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Ivo Perelman has long embraced the improvised duo format — except with other saxophonists. With a sprawling guest list, his recent boxed set makes up for lost time.
“Maybe I am a grandiose maniac,” Ivo Perelman says, reflecting on his decision midway through 2021 to ask Mahakala Records to sponsor a project on which he would play spontaneously improvised duets with master practitioners of the woodwind and saxophone families. Released in late October, the ensuing Reed Rapture documents the 62-year-old São Paulo-born tenor saxophonist’s tabula rasa encounters with a multi-generational cohort on 16 different instruments: Lotte Anker soprano and alto saxophone; Tim Berne, alto saxophone; James Carter, baritone saxophone; Vinny Golia, soprillo, clarinet, basset horn, alto clarinet; Jon Irabagon, slide soprano saxophone, sopranino saxophone; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Joe Lovano C melody saxophone, F soprano saxophone; Joe McPhee, tenor saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell, bass saxophone; David Murray, bass clarinet; Colin Stetson, contrabass saxophone, tubax; and Ken Vandermark, clarinet.
“Each duo is different, and Ivo plays differently on all of them to a great degree,” says Berne, who had neither played with nor listened to Perelman before they entered the studio. A few months later he joined Perelman, Carter and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby on a sax quartet album titled (D)IVO (Mahakala). “That’s impressive to me. He’s not trying to make the other person feel comfortable. It sounds like he’s reacting in the moment to whatever the other person is doing, and plays with it. He doesn’t just do his thing. So none of it sounds contrived.”
“We played one piece after another, followed the sound and played off of each other’s ideas,” Lovano cosigned. “He has a beautiful approach and a beautiful range. He has a sound of his own. He’s an inspired player.”
Prior to 2018, Perelman’s discography — now 130 plus and counting — comprised almost entirely encounters with pianists, string players (cello, guitar, bass) and drums. “I felt intimidated to play with another saxophonist — that I wouldn’t be able to be myself or find space with two instruments with the same timbral nature occupying the same space at the same time,” he explains. In 2017, he recorded Philosopher’s Stone (Leo) with pianist Matthew Shipp and extended techniques trumpet maestro Nate Wooley, an increasingly frequent collaborator. In 2018, Perelman recorded with three bass clarinetists — Ned Rothenberg plays on four tracks on Strings 2 (Leo), so named for the presence of violinist Mat Maneri and cellist Hank Roberts, while Kindred Spirits and Spiritual Prayers (Leo) are duos with, respectively, Rudi Mahall and Jason Stein.
In parallel to these one-off projects, in 2014 Perelman embarked on a series of duos with pianists — Dave Burrell, Sylvie Courvoisier, Marilyn Crispell, Agustí Fernández, Vijay Iyer, Aruán Ortiz, Aaron Parks, Angelica Sanchez and Craig Taborn — collated on last year’s nine-CD set Brass & Ivory Tales (Fundacja Słuchaj). In 2017, Leo issued seven Perelman-Shipp duos titled for different moons in the solar system.
“For me, the duo format epitomizes the concept of jazz,” Perelman says. “The duo is the most intimate, visceral way to exchange musical ideas, particularly when I’ve never played with a person. There’s so much to talk about and discover and change as you do it — much as in a conversation. There’s no way to hide, to recede, to go to the foreground or background. It’s two transparent lines, simultaneously.”
Duo also offers pragmatic advantages — not least financial — in the realm of production. “To get what I wanted, I needed to investigate a lot of different scenarios,” Perelman says. “Quantity became king. That means recording a lot. Speeding up. Fomenting evolution. Fomentare. It’s a Latin word. I need to do be doing it. Maybe other musicians, once a year is enough. I need every week. I’m very intense. I’m always going to the next level, practicing.”
In line with this mindset, Perelman began to think about recording a saxophone duet. “But that wasn’t grand enough,” he says. “I wanted to have a definitive picture, to give future generations an idea of the individual potential of each horn. That was the inception trigger. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, 12 is a magic Kabbalah number.’ No, no. I wanted to have all the horns. Then I would say, ‘That’s it; I will not be curious about the saxophone duet ever again.’ I was inviting all these players and they were all saying yes.”
Upon hearing Perelman’s pitch, Mahakala’s owner, Chad Fowler — himself an outcast saxophonist and software developer-venture capitalist who started the label on funds gleaned after Microsoft purchased the task management app Wunderlist (for which he’d served as Chief Technology Officer) in 2015 — asked for time to reflect. “As crazy as it sounded, Chad could not say no,” Perelman says.
“I’d been telling Ivo I was going to start producing less stuff and slow down production,” says Fowler, who plays alto sax on a forthcoming Mahakala saxophone quartet session with Perelman and veteran speculative improvisers Dave Sewelson and Sam Newsome. “So when he started talking about it, I thought this would be pretty expensive and time-consuming. But Ivo mentioned Dave Liebman, who’s a huge influence on me — almost all you have to say is his name to get me interested. As we went through the names, I was in awe that I could touch something like this. I feel it’s a historic document of a point in time with a lot of the older, more influential saxophonists and reed players around today. It ended up being a quick decision.”
At the time, Fowler, who recorded 17 — yes, 17 — other Perelman projects in 2021-22, was no stranger to Perelman’s m.o. They first interacted after Fowler heard Callas (Leo), a rhapsodic, scratch-improvised 2015 recital with Shipp, Perelman’s recording partner on more than 40 occasions in duo, trio and quartet configurations. “I was so moved, I reached out to him,” Fowler recalls.
