Look; I can’t be neutral about this. I like Ivo Perelman. We’ve never met in person, but I’ve had him on the BA podcast; I’ve interviewed him for The Wire; and I’ve released one of his many, many CDs — Polarity, a set of duets with trumpeter Nate Wooley — through Burning Ambulance Music. (Buy it; it’s amazing, I promise.) He’s one of the hardest-working musicians I know, and everything he puts out, he puts himself into 100%. And by constantly inserting himself into new and different contexts, he challenges himself and the listener. And he’s a fundamentally nice person, a gentle spirit who lives his entire life on an artistic quest, but without becoming a monk or some kind of sociopathic asshole forever chasing the next opportunity.
His latest release is Reed Rapture in Brooklyn, a collection of 12 duo sessions on the Mahakala Music label. Each session features a fellow saxophonist, and the lineup is fucking stunning: he’s paired off with Lotte Anker, Tim Berne, James Carter, Vinny Golia, Jon Irabagon, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, Colin Stetson, and Ken Vandermark. As always with Perelman, everything is fully improvised, with no discussion or preconceptions.
It’s the kind of thing that’ll shatter your mind and soul if you try to shotgun it, so I’ve spent the last two weeks dipping in and out, and now I have Thoughts. Strap in…
The first batch is a set of 14 tracks with Joe Lovano; the shortest is just 58 seconds, the longest 8:07. Lovano is a somewhat chameleonic player, in my limited experience of his work; he makes a lot of traditionally minded jazz albums, very few of which I’ve heard, but he also does more adventurous stuff from time to time. I saw him at ECM’s 50th anniversary concert in a trio with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. This is definitely one of his out-est projects, but he’s willing to meet Perelman on his own territory. Lovano is playing two upper-register horns, the mezzo soprano and the C-melody, but Perelman is a master of the tenor’s upper reaches, so they chase each other like birds in the sky. What’s most fascinating about these pieces is how hard bop riffs and catchy melodies keep bubbling up out of one man’s or the other’s horn, and how quickly they’ll catch on to what they hear and create a harmony or even a unison phrase. It may seem for a few seconds at a time, here and there, that they’re each going their own way oblivious to the other, but they’re not. They’re both listening really, really carefully.
The second set pairs Perelman up with Tim Berne, so you get alto and tenor going at each other. There are only four tracks, but just one of them is almost 23 minutes long; the others are seven, 13 and 14. Berne likes to blow, and Perelman is happy to follow him. There are a lot fewer magical unison melodies here (though a few do emerge) and a lot more piercing long tones in the two horns’ upper registers. It’s a quite harsh listening experience at times, but quite beautiful in its way.
The third set features David Murray, who’s playing bass clarinet. This is an often delicate session, subdued in tone, and if there was a rhythm section they’d be keeping ballad time. Murray lives in the bass clarinet’s lower range, making it sound more like an oboe or a bassoon and letting the notes emerge as meditative exhalations. Perelman, ever the gracious host, follows Murray’s lead, singing Aylerian blues.
Lotte Anker, a Danish saxophonist who’s worked with Berne, pianist Marilyn Crispell, and guitarist Fred Frith, among others, is the player least familiar to me, and that’s entirely my own fault. Her playing has a squalling, harsh quality that blurs the line between free jazz and “new music” of the improv/contemporary classical sort. She switches back and forth between alto and soprano, and her technique is formidable; she leaps from flutelike trills to deer-call squonks with speed and alacrity, sometimes devolving into salivary hisses and bubbles before delivering Evan Parker-esque runs that make you think she’s breathing through gills. Perelman feels like the straight man by contrast.
Ken Vandermark’s discography isn’t as sprawling as Perelman’s (or Murray’s), but he’s got a lot of music out there. I’m really only familiar with his 1990s and early 2000s work with the Vandermark 5 and the DKV Trio, and there he mostly played tenor; on this set, he’s playing clarinet. He’s also worked extensively with Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson, so he’s accustomed to holding his own with fierce blowers. And Perelman plays that role here, embarking on a powerful run of squeals, squalls and roars that only occasionally mellows out into passages of valve-clapping burplike notes or long squiggly ribbons of sound.
The only one of these sessions that wasn’t recorded in Brooklyn was the sixth, a duo with Roscoe Mitchell that required Perelman to travel to Wisconsin. Mitchell is playing bass sax, which probably isn’t the most portable of instruments. It’s also not one that lends itself to speedy runs, so there are a lot of low single notes heard from his side, some of which sound like a walrus’s roar and others like a foghorn. You can also focus on the clicking of the machinery on his horn, which is fascinating in its own way. They perform only three pieces together, but one is 13 minutes long and another almost 40. It’s extremely patient, atmospheric music, with plenty of silence; Mitchell remains as fascinated by the balance between music and no-music as he was when he recorded 1966’s Sound. If any one of these 12 discs deserves to be plucked from this box for individual release, it’s this one.
