CD 1: Improvisations Nos. 1-12. Available for digital download at https://smprecords.bandcamp.com/album/triptych-1-digital-release
CD 2: 2 Improvisations, titled Side A and Side B. Available for digital download at https://smprecords.bandcamp.com/album/triptych-2-digital-release
CD 3: 2 Improvisations titled Side A and Side B. Available for digital download at https://smprecords.bandcamp.com/album/triptych-3-digital-release / Ivo Perelman, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno / SMP Records, also available as a combined CD-LP-cassette release, no number.
The Ivo Perelman-Matthew Shipp collaboration, which began two decades ago and has shown no sign of abating, is the most interesting and productive in the entire history of free jazz. Throughout their time together—at least half of which seems to be spent in the recording studio, turning out records for at least five different labels—they have refined and distilled their talents to a peak of perfection that is not only rare but unique in the free jazz world. Although both musicians have roots in classical music, Perelman as a rule abandons form in pursuit of the most extreme chord positions within his playing, while Shipp, though highly inventive in his own right, never completely abandons standard tonality—his chords often bring Perelman back into recognizable harmonic territory—or the concept of musical form. His playing almost always “goes somewhere,” thus over the years the two musicians have gravitated closer and closer to one another. The results have thus grown from their earlier experiments (some of them available on multi-CD sets from Leo Records) to their outstanding “Fruition” album on ESP-Disk, which I was privileged to review a year before it was released. This set is their latest collaboration.
In my email interview with Perelman and Shipp, the love and respect they have for each other is evident. In regards to this specific release, Perelman told annotator Hrayr Attarian that “We seem to keep developing in parallel for decades now so we never get tired of playing together, we are always avoiding comfort zones , it is always a thrill and a very rewarding experience for us to play music together.”
The reason for the strange titles of their duo-improvisations stems from the fact that SMP Records is planning to release this set not only as digital downloads, as noted in the header above, but also as a combined CD-LP-Cassette format. I really can’t say why the label is going to such extremes for this release, excellent though the music is. Although I know that there is, for some unexplained reason, a market for vinyl LPs (particularly in the jazz world, but also, it seems, in the classical field), I don’t know a single person who still collects cassette tapes. The cassette format died out even quicker than LPs once the CD revolution took effect in the mid-1980s. But such is life. The shortest set is the second, which consists of only two long tracks of a little over 15 minutes each. This is intended to be the cassette portion of the physical release.
So, on to the music.
In all my previous reviews of Perelman-Shipp collaborations, I went into great detail describing exactly what they were doing, but since I now have limited vision and need to conserve my computer time, I will have to be much briefer in my comments. This does not mean, however, that I appreciate their work together any less, only that I need to keep my reviews shorter.
Even from the very first improvisation on CD 1, it is obvious that they’ve picked from where Fruition left off. Warm, lyrical pieces, like the very first, are interspersed with more abstract and angular ones like th second, yet there is considerable “outside” playing in the first just as there is form and substance in the second. There’s just something very satisfying in listening to them go at it together—two musical minds that think as one. Among earlier jazz musicians, the only parallels I can draw with their work are the few chase choruses played by Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, the many Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker collaborations, the work of tenor saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and the synergy that existed between Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. In a more modern context, the work of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry should also be held up as an example of this sort of thing. Gillespie often referred to Parker as “the other side of my heartbeat,” and to my mind this phrase also applies to Perelman-Shipp.
Since these tracks are numbered sequentially, I would assume that they are presented in the order in which they were recorded. If so, they give as good an indication as any of how their musical minds work. By track three, they are so completely attuned to each other that every note and gesture by both musicians carries its own mood and feeling. Even the repetitious pattern played by Perelman towards the end of this track somehow fits in. Shipp’s longer-than-usual solo introduction to track four sets up a nice set of ideas for Perelman to take off on, and when the saxist decides to take it to an edgier level, Shipp is right there with him, willing to abandon the form with which they started in order to present more rhythmically and harmonically edgy figures. On this track, too, Perelman creates some remarkable upward-arching atonal figures, yet immediately after settles into harmonically stable territory…and Shipp is right there to catch him, like a safety net following a remarkably daredevil trapeze artist.
Shipp’s penchant for “filling in” missing harmonies in Perelman’s extempore playing stems back to his admiration for such earlier jazz pianists as Jaki Byard, who he told me in an email once was a player he admired who was vastly underrated. This in itself makes him different from such an avant-garde pianist as Cecil Taylor, a stunning virtuoso whose style was built around creating elaborate structures but leaving out the walls and floors of said structures. Charles Mingus was famously quoted as saying “You can’t improvise on nothing.” Shipp has taken this principle to heart, and his playing in turn keeps Perelman on at least some kind of track. Musical reference points are important, even in free improvisation.