“Ivo’s early stuff was flashy and aggressive — and really appealing,” Fowler says. “You could listen to him and objectively say, ‘This is a badass saxophone player.’ He’s still got those skills, but now he’s reeled all that in. His playing has evolved to this unique vocal, lyrical, sweet quality, which I can’t compare to any other saxophonist. He has remarkable control over intervals and extended register, he’s worked for decades on tone production. When you stand next to him or hear him in person, you immediately hear that his sound is so big and remarkable. He’s clearly constantly playing the horn.”
“I practice like a madman,” Perelman corroborates. “I am so anal, so obsessive. I practice detail in fractions of seconds. But I am nothing but freedom when I play. I don’t care if it comes out this way or that way. I’m watching myself play and watching the sounds take shape.
“Some guys love playing solos. Steve Lacy. Evan Parker. I don’t. It’s boring. I feel I’ll be regurgitating my own thoughts. What’s the fun? I like to dialogue musically. I like to have at least one person, or a whole band, or some grand structure. For me, lonely time is practice. That I take very seriously. I have to be alone. I have to have my practice time daily. It’s my lab.”
[caption id="attachment_53586" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Photo: Peter Gannushkin.[/caption]
Perelman has titled several albums after the novels of the Jewish Ukraine-born Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose narratives detail the nuances of consciousness in microscopic increments. “She was very abstract, creative, free, with a fascinating, convoluted thought process,” he says. “Just as with a saxophone, the thought process is a writer’s core; the words and the pen are just tools. Lispector freezes time and enables you to meditate in a vacuum about what you’re doing. She detaches you from reality in a delirious way — and playing for me is just that.”
This truth became ever clearer to Perelman during the late 1990s, when he developed tendinitis from overly assiduous practicing. He began to work on producing sound from the body rather than the fingers. Using Sigurd Raschèr’s treatise on the altissimo register, Top-Tones for the Saxophone, as a lodestar, he devised exercises to finely calibrate his embouchure towards the aspiration, as Perelman puts it, of “exhausting the possibilities of the harmonic series — the smaller notes within the note. I pretended I was a brass player. I would have never done it if I didn’t have to. No saxophonist in his sane mind would do what I did. It’s maddening. It’s no fun. It’s hard work. It’s dry. But it was that or getting crazy — because without music I would go mad. I did it for a few years. Then it was too late to stop. I was hooked. And I still do it every day.”
During these years, “forced to investigate other ways of self-expression,” Perelman began to paint. He delved into visual art with an immersive fervor equivalent to his musical practice, and eventually began to have exhibits and sell paintings. “I conceptualize art and music through similar frames,” he says. “The components and language are different, but it’s the same root process, which is manipulating the life force, the energy — after all, light and sound are different materializations of energy. Beneath the cerebellum, in the part of the brain that’s still primal and pre-reptilian, sound and light are just energy. Later, we started to evolve and differentiate, partly for pragmatic reasons. When you see a lion, it’s a materialization of energy that can devour you and you die, so you run. When you see fire, the same. When you hear sounds, you know there are [birdsongs] that serve different functions. But I was forced to access that primal part of the brain, and it enriched my playing a lot.”
He references a trio album he’d made the day before with Shipp and cellist Lester St. Louis, to be issued in early 2023 on ESP. “I felt it as we played,” Perelman says, gesturing with his arms as though splashing paint on a canvas. “Matthew and Lester were priming the canvas. The recording came out … like … unique. It’s not just another CD. It’s new music. It really is.”
Perelman’s unfailing enthusiasm for his projects raises the question of criteria: In a genre predicated on spontaneous interplay, how do you determine whether an encounter is successful? “It’s highly subjective,” he responds. “Almost always when I hear someone, after the second note, I know if I’m going to be successfully creating with this musician, and I make the phone call or send the email. The specific criteria springs off that concept, which is spontaneity, egoless exchange, to be at the service of music, to create something where ego is not part of the equation. A drop of ego will pollute the environment. Of course, the human idiosyncrasy is that all we do is about and for ego. So it’s a dialectic way of making art — huge ego and no ego at all. I save my soul by acting this way, because I have a huge ego, like all my partners have. I’m here talking to you because we have that cathartic process through which we delete ourselves — at least for an hour.
“This process saved my life. I am functional. I am a cooperating member of society. I haven’t killed anybody.”
Asked about his next steps, Perelman says, “I am still enjoying the aftermath of this box. It was so transformative. It was a lot to take in. Twelve accomplished masters sharing creative space with me. Twelve moments of truth. I internalized a lot of their history, for which I am eternally grateful. They were very generous.”
Then he mentions a soon-to-come six-CD release of further string encounters, and a yet to be actualized bossa nova project. “Whatever I do with whoever, I am still the 12-year-old boy in Brazil learning the Torah and writing and singing bossa nova songs,” he says. “Internally, I am trying to sing and play a bossa nova with the beautiful João Gilberto chords and the rhythm. The format of bossa nova is too restrictive for the burning fire inside me — though I am still trying. But I built a system to negotiate the delirious artist in me. I expanded the concepts and the limits and the outer structure, to the point that I maximized my saxophone potential. I’m trying to do what Albert Ayler did. He takes it to the limit. He goes for the jugular. He wants to make that thing scream. I’m going for the nooks and crannies, the nuances hidden inside the harmonic series, the little details that only the turbulence we create with our air column can create inside a saxophone. I’m a scientist in a way. But deep down, I am just trying to play a beautiful bossa nova song.” - Ted Panken
[caption id="attachment_53585" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Photo: Peter Gannushkin.[/caption]
Featured photo by Celso Oliveira.