The seventh set of duos here features James Carter on baritone sax. Carter is a beast, a technically brilliant player who loves to explore new contexts, but there’s always a very strong element of blues and gutbucket funk in his playing. He worked with Julius Hemphill early in his career, and with Ronald Shannon Jackson later, and invited Hamiet Bluiett and James “Blood” Ulmer to join his organ trio for a live album — this is a man who likes to tear it up. He offers everything here from unbelievably controlled low-end rumbles to piercing, unearthly shrieks that may put you in mind of John Zorn, Borbetomagus, or Kaoru Abe. Perelman sounds almost romantic alongside him, and there’s a genuinely beautiful passage when they work their way into a unison melody that sounds like a hymn I can’t quite remember the name of.
Jon Irabagon made his bones as a member of the postmodernist post-bop art-prank group Mostly Other People Do The Killing, but as a solo act he’s done some truly fascinating work: check out all three volumes of the I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues series to hear him at his most intense. On these seven duo encounters, he’s playing two extremely uncommon horns, the sopranino and slide soprano. Combine that with Perelman’s mastery of the tenor’s upper register and you’ve got a recipe for lots and lots of high-pitched squeals and sharp squawks. At the same time, Irabagon speaks fluent bebop, so a Charlie Parker-esque phrase will occasionally leap forth, catching the listener — and maybe Perelman — by surprise.
Genuine multi-instrumentalists are pretty rare in jazz, but Joe McPhee is one. He doesn’t just play tenor, alto, and soprano sax; he also plays the various members of the trumpet family, and valve trombone. Here, he limits himself to tenor, but not really. On the second and longest of his seven back-and-forths with Perelman, which lasts almost 12 minutes, the two men begin with extremely soft playing, just barely letting air hiss through the horn, and then they begin singing and vocalizing. It takes them longer than you might expect to actually start playing their horns at full strength, but when they do, it’s a powerful ballad, with occasional ululations from one man or the other. This set is one of the few where it often seems like one player is soloing and the other accompanying him, but they take turns leading and following.
Colin Stetson is a very interesting musician. He plays a wide range of saxophones and has released a trilogy of solo albums, New History Warfare, and a duo disc with Mats Gustafsson, Stones, all of which are excellent. Lately, he’s been composing scores for horror movies like Hereditary, Color Out of Space, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. On this set of six duets, he’s playing the contrabass saxophone. There are moments when this sounds like a tractor engine is idling in the corner as Perelman embarks on a solo saxophone journey, but Stetson is also capable of ascending to some surprisingly steam-whistle-like pitches, and as always there’s a much higher level of interaction and mutual listening than one might expect. Unison melodies emerge as if by a miracle, then recede again.
Vinny Golia, who’s originally from the Bronx but has been based on the West Coast for a long time, plays some extremely uncommon, antique reeds in his encounter with Perelman. Sometimes he’s just on clarinet, but he also busts out the basset horn and the soprillo sax, instruments I’ve never even heard of. What comes through most strongly on this set is how sensitive a partner Perelman is. On every one of these discs, he’s adapted himself to what his partner offers; he’s never just wandering down his own path with little or no regard for whether the other player is following him, or connecting with what he’s doing. Perelman is not only the common denominator here, but an extraordinarily gracious host. And Golia makes the most of Perelman’s hospitality, exploring his instruments’ full range and deploying a seemingly inexhaustible store of long circular-breathing phrases, squawks, rattles, hisses and chirps. There are very few melodic hooks here, but somehow the raw, unfettered abstraction still manages to cohere into something beautiful.
The set ends with an encounter with Dave Liebman, who’s playing soprano, I think (it’s not specified in the liner notes, but that’s what it sounds like to me). His sound is raspier and breathier, with a little more hiss and crackle, than Perelman’s, and his lines have a folkier quality, like he’s trying to write a song rather than just string a melody out and see where it leads him. Despite a few startling moments, like the high-pitched unison squeals that conclude the fifth of their 11 duets, this is easily the gentlest encounter of the entire set. It’s even somewhat romantic at times, which makes it easy to understand why it was chosen to serve as the finale.
Reed Rapture in Brooklyn is a lot of music. I understand that just looking at it on the label’s Bandcamp page might make the average person quail. “Who’s got time for that?”, you may ask yourself. Well, each duo encounter lasts between 41 and 65 minutes; the Ken Vandermark set is the shortest, the James Carter one the longest. If you make a plan to break it up and listen to just one per day, you’ll have a very enjoyable two weeks ahead of you. I recommend you do so.