Each of the three new recordings from Ivo Perelman – albums entitled Complementary Colors,Villa-Lobos Suite, and Butterfly Whispers (available October 30 via Leo Records) – exhibits a different approach to improvised music from the indefatigable Brazilian-born saxophonist. Each album represents a unique “first” for Perelman. For most artists, releasing three such iconoclastic forays at once would constitute a burst of the imagination, but Perelman is not most artists. He has documented his current creative fervor with nearly 25 albums over the last five years.
On the duo recording Complementary Colors, Perelman and his longtime collaborator, acclaimed pianist Matthew Shipp, explore the ties that bind the visual and the aural arts. In addition to his work as a groundbreaking improviser, exploring the outer limits of the saxophone’s tonal range, Perelman is also a prolific and respected visual artist, whose work hangs in collections across four continents; at the time of these releases, he was in Brazil, overseeing the third major exhibit of his paintings and drawings in his native land. But for all that, Complementary Colors represents the first time he has sought to unite these two aspects of his artistic vision.
Up until now, this has primarily manifested itself in his canvases. “I paint using musical impulses, translated, and transmuted into the shapes and colors,” he explains in a recent news release. “When I paint, I feel my synesthesia is rhythmic; I visualize a rhythm and it’s very strong in me.” From there, the rest of the painting takes shape: “The rhythmic structure almost dictates what the colors will be; the rhythms in my paintings ask for the colors – ‘This should be a red,’ for instance.” But on Complementary Colors, he applied the process in reverse, allowing the recorded playbacks to dictate the titles, based on the hues and mixtures that came to mind. And apart from any crisscrossed sense or extramusical pigments, the music itself occupies the high plateau achieved by Perelman and Shipp on their previous release, Callas, on which they attained a new level in their already telepathic musical communication.
On Villa-Lobos Suite, Perelman again discovered a deeper context for the music after it had been recorded: despite the fact that it bears the name of his countryman Heitor Villa-Lobos, this “suite” took shape without any preparatory study or even discussion of the man who is generally considered the 20th century’s leading Latin American composer of classical music. In fact, the project originally had another name altogether; it was only after Perelman listened back to the recording that he found qualities unexpectedly redolent of his youth, when as a classical guitar prodigy he studied Villa-Lobos’s music extensively. “That music is to me my second skin,” he says; haunting echoes of it bubbled from the raw mixes of the album.
What makes this recording unique in Perelman’s towering discography is the presence of not one but two viola players as his only accompanists. In recent years, the saxophonist has discovered a new musical soulmate in Mat Maneri, with whom he has worked on several noteworthy projects (starting with the score to the Brazilian film A Violent Dose Of Anything in 2014). But serendipitously, Perelman became acquainted with a second violist – the Canadian musician and author Tanya Kalmanovitch – when he heard Maneri playing an instrument borrowed from her. Perelman instantly fixated on the idea of performing with this small “string section”; in his words, “I suddenly had this idea – ‘What would be better than one viola?’ Having two violas! … I had never thought of such a thing, because I never thought there would be another Mat Maneri, a viola player someone so compatible with me. But two of Mat Maneri would be better than one!”
Thanks to the instrumentation, the performances on Villa-Lobos Suite have a classical, almost symphonic quality that helped inspire the album’s title; in addition, the violas’ presence evokes the saxophonist’s own ability to mimic the sounds, range, and even the textures of string instruments (which he has explored on previous albums with a string quartet, as well as with Maneri alone).
The third new release by Perelman, Butterfly Whispers, teams him with pianist Shipp and another frequent collaborator, drummer Whit Dickey. So what distinguishes this recording is not the particular personnel, but rather the overriding concept of the album as a unified piece of “program music” – an artistic concept that, in its attempt to invest instrumental performance with specific extra-musical meaning, could not differ more profoundly from Perelman’s own methodology of total spontaneity.
The titles of the individual pieces, supplied by Brazilian poet Diva Galvao – titles like “Pollen,” “Wet Land,” “Plowed Field,” and “Secret Garden” – suggest some hidden saga awaiting discovery. “Most modern listeners (myself included) shy away from attaching literal narratives to instrumental music,” writes Grammy-Award winning annotator Neil Tesser. “But on Butterfly Whispers, Perelman actively encourages us to do so – to make up our own stories to fit the music, whatever form those stories might take … It may also result from Perelman’s conscious decision to pare things down,” Tesser continues. “His improvisations have become shorter and correspondingly more focused: the tracks on Butterfly Whispers average less than five minutes, whereas albums from a few years ago often included tracks of two and three times that length. Here, he says, ‘I went for a more compositional approach, a more condensed way of distilling and presenting the ideas. I wanted to edit more the musical thought.'”
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