgon plays a slide soprano sax (that’s a new one to me!) and sopranino sax on his set. The first track (take 6) is essentially a lot of noise from Irabagon with noble attempts by Perelman to give some form to the music. In fact, at one point when Irabagon stops screeching random notes, Perelman becomes quite lyrical, and Irabagon suddenly does, too, although in a way he satirizes what Perelman is doing by slurping around with portamento, making it sound like two drunks playing saxophones. Eventually, Irabagon returns to squealing on the sopranino sax but not quite as random and scattered as before, while Perelman keeps his cool. Fortunately, most of the remaining music in this set, though atonal, is not as shapeless as much of the first track, but in nearly every performance one notes that the two saxists are playing on complementary but quite different levels, and by and large I prefer Perelman’s playing except in track 3 (take 9) where he seems to give in to Irabagon’s excruciating musical distortions, thus I had ambivalent feelings towards this set leaning more towards negative than positive.(Sorry, but I do not consider spits and cackles, particularly when they don’t even sound like actual pitches, to be music.)

Although Vinny Golia also plays some unusual instruments—the soprillo (one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s axes), basset horn and alto clarinet, in addition to a standard clarinet—his music concepts are much closer to Perelman’s new aesthetics than the incoherent rantings of Irabagon and Vandermark. Yes, there is atonality as well as moments of microtonality, but Golia is clearly a musician well grounded in the basics of what makes music music and not just noise, and both he and Perelman create some fascinating figures, often opposing and contrasting rather than in the same vein but always interesting and producing intricate but interesting shapes. In the third track, for instance (take 8), both musicians also indulge in the sort of “drunken” microtonal sounds that Perelman and Irabagon played in the previous set, but here the two musicians listen more attentively to one another (rather than it being a one-way street with Perelman listening to Irabagon but not vice-versa), thus the results, though clearly rather weird, make sense and have a definite musical shape. Indeed, track 4 (take 5) is a study in low-register playing, mostly for Perelman but also at times for Golia. On take 6, Golia indulges in some circular figures, but they’re not the restricting chromatic circular figures of Slonimsky/Coltrane. These seem to be played on the alto clarinet, and much to my surprise, Perelman actually tries to emulate Golia’s timbre on the tenor with very interesting results. On track 6 (take 3) they exchange soft, descending figures, almost like the rustle of falling leaves, and here the music actually comes very close tonality. Track 7 (take 4) begins rather wildly, but within a few bars both musicians rein the music in and develop it in an interesting fashion. This is a very satisfying album, even in those few tracks where both musicians go a bit berserk, such as the last track, titled “mouthpiece,” where they got the wacky idea to set this to surface crackle in the background like an old phonograph record.

On the album with Joe McPhee, we finally get two tenor saxists and, for once, Perelman bats leadoff in the first track (take 8). He plays some really nice figures, a little reminiscent of the “Pink Panther” theme, and McPhee picks up on his vibe very well. The two saxists complement each other, with McPhee picking up the “Pink Panther”-like theme while Perelman plays some outside improvisations, but they both understand musical structure, thus the results are very satisfying. With that being said, take 3 is rather strange, with both men blowing air through their mouthpieces and Perelman singing along with his own playing—yet somehow, it all fits despite some sections in this piece that are rather freaky. Eventually, they get into exchanges of fast figures, then the music again calms down as Perelman plays some excellent improvised phrases and McPhee again picks up on his vibe. On track 4/take 4, they start out mellow, pick up the tempo, and then indulge in some atonal and overblown figures; a bit outré but not unclear or difficult to fathom despite both men singing some of those high notes. Track 6 (take 1) is the most abstract, but still musically interesting. For the most part, this is a mellow set, harking back to the music on the first two CDs. I really loved this one.

James Carter on baritone sax is the last one up, and this is the only set besides the Tim Berne one in which all of the takes are presented in chronological order. I was a little ambivalent on this one; some of the music is formless, some of it isn’t, and as I’ve said, abstract forms that don’t resemble anything like musical shapes just don’t interest me much. It just sounded to me that every time they finally hit on a musical shape, they lost interest in it (most of the time Carter, but not always) and decided to just scream out overblown notes. Yet they kept returning to music with some form. By and large, I preferred Perelman’s playing on this set to Carter’s, but Carter, too, responded with some elegant figures when he followed Perelman’s lead. Let’s just say that it has its moments, and those moments are fine ones, but by and large they seemed to be tearing things apart rather than trying to put them together. But, as I say, there are some very fine moments here, particularly when Perelman strikes out on his own, as in take 2, and lets Carter do whatever he wishes. Happily, this CD improves as the set continues; by track five I really started to like it. So let’s give it a 50-50 rating; it’s at least half excellent.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Here, then, are my overall impressions of this set. First and foremost, there is Ivo Perelman, who has reached a point in his career where he is now clearly one of the finest, if not the finest, avant-garde tenor saxist of his day. No longer having anything to prove and having honed his musical approach to a peak of near-perfection, largely through his long association with pianist Matthew Shipp, he is now not only a master of the high, fast, overblown phrases but also a master of musical form. The majority of what he plays on this entire set is either on a par with his last album with Shipp, Fruition, or, in my personal opinion, even better. Put simply, he is a master at the height of his powers.

Most of these duets show this mastery at its highest level. Even some of those in the sets I didn’t like, which were the Vandermark, Irabagon and first half  Carter albums, Perelman has moments of truly transcendent brilliance. And, in a project of this magnitude, two and a half out of 12 misfires isn’t a bad ratio.

But strictly from a marketing standpoint, I wonder at Mahakala Music’s decision to offer this set as an inseparable entity. True, Perelman’s most devoted fans will undoubtedly want it all, but what of the others? Of course, I don’t know if they will allow listeners to purchase individual albums from the set as downloads; I hope they do. I also don’t know if the anti-CD disease is now affecting jazz the way it’s infecting classical music. Naxos of America, the world’s largest distributer of classical albums, recently announced that physical CDs will no longer be available, even to most reviewers. Of course, tied into this is the idiotic “vinyl” craze, and this seems to be worse in the jazz world than the classical. There is absolutely no advantage to having music on a plastic LP rather than a plastic CD except that when you play the LP you hear the “warmth” of the vinyl swoosh in the background, which gives you the illusion of a warmer recording, and LPs pick up crackle, pops and hisses that CDs do not.

Even so, nine ½ out of 12 CDs of excellent music is a phenomenal ratio in the world of free jazz, thus on balance I recommend this set highly, though I caution listeners to not play these discs three or four per day as I had to do when reviewing them. In addition to creating a sensory overload, the music contained herein really does require all of your attention and patience in order to fully appreciate what is going on. This is most emphatically NOT background jazz listening. With those caveats, the majority of this set is very enthusiastically recommended.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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