While for most musicians, the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns of 2020 have had a devastating effect on their activities, it must be a particularly frustrating state of affairs for the jazz and improv communities, who thrive on the intimacy of in-person musical communication. When Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp and Whit Dickey gathered for the June 2020 session that resulted in the trio’s latest album, Garden of Jewels, it must have been a particularly momentous occasion.
Under such conditions, one might expect this free-form music to be an ecstatic blast of joyful noise, but the group’s restraint is notable. The title track opens the album and is somewhat subdued. Perelman’s tone is full, but his lines are angular, constructing an odd, nocturnal mood. Shipp’s playing is equally nuanced — he adds gravity with his trademark low notes, and Dickey skirts around in the background, primarily utilizing brushes to accent his bandmates’ work. The song builds in volume as it progresses, like the three musicians are slowly allowing themselves to exhale.
The album moves on from there, a master class in improvisational virtuosity. “Tourmaline” sees them move into a more active mode, but still eschewing anything that could be construed as unrestrained or confrontational. The sound is pointillist, with Shipp and Perelman locked in an intricate dance, their individual lines darting towards and away from one another.
Dickey’s role on this song and others is truly fascinating. He seems to be looking for the perfect beat, but will quickly abandon it once it is found. When the saxophone and piano come close together, the drums will find a groove, or at least imply one, but then he abandons it just as quickly. As his band mates drift apart, Dickey tends to shift to the cymbals, creating a tenuous web to hold the sound together.
For his part, Shipp anchors the band. His piano gives the trio the density that a bassist might provide, while sketching out chords that both echo and foreshadow Perelman’s melodic inventions. “Turquoise” really highlights this sense of shadowboxing. Shipp is agile and inserts himself into all the right nooks and corners of the sound construction. It is hard to tell which player is reacting to which, and who is taking the lead. The temporal logic of call and response is suspended in favor of a pure, egalitarian sound.
Perelman, despite the very collaborative nature of the trio, clearly shines as the leader. He is a constant source of melodic invention and despite the unusual shapes of his saxophone lines, he rarely pushes the horn outside its natural range. On songs such as “Amethyst” or “Onyx” he hints at a more refined Albert Ayler, while “Sapphire” nods more towards John Coltrane, but ultimately, Perelman’s sound is all his own. While he has been known to shape-shift somewhat throughout his career, his total mastery of thte horn is the product of a long and rigorous journey of self-development, documented in literally scores of recordings spanning almost thirty years.
It’s an interesting thought exercise to try and consider Garden of Jewels in the context of the conditions under which it was recorded. Does such abstract music somehow reflect the world outside the studio doors? These three musicians don’t take the obvious route of blasting together in catharsis, joyful or otherwise. The mood is more thoughtful, and consequently, each song possesses more unexpected moments of beauty. To assign meaning to the music is extraordinarily difficult, at least in concepts that can be put into words. The rewards, though, are many, and all the more precious because they are hard to articulate.