In his notes to The Other Edge, one of the three – count them, three – new albums recently released by avant-garde tenor sax player Ivo Perelman, critic Neil Tesser ponders what to call the kind of music Perelman plays. He doesn’t care for the category free jazz because that, he says, “minimizes the magnitude of his accomplishment.” Free jazz artists, he points out, begin with some sort of theme or outline – presumably they have an agreed upon some predetermined agenda. Their music has a structural integrity. Not so on Perelman’s, as he and his colleagues work with no prearranged road map.
It is what you might call “total improvisation.” But Tesser doesn’t care for that term either. It’s close, but it doesn’t give a sense of either the music’s flow or the variety of genres it often wanders into. You might call him, as Tesser does in the notes to Book of Sound, another of the new releases, a “post freedom” saxophonist, but while any critical category with “post” in it sounds new and cutting edge, I’m not sure it is any real help in placing Perelman and describing the music he produces. Certainly not any more than free jazz would.
One of the distinguishing qualities of jazz is the opportunity it gives the artist to improvise creatively, but within certain bounds. Perelman says, who needs bounds? Why should the artist’s creativity be limited by the lines? Boundaries/lines are conventions and they produce conventional art. The real artist, the great artist defies convention. This has been the mantra of innovators and experimental artists the world over, time after time. The trouble is when one breaks with convention, as often as not, the general public doesn’t quite get what you’re doing. Things become conventions because audiences like them, so lesser artists keep doing them. One might call what he is looking for creative anarchy.
What Perelman wants to do is create sounds that audiences have never heard before-indeed, like he has never heard before. He doesn’t want to repeat last night’s performance. He wants every moment to be filled with new ideas, new sounds. They might be melodious and lyrical. They might be raw and cacophonous. They will not necessarily be pretty; indeed, to conventional ears they may screech and scratch. What they will do is force the listeners who listen seriously to reevaluate their ideas about what music should be.
Innovators, in all arts, don’t always get warm receptions—at first, anyway. Some manage to overcome the conventional prejudice, while others end in obscurity. Some find an audience: a Jackson Pollack drips his way into museums, a Samuel Beckett gets his mounds of garbage on stage, or an Arnold Schoenberg tunes the ear to the 12-tone scale. Some fight the good fight and go down in a blaze of glory.
What of Ivo Perelman? The man has produced a ton of music. Listen to samples from any of the three new albums. It is anything but pretty. It is challenging, at best, thought-provoking, or at worst, a waste of the man’s obvious talent. Recognizing the long history of critics who have failed to see greatness in new art, I am not going to shout as Francis Jeffrey did about William Wordsworth: “This will never do.” I am going to shout, this doesn’t do it for me, not yet anyway.
Here’s a few words about the new albums.
Two Men Walking is a duet with Matt Maneri on viola. It is essentially one long piece divided into 10 parts. Book of Sound is a trio album with Matthew Shipp on piano and William Parker on bass. Tesser calls it a “six movement symphony” – talk about defying convention. One has to wonder exactly what it is that makes these sections part of a larger whole. The Other Edge is a quartet. Perelman and Shipp are joined by Michael Bisio on bass and Whit Dickey on drums. I don’t note any attempt to connect the eight pieces, although I don’t see how it is in any way different from the other two albums.
In any case, I find the music difficult to listen to. Chalk it up to my own conventional taste. I must confess I don’t care much for free jazz either, let alone this subset of the genre. One thing is clear, since we are assured that Perelman is adamant about not repeating himself. He is always looking for new people to work with, new combinations and new ideas. What we have in these three discs is not likely to happen again. Next time, there will be something new.
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