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Saturday, March 21, 2020

Ivo Perelman is Prolific in His Creativity: An Interview with Ivo Perelman

Ivo Perelman. Photo by Edson Kumasaka.

By Sammy Stein

"The value of what is considered totally improvised music is that it relaxes the rational judgemental mind of the listener allowing him/her to experience life from a more primal perspective."

"I had a hard time 'finding my crowd' in Los Angeles where I used to live and that prompted me to move to New York where playing with people like Fred Hopkins was instrumental in my development and self awareness."

"Improvisation is an attitude and not a directive of content."

"I'll never forget that moment when I put the horn in my mouth for the first time and this sound that felt so big and rich engulfed my whole being. I was just mesmerized!"

To describe Ivo Perelman as creative would something of an understatement. He is prolific. Not just in music but also as a visual artist and latterly a creator of jewellery. I came to review his work almost by chance when he asked me for my take on one piece and then told me that, yeah, I definitely got his music. As a free player, Ivo's improvisation is something else and he switches from perky altissimo to fierce, threat-laden booming depths of the lower registers seemingly at will, with no loss of tonality. So, I was curious. Where does this creativity come from and what drives this compelling musician? Ivo's creative restlessness and activity meant that even the interview had to fit around his hectic schedule, the answers coming in daily snippets, with Ivo sending daily contributions between visits to the studio. It made it an organic, creative process - much like his music projects. I found, as the interview progressed that Ivo is also a man with warmth and a more than decent sense of humour.

Ivo Perelman was born in São Paulo, Brazil. As a child he showed talent on the acoustic guitar. He went on to try different instruments including 'cello, clarinet and trombone before specializing in tenor sax. His early influences include Stan Getz and Paul Desmond. Ivo moved from Brazil to Boston in 1981 where he attended Berklee College of Music. After a year he moved to LA where he studied with vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake. It was at monthly jam sessions Perelman discovered his penchant for improvisation. From there, he began to research the free-jazz sax players and in the early '90s moved to New York. His back catalogue of releases is huge with over 30 being released since 2016 and he has collaborated with a diverse range of musicians. Ivo is also a prolific visual artist, whose paintings and sketches have been displayed in numerous exhibitions and can be found in collections around the world.

Creating music feels like, for Ivo, that there are pieces of a multi-faceted equation to be found and as he collaborates with different players, instruments and ways of presenting, he is slotting it all together, searching for the perfect equilibrium between music which is free, yet based subliminally and almost subconsciously at times around a scale; improvised yet reined in by a profound understanding of musicality and those invisible lines which exist defining music from noise. Each collaborator, each instrument brings contrast to the tenor sax of different ranges, timbres and resonance, with which Ivo's playing interacts in different ways.

Matthew Shipp and Ivo Perelman. Photo by Edson Kumasaka.
With Matt Shipp, who brings not only 7 octaves plus of range but also timbre, sounds, plucked and rubbed strings and a whole lot more, he has made several recordings, and found a fellow musical adventurer equally willing to explore but he has worked and recorded with many musicians including bass player William Parker, guitar player Joe Morris, bass clarinet player Jason Stein, viola player Mat Maneri, drummer Gerald Cleaver and others.
I was intrigued at what drives this musician and luckily for me and you, Ivo proved willing to answer a few questions.

SS- Sammy Stein
IP - Ivo Perelman

SS: What would you say is the value of totally improvised music.

IP: I don't see a distinction between improvised or composed music. What is generally seen as composed music is when the musician is able to go back in time and re-compose (or re-improvise) his work. So the result has a particular character where one can perceive the process as such where rethinking or reformatting was done. The same goes for what is considered totally improvised music. Not being able to go back in time to re-think the work, the musician composes/improvises on the spot, 'on the go' under a particular creative nervous tension that gives the music a distinct character. In some cases like in the work of Elliott Carter ( 2 times Pulitzer prize winning American modernist composer who wrote for strings quartets, piano and orchestras) this doesn't happen so transparently since his work is a hybrid between both approaches. The value of what is considered totally improvised music is that it relaxes the rational judgemental mind of the listener allowing him/her to experience life from a more primal perspective.

SS: What drives you to be so prolific? Can you explain the need to put out music with such rapidity?

