It’s been almost a year since Ivo Perelman has issued a new recording. For most artists, that would represent a normal release schedule; for Perelman, who had produced 20 or so albums in the previous four years, it marks a significant gap in his creative output. Now come three new albums (Callas is a double-CD) at once, which for most artists would signify an attempt to catch up after the year’s inactivity. For Perelman, however, it merely returns him to his regular schedule.
Perelman’s latest collection of simultaneous releases, all on Leo Records, celebrate artistic heroes new and old, and musical relationships that fall somewhere in the middle. Taken together, they capture much of this remarkable artist’s range of technique, emotion, and imagination; any one of them, taken separately, stands as a significant addition to his by now overwhelming discography. They also announce to the listening public that, after a significant physical crisis, Perelman is back in full force.
In 2014, Perelman began to experience pain and bleeding from his mouth. Thinking this signified dental problems, he arranged to visit his native Brazil for oral surgery. But before his trip, he learned that the problem actually originated in his larynx, which had suffered damage from Perelman’s preternatural reliance on, and mastery of, the tenor saxophone’s altissimo register – the extremely high notes above the instrument’s written range. Perelman has made the use of these notes an integral part of his hyper-expressive, enormously flexible saxophone style; indeed, he has brought a previously unimagined command and control to these timbral frontiers. Perelman discovered that his methodology had stressed the larynx; moreover, the stress bore a distinct similarity to that experienced by vocalists, and specifically operatic singers.
Temporarily putting aside the saxophone, Perelman began to contact singers who had suffered the same condition. “I started to take voice lessons, and lessons in breathing technique – and I started to heal,” he explains. “If I hadn’t done this, I would not be able to play the way I want, and to continue to grow. Now I breathe as if I were a singer; I think as if I am a singer.” By incorporating these changes, and by reconstructing his embouchure, Perelman soon healed (and without the services of a dentist). During this time, he began listening intently to opera, and eventually to the recordings of Maria Callas, the “new hero” that inspired his double-CD Callas, featuring Perelman’s longtime collaborator Matthew Shipp on piano.
Each of the utterly spontaneous duo performances in this set bears the name of a character portrayed by Callas, the Greek-American diva whose meteoric and tumultuous career in the 1950s remains the stuff of artistic legend. Among the title protagonists brought to mind by these improvised arias are Medea, Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, and Aida, as well as Mimi from La Bohéme and Rosina from Barber of Seville. Perelman’s music has always displayed an almost operatic nature, in its grand emotions and in the epic proportions of his improvisations. But now, as he points out, the influence of Callas has given his sound “a subtle new vocal quality.
“We saxophonists have this thing with reeds: ‘You’re only as good as your reed.’ The free-flowing perfection of a perfect reed is like nirvana for us. And Callas is like the perfect reed, the perfect vibration, because of the perfect use of her vocal apparatus, brought about by her superhuman dedication. This has deeply affected my approach.” For Ivo Perelman, Maria Callas is more than a “new hero,” and her music more than a helpmate in his recovery; she has become a soulmate across centuries. “I fell in love with her,” he says, “It’s as if know her. I know what she felt; the feelings she had, I have felt.”
Whether because of Callas or due to his joy in the resumption of performing, Perelman’s saxophone creations have perhaps never had more emotional resonance. What’s more, on this album his collaboration with Shipp has achieved a new high point in what was already a stunning example of musical clairvoyance. Shipp’s relationship to Perelman has previously been described as “the Lewis to his Clark” on a “shared expedition of discovery.” On Callas, it goes even further, in the words of Leo Records founder Leo Feigin, who writes: “Nobody sounded like this before. These are not just free improvisations; it is a kind of new genre. It is not two people playing but one. It is more than telepathy – so organic, so natural.”
“Old heroes” inhabit Perelman’s Tenorhood, on which Perelman again operates in the duo format – this time with drummer Whit Dickey – as he pays homage to many of the tenor-sax giants who influenced him. Among those honored in the program: Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler. As with the pieces on Callas, each of these entirely improvised creations received its namesake title after the fact: as the saxophonist listened to the playbacks, these ghosts of jazz history came to mind. “I had been thinking about all these top tenor saxophone players that I like, but in a historical perspective,” he explains, “and about how flexible the tenor saxophone is, that it can accommodate such huge changes throughout the decades. It has to with the construction of the tenor: the huskiness of the lower range, and its unlimited potential for altissimo playing.
