I’ve had these two CDs (and several others) by Brazilian saxophonist (and painter) Ivo Perelman sitting in my apartment for months. His 20th anniversary as a recording musician passed by not long ago with little comment from the jazz press—I tried to get a feature on him into one of the magazines I write for without success. The various new(ish) releases, about eight in all, featured Perelman in various groups, from a large ensemble to duos and trios, each showcasing his voice in a slightly different way. Though one of these two is from 2009, and the other from this year, they’re linked by the presence of drummer Brian Willson (even though his name is misspelled, with only one “l,” throughout Mind Games).

I haven’t listened to Perelman’s music in many years; at one point, I owned his 1996 album Cama da Terra, a Homestead Records release with Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, and no drummer. (That album was somewhat notable for being the final Homestead title; the label’s manager, Steven Joerg, soon left to form AUM Fidelity. This superb Magnet article tells the label’s whole story, good, bad and ugly.) I remember very little about it, other than a vague impression of skronkiness and abstraction. Shipp was in a somewhat brutalist phase at that point, so I doubt it was a particularly subtle record, but there was at least one ballad, even if it was one played with Ayler/Brötzmann-esque reed-chewing intensity.

That fervor is largely absent from 2009’s Mind Games. It’s a free trio session, but it has more in common with the trio tracks on John Coltrane‘s Lush Life than it does with, say, Albert Ayler‘s Spiritual Unity or Peter Brötzmann‘s For Adolphe Sax. Even the track one might expect the players to go balls-out on, the almost 27-minute album closer “G.S. Farewell,” is actually pretty restrained and mellow, setting up a sort of loping swing with plenty of room for drum and bass solos. There’s a terrific interlude almost exactly at the track’s midpoint where Dominic Duval begins a bowed bass solo, which sets up an extended cymbal workout from Willson that I actually don’t hate (and I frequently hate cymbals, almost as much as I hate the soprano saxophone).

The Perelman/Willson duo disc, The Stream of Life, is even more relaxed and exploratory, with Willson skittering across the snare drum and gently tapping the cymbals like a swinging groove is going to start real soon now. Perelman uncoils long, winding lines that occasionally end up as squawking bursts, but more often simply keep right on going. Occasionally, as on “Clarice,” he holds one note for a preposterously long time, until it begins wavering like a siren heard from several blocks away. Other times, he sputters out two- and three-note phrases, echoed by short, crisp eruptions from Willson. There’s a definite Coltrane influence at work here, but it’s more “Countdown” (from Giant Steps) than Interstellar Space.

Where Mind Games had only five tracks, two of which blew past the 15-minute mark, Stream has 11 cuts, only one of which is more than seven minutes long. It never feels like a series of exercises, though the pieces do seem unresolved at times, simply petering out. “Vicarious Punishment,” one of the most obstreperous cuts, is also a highlight of the disc, Perelman squealing and worrying at hypnotically repetitive phrases as, behind him, Willson thumps and rattles the kit with subtly deployed power. “A Bola e o Menino” is an introspective solo saxophone journey which leads inexorably into the swinging “Timponiana,” creating the impression of a trilogy from three unrelated pieces.

Either Ivo Perelman’s gotten a lot better over the years, or I should have been paying attention all along. Both these discs offer crystal-clear windows into the work of a thoughtful saxophonist who’s managed to mix the energy of the “fire music” division of free jazz with a conception of swing and the blues that goes back to Blue Note and Prestige releases of the 1950s.

Phil Freeman

[You can get either or both of these CDs from Downtown Music Gallery.]

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