Saxophonist Ivo Perelman’s trio projects show relationship between the senses

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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Free jazz saxophonist Ivo Perelman to release three albums in November

With the simultaneous release of three new albums, available Nov.  13, the relentlessly visionary saxophonist Ivo Perelman extends a remarkable period of artistic growth and “intense creative frenzy” that has consumed him since 2010. This whirlwind of activity has resulted in the release of 10 albums in less than three years, with another three already recorded and due in 2013-each impressively different from the rest, and each a prime example of spontaneous composition at its peak.

As with all of his documented music from the current decade, the new albums: Living Jelly, The Gift, and The Clairvoyant–involve collaborators who boast a long history and deep experience with the saxophonist’s utterly open-ended approach to improvised music. Perelman writes nothing down before entering the studio; once there, he avoids setting preconditions or even sharing an introductory theme for the performances that ensue. The music literally springs out of thin air, then pours down with the power and beauty of a rainforest thunderstorm.

“There are yet to be revealed layers of creativity in this man’s music,” writes Joe Morris in his liner notes to Living Jelly. “This recording displays a rhythmic layer that is quite strong and still personal-there are many manifestations of rhythm going on at once.”

Morris should know, since he’s right in the middle of it. Living Jelly revisits the personnel of the 2012 album Family Ties, but changes its instrumentation: Gerald Cleaver again plays drums, but Morris – who played bass on the earlier album – here plays guitar.

The difference is dramatic, as Morris himself explains in a news release, “The format without bass is one of my favorites. This platform leaves a space that never really gets filled; the placement of musical ideas around it defines its existence, like a vapor might outline a phantom. This setting, with these musicians, gives me the chance to play many roles at once. The grooves add an opportunity for me to use the sort of articulation that I worked to develop on guitar for decades.”

For his part, Perelman has an equally high regard for Morris’s work on guitar, having played the instrument himself before moving to the saxophone. “Joe has an uncanny ability to be an accompanist while making statements so logical and self-sufficient, I wouldn’t even have to be there,” he says. “This happens with other instruments, but not often with the guitar: the way it is constructed, if you look at the neck, it is very visual, very geometric; it lends itself to repetition and playing patterns. But Joe is very different. He’s not playing the guitar; he’s playing music on the guitar. If he played a trombone, it would be the same.”

Morris and drummer Cleaver both belong to Perelman’s current quartet. The remaining member of that band, pianist Matthew Shipp, figures prominently on the saxist’s other new albums, which follow a methodology he has used on several previous projects.

Over the last year or so, Perelman has investigated the inner dynamics of his quartet by exploding it into new configurations, forming trios that omit one of the rhythm-section player, for instance: sax-piano-drums or sax-bass-piano. On The Clairvoyant and The Gift, Perelman applies this technique to Shipp’s own trio, which comprises bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey. “We recorded these albums close to each other in time,” Perelman says, “and the difference is interesting. The trio with drums is a more visceral, rhythm-oriented ensemble; when you remove the drums and replace with the bass, it’s more of a trio de camera (chamber trio).”

Of the bassless trio heard on The Clairvoyant, Shipp writes in his liner notes: “This is my personal favorite equation to deal with Mr. Perelman in. Performing without a bass forces us to dig deep for coherence, thus developing ensemble shape-I love playing in quartet settings with Ivo, but playing without bass absolutely does not allow the music to ever fall into any prescribed roles of sax with a rhythm section.”

“Clairvoyance” may indeed explain what takes place between Perelman and Shipp, after a professional relationship spanning nearly two decades. “Ivo can latch onto a fragment of something I do, melodically or rhythmically, and a couple of decisions seem to be intuitively made by us very early and very quickly when improvising,” Shipp writes. “Whit, Ivo, and myself have an implicit trust to give ourselves over to the collective unconscious, the three of us knowing that the music will naturally shape itself.”

Describing his long history with Perelman, Shipp adds: “The music we make together is like taking a journey through an enchanted forest – there will be some pretty wild vegetation, and along the way, some never-before-seen trees saturating the air with fresh fragrance, not to mention some hybrid species that are new to the listeners. But they’ll become one with the music and chart their own course through this wild organic forest.”

The Gift, as Perelman says, has a quieter but no less compelling focus, as the saxist and pianist circle the rhythms implied by the bass (which, with the absence of drums, loom large despite remaining understated). The title reflects a counter-intuitive realization that speaks to the artist’s need for solitude before sharing his creativity with society. “The most precious thing to give is one’s loneliness,” Perelman explains. “I’ve lived two-thirds of my life in a self-imposed exile in a foreign country, the U.S., and I’ve learned how to deal with cultural isolation, and to make something meaningful and creative out of that.

“I feel my music mirrors that experience. My recordings are my loneliness; I spend countless hours alone, practicing and studying music. The music is my gift. But it comes from my loneliness.”

Lately, Perelman’s study has included a deeply focused immersion in music from the 16th and 17th centuries, and specifically, music written for the natural trumpet-the instrument used before the invention of valves. The natural trumpet required players to create all the notes just from varying the air pressure applied to the horn; the valves on a modern instrument reduce this effort considerably. “Someone once said that trumpet players should never start with valves,” Perelman points out. “When they start with a valved instrument, they think that the notes come from the valves. When you learn on natural horns, playing with ‘buttons’ is a walk in the park.”

Perelman has begun to apply the techniques of natural-trumpet playing to the saxophone, in order to gain even more command of the squeaky-high altissimo range-this despite his already unsurpassed mastery of the highest register. He has gone so far as to commission the construction of saxophones without any keys at all, training himself to play full scales using air pressure alone-something unheard of in the history of reed-instrument praxis.

Perelman began this line of research in the course of preparing the current crop of new albums; while the preliminary results peek through here, he doesn’t expect the impact to be fully evident for another year or two. “I always like challenges, and now I have the greatest one in my life,” he exults. “It’s a fundamental change in attitude.”

Born in 1961 in São Paulo, Brazil, Perelman excelled at classical guitar before finally gravitating to the tenor saxophone. In 1981 he entered Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he focused on the mainstream masters of the tenor sax to the exclusion of such pioneering avant-gardists as Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, and John Coltrane-all of whom would later be cited as precedents for Perelman’s own work. He left Berklee in 1983 and moved to Los Angeles, where he soon discovered his penchant for post-structure improvisation. “I would go berserk, just playing my own thing,” he explains now. Emboldened by this approach, he began to research the free-jazz saxists who had come before him, and in the early 90s he moved to the more inviting artistic milieu of New York, where he lives to this day.