“As time goes on, I keep listening more and more to those masters, and I keep going back further. I hear a lot of this history in my playing. I don’t know if listeners hear it, but I wanted to shed a light on that. The hidden romantic, the Brazilian player, the bebopper, Albert Ayler – they’re all in there, and by presenting these pieces, it brings them up to the surface. And even those who don’t agree with me will realize that I come out of a vast and deep tradition.”
Perelman recorded Tenorhood in the summer of 2014, shortly before he discovered the source of the health problems that required him to mothball his saxophone and rebuild his technique. It marks the fifth album on which Perelman has worked with Whit Dickey, whom the saxophonist first encountered as the drummer in Matthew Shipp’s quartet. By employing this rhythmically expansive and timbrally inventive drummer as his only collaborator on this disc, writes GRAMMY®-winning author Neil Tesser in the album notes, Perelman “alludes to how these two instruments [saxophone and drums], working in tandem, have helped shape so many of the greatest bands in jazz’s century-long history.”
The last album in this triple-release was (like Callas) recorded after Perelman’s return to laryngeal health. It reunites Perelman with one associate of long standing – the gifted guitarist (and bassist) Joe Morris, with whom the saxophonist has recorded a half-dozen times – and a more recently-acquired creative companion, violist Mat Maneri (with whom he had recorded twice). On Counterpoint, Perelman engages this unusual combination of instruments to form a unique sonic matrix – one in which three melody instruments interact without the benefit of traditional percussion (bass, drums) or piano, Perelman has almost never recorded with guitar, despite the fact that he himself started on that instrument as a child. “This combination, with viola and guitar – I’ve never before used this particular grouping,” Perelman states, with a mix of wonder and pride. “I knew it would be challenging, with dense textures and this three-part counterpoint. I set it up so I would be challenged – so it wouldn’t sound like me. And it doesn’t.”
Joe Morris, in his liner notes to Counterpoint, elaborates on that statement. “It’s not possible to play saxophone, guitar and viola with the density of a piano, bass, and drums combination. And therefore it’s not necessary to bother trying. Instead it’s necessary to listen very carefully and try to place your contribution exactly where it will be most effective. In this setting much of the music is dictated by the demands of the instrumentation.” Morris also reminds listeners that while Perelman may never have played in this setting, both he and Mat Maneri have – some two decades ago, when the trio was rounded out by Maneri’s father, the saxophone iconoclast Joe Maneri. “Mat and I haven’t performed in this particular setting – as a trio with a horn – since that time,” writes Morris, “so this session was a chance for us to revisit it with fresh ideas and a new third member.”
Throughout the album, a number of textures and strategies emerge from the “demands of this instrumentation.” At times, the guitar, viola, and sax seem to create a three-horn chorale, at others a string trio; frequently, the players shift alliances, as any two become a transitory “section” backing the third. It is in the swirl of these modalities – unison and polyphony; harmony and dissonance; horn chorales and string trios – that the underlying counterpoint of this music fully emerges.
“Impassioned, unfettered, expressionist, Perelman’s approach to the tenor sax – like the vivacious, hyperkinetic improvisations he creates – comes as close to sui generis as you will find in a music that often seems in the grip of increasingly homogenous horn players,” Neil Tesser writes in the liner notes to Counterpoint. Such accolades have come rushing in over the last two decades, as Ivo Perelman has continually sought new territory in his quest for more and deeper sounds.
Born in 1961 in São Paulo, Brazil, Perelman was a classical guitar prodigy who orbited a series of other instruments before finally gravitating to the tenor saxophone. His initial influences – cool jazz saxophonists Stan Getz and Paul Desmond – hardly prepared him for the galvanic, fiery, rule-breaking improvisations that have become Perelman’s stock-in-trade. Even after moving to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music in 1981, Perelman concentrated on the mainstream masters of the tenor sax, to the exclusion of such pioneering avant-gardists as Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, and John Coltrane. (Critics would later cite all of these as precedents for Perelman’s own work). He left Berklee after a year or so and moved as far from Boston as possible – to Los Angeles, where he studied with mainstream vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake, at whose monthly jam sessions Perelman discovered his penchant for post-structure improvisation. “I would go berserk, just playing my own thing,” he explains now.
Emboldened by this approach, Perelman at last began to research the free-jazz saxophonists who had come before him. In the early 90s – shortly after recording the first of the 55 albums now under his name – he moved to New York, a far more inviting environment, for not only free-jazz experimentation, but also for the drawings and paintings that have attracted admirers worldwide to his skill as a visual artist. Since 2010, he has been immersed in a period of “creative frenzy” that has yielded more than 25 recordings and shows no sign of diminution.