As annotator Attarian has also pointed out, there are several moments in these tracks where Shipp’s playing is informed by the blues, something that most avant-garde pianists (and especially Taylor) generally bypassed. After several years of listening to Perelman now, one thing that strikes me is that his overblown high notes are always played loudly, with maximum force, whereas his warm, breathy playing, similar in sound to that of Ben Webster, is always played softly and in the lower register. I wonder about this. Could he possibly play those extended high notes more softly? They would surely be more effective with some difference in volume. Yet in tack ten in this first volume, he does play exactly two high notes in a mezzo-forte. I hope that he considers varying his high-range volume in subsequent performances.
As noted earlier, the playing time of Vols. 2 & 3 of this set are much shorter than Vol. 1 although the tracks themselves are much longer. In Vol. 2, Side A runs 18:58 and Side B runs 17:29. In Vol. 3, Side A runs 15:36 and Side B runs 15:22. With so much time to stretch out in, I was a little worried that these pieces, though probably containing some excellent moments, would not feel as structured as the shorter pieces in Vol. 1. Side A of Vol. 2 opens as a sad, forlorn piece, full of melancholy and sparse notes from both artists. It also presents us with an almost regular rhythm and is generally quite tonal. Interestingly, Ivo uses some pitch wavering, which I found very interesting, and this dolorous mood continues for several minutes. Although Perelman does eventually toss in some of his high-note squeals, there is a surprisingly long line in the music and it does indeed evolve although not in a conventional way. At about the 4:40 mark they increase the tempo considerably, with Shipp playing some roiling bass figures behind the saxist, but for the most part the pianist really does act more as an accompanist in this track. Around the 6:10 mark, things do get rather wild, but Perelman pulls back on both tempo and mood as Shipp expertly guides him back into the feeling of the opening section. Perelman creates some incredible “snaky” lines on his horn as Shipp largely comps behind him, occasionally throwing in little melodic cells and ideas to keep the flow going. The generally slow pace and seemingly less complex construction of this piece are deceiving; it would take a conventional composer at least a few weeks to come up with these musical ideas that Perelman tosses off spontaneously.
At about the 11-minute mark, Shipp’s playing becomes busier and eventually faster in tempo. At this point there is real duo-interaction between the two musicians. Then, at 12:20, the piece just stops. We think it is over, but no: a couple of seconds later, they pick up from where they left off, adding further variants. In a way, however, I felt that some of this section (but not all of it) was a little too much of a good thing, if you know what I mean, despite a lively uptempo section in which Shipp’s insistent ostinato chords prod Perelman into further explorations.
Side B is also a slow, relaxed piece, but here it closer resembles a pop ballad more than a sad, slow piece. (I sometimes wonder how Ivo would sound playing standards, just for a change.) An interesting feature of this performance is the way Perelman creates his own rhythmic world of sound against Shipp’s nearly continuous ostinato playing. Around the four-minute mark, Perelman really gets into some freaky, complex rhythms, following which he plays a chorus primarily (but not entirely) in his warm middle range. I did, however, feel that the various sections of this piece were more episodic and not developed with as much shape or direction as Side A. Just my own personal feeling, no offense intended towards the artists. Some sections, such as the one just before the 9:18 mark, wee quite good, and much to my surprise Shipp takes a solo of his own after this point for about 40 seconds. Yet I could not escape the feeling that this track consisted of some excellent “moments” that were more juxtaposed than continuously developed. Not so much a “string of pearls” as a rebus puzzle with various unrelated objects pushed together, interesting though many of those objects may be, although Shipp in particular did his level best to attempt continuity.
The piece in Vol. 3 on Side A begins like an alternate take of the previous Side A piece, though not quite as sad-sounding, yet it quickly morphs into a much more uptempo piece. Shipp prods Perelman with an alternating two-note figure in the bass, followed by clipped ostinato chords and then by some fairly wild, Cecil Taylor-like figures. The pianist is more fully engaged in the creative process on this track. A little past the five-minute mark, Shipp’s clipped minimalist figures prompt Perelman to join in before the saxist takes the music off in a different and very freaky direction. This is some of the most intense playing in the entire Triptych as well as some of the most fascinating music. The duo also manages to create more linear continuity in this piece, all of the various parts sounding like logical outgrowths of what has already transpired. This one had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish, though most of the variations herein are more rhythmic than harmonic.
The last track is one of the most abstract pieces in the entire album, a free fantasy that sounds somewhat tonal but has no real tonal center. This is due to Shipp’s playing of largely “rootless” chords which center around certain pitches despite seldom being resolved. By this point in their relationship. however, Perelman has been so well grounded by the piano chords that Shipp normally feeds him that he can keep himself somewhat grounded as well. This makes this track less shapely in form but, thanks to Shipp’s highly creative playing, never really formless. One musical idea follows another in rapid succession, but the music never gets completely out of hand. I wish that Perelman could produce a rounder, less pinched sound in his upper register, but other than that I had no issues with the duo’s musical progression.
Triptych is, to my ears, a more extended and risk-taking project than Fruition, which I still consider their finest collaboration ever, but more often than not the risks pay off. Just be prepared to pay closer and more prolonged attention to what they are doing here. Your patience will be well rewarded.
—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley
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