Over the course of nearly 100 recordings under his own name, tenor saxophone savant Ivo Perelman had previously recorded only once in the company of another reed player -- in 2005, in a quartet that paired him with Louis Sclavis on bass clarinet. Now, in his latest exploration of sonic colors and instrumental pairings, Perelman has tripled that output with the release of two quietly spectacular albums, Kindred Spirits and Spiritual Prayers (August 24 via Leo Records). However, instead of a quartet format, Perelman and each of his bass-clarinet partners work as a duo, which magnifies and enhances the relationship of these closely related but still disparate horns.
The idea to record a series of albums with bass clarinetists took shape in the summer of 2017. At that time, the restlessly creative Perelman had begun work on what will become a series of more than 20 albums featuring improvisers from the violin family (including viola and cello); nonetheless, he was already looking ahead to a next challenge. He had a specific criterion in mind for selecting bass clarinet collaborators. In addition to embracing Perelman’s modus operandi of total spontaneity -- improvisation without any written music, tempo cues, or predetermined structure -- they would have to be bass clarinet “purists,” in Perelman’s description: artists who work on that instrument exclusively, as opposed to the overwhelming majority of reedists who use it as a second (or more likely third) option in their improvising.
He ended up with a short list, finding only two such improvisers known for their single-minded devotion to the bass clarinet: Rudi Mahall, based in Germany, and Jason Stein, a mainstay on Chicago’s seemingly inexhaustible new-music scene. But these two sessions sufficed to whet Perelman’s appetite for working with other woodwind artists in the future. “This means so much in my development as an artist,” Perelman says, “considering that I’ve built my career so far by playing mainly with piano, bass, drums, and strings. Playing with another reed instrument opens up so many possibilities.”
Much of this has to do with the common bonds between tenor sax and bass clarinet. Both are single-reed aerophones, in the same key (B-flat), that traverse a similar timbral range. They share similarities in articulation, fingering, and embouchure, and also in the way these techniques can be combined to produce the altissimo notes, above the written notation, that Perelman has especially mastered. But the success of this project also depends on the unique connections forged by Perelman with Mahall (on Kindred Spirits) and Stein (on Spiritual Prayers) -- each of whom met Perelman less than 24 hours before they stepped into the studio.
In the case of Mahall -- famed for his work with Globe Unity Orchestra, as well as a long association with new-music pianist Aki Takase -- Perelman discovered a fraternal bond between outsiders. Mahall grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, and Perelman hails from São Paolo, Brazil; says the saxophonist, “We are both foreigners. We both grew up outside American jazz.” So even though each of them would eventually discover, embrace, and then transcend the “jazz tradition,” neither of them heard very much of that tradition in their formative years. For Perelman, this proved revelatory, particularly when working with another reedist who, like himself, trained extensively in classical music (Mahall on soprano clarinet, Perelman on guitar and cello).
Five days after the whirlwind session yielding the double-disc Kindred Spirits with Mahall, Perelman went back to the studio with Stein to record the single-disc Spiritual Prayers, and again forged an unexpected connection. While neither of them observes his religion in any formal sense, both are Jews with familial roots in Russia and Eastern Europe; this coincidence did not go unnoticed by either of them.
“Playing with Jason felt like reverentially, respectfully praying with another rabbi,” Perelman says. “Not that I’ve done that before -- my last synagogue experience was my bar mitzvah! -- but I have this clear memory of me and my father, the rabbi and the minyan, and the seriousness of that moment came back to me when I was playing.” For his part, Stein says, “There are things about Ivo that reminded me of my grandfather” -- small gestures, his way of going about his business -- “and that just cultivated a sense of ease and familiarity. It’s hard to point to a connection in terms of direct musical experience. But we both have this shared Jewish heritage, coming from a Russian-Polish lineage, and that feeds into the music.”
Although each album comprises freely improvised duets for the same instrumentation, they really have only that in common, owing to the striking differences between the bass clarinetists. Mahall, steeped in not only classical music but also the European avant-garde, imparts an old-world elegance to Kindred Spirits, even in guttural passages and moments of furious abandon. Stein embodies a grittier new-world boldness, and a rawboned swagger particular to Chicago jazz in all its manifestations, from the early trade players through the adventurers who formed the AACM in the 60s and the avant-garde renaissance of the 21st century. Together, they constitute a new chapter in Ivo Perelman’s musical biography, one in which the intimacy between similar instruments yields some of the most affecting music in his extensive catalog -- even if it rigorously resists categorization.
Born in 1961, Ivo Perelman played several instruments before finally adopting the tenor saxophone. Entering the Berklee College of Music in 1981, he focused on the mainstream masters of the tenor sax, as opposed to such pioneering avant-gardists as Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, and John Coltrane – all of whom would later be cited as precedents for his own work. Perelman left Berklee in 1983 and moved to Los Angeles, where he 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 saxophonists who had come before him, and in the early 90s he moved to the more inviting artistic milieu of New York.
Since 2010, he has immersed himself in a “creative frenzy” that shows no sign of diminution; he has recorded more than 30 albums in just the last three years. His impassioned, expressionist approach to the tenor sax continues to captivate (and often mystify) critics and fans, as do his specific performances, vivacious and hyperkinetic, with a variety of like-minded improvisers. Critics have called him “one of the great saxophone virtuosi” and “one of the world’s most prominent avant-garde jazzmen,” and the composer-conductor-scholar Gunther Schuller praised him as “a unique genius” working within “an entire new school of jazz.”
Perelman also maintains a separate career as a visual artist, producing a steady stream of abstract drawings and paintings that have attracted admirers worldwide. He now splits his time between New York, his home for more than 25 years, and São Paulo, Brazil.