IP: All jazz musicians are prolific. Every time we play a solo we are creating something new out of thin air that wasn't there before and will never be replicated. I myself enjoy documenting this process because in my case this is the best tool to promote my musical growth. On the pragmatic side, being able to listen and re-listen to my recordings is like putting the music under a powerful microscope where I can deeply analyse all the structures and realise what needs to be improved. On the more philosophical side it validates my sheer existence since having this almost pathological urge to be constantly creative demands that the object of creation be constantly available.

SS: How do you know who you will collaborate with? How do you choose the instruments or the players to work with. Has it to do with character or the instrument itself?

IP: It depends on each project. Sometimes I hear someone for the first time and they really impress me. I know after 2 notes that we'll play together but most of the time I'm working on a concept. For example, me and strings is an ongoing project as is me and bass clarinet players. Once that is established I'll choose the musicians I feel are in simpatico with my own approach. I have been pretty lucky with my instincts and allowed them to take over so far and never made a wrong call. Or, to be fairer, when there were times when the symbiosis was not ideal, that in itself became a parameter to be explored in a musical way. So, I guess you can always find a way to make interesting music.

SS: You work with Matt Shipp a lot. How does it work because you are both pretty dominant characters musically?

IP: One way to see it is that I work with Matthew Shipp a lot precisely because when we play there is no 'dominant character' at play. The music dictates where we will go; it takes over and we manage always to leave our non-musical egos out of the equation.
Another way to see it is that our 'dominant character' is nothing but a by-product of our ability to distil the many possible musical choices available at every turn of the way during the musical discourse into a potent, laser-like thought. Therefore, when we are both experiencing that in the duo that 'dominance' synergistically disappears and it just becomes clear musical vision

SS: I understand that you played many instruments as a child and were something of a child prodigy on the guitar. How did you come to the saxophone and tenor in particular?

IP: The acoustic nylon string guitar is very popular in Brazil. I studied and loved it since I was 6. I played many of the Baroque transcriptions for guitar and used to play Bach for hours on end as well as the Villa Lobos etudes and choros ( Heitor Villa-Lobos was an influential Brazilian composer). However, I never enjoyed reading music or having to play the pieces always respecting the composer's dynamics. In fact I was always adding interludes and improvisational material when I gave concerts.

This was discouraged by my teachers and became such a problem that I gave up the classical guitar playing career and became interested in many other instruments without a real focus until I was about 16 when, after a brief introduction to clarinet and playing in Dixieland bands, I came across the tenor sax and instantly realized I had found my voice. In fact I'll never forget that moment when I put the horn in my mouth for the first time and this sound that felt so big and rich engulfed my whole being. I was just mesmerized!

SS: Why did you move to the US and Berklee? Could you have found good schooling in jazz in Brazil?

IP: Today there are many places where one can study jazz in Brazil but back in the '70s and 80's there was no real jazz school there. I was studying architecture in the day and playing in New Orleans type jazz in bars at night and getting more and more into Stan Getz and Wayne Shorter. I was always listening and practicing from books and recordings all the time and realized it was jazz and not classical guitar that I was destined for. Victor Assis Brasil (the great late alto player from Rio) had been to Berklee so the USA seemed like the right place to go and I' m glad I did.

SS: Do you have family in the US or are they in Brazil still?

IP: I have all my family in Brazil.

SS: In LA you found improvisation (so your website says). Was there a Damascus moment or did it come about from great players you met/played with. Can you describe how it felt?

IP: Looking back to my early childhood, teenage and college years I realize I didn't really 'discover' improvisation. I've been improvising all my life being a sensitive, spontaneous individual with a childlike curiosity about life and the artistic process. Of course life, circumstances, teachers and musicians I played with enhanced or threatened that throughout my formation years.

I've even had a few teachers who didn't encourage improvisation at all and actually felt very uncomfortable teaching a natural improviser like me. On the other hand many were very supportive and helped me understand my strengths. It was the same with fellow musicians. I had a hard time 'finding my crowd' in Los Angeles where I used to live and that prompted me to move to New York where playing with people like Fred Hopkins (the avante garde bassist who was a major influence on the developing scene) was instrumental in my development and self awareness.

Jewellery designed by Ivo Perelman. Photo by Almir Pastore.
Ivo's art should be mentioned at this point. He is not the first jazz musician to also be an artist. Free player and People Band member Davey Payne's centre of his house is a stairwell full of framed wonders which could be an exhibition in themselves and Peter Brotzman creates pictures and also sculptures from pieces of material most of us might not see having creative potential and they also reveal a deeper side to Peter but Ivo's art is extraordinary. He once described Jackson Pollock as the Coltrane of art so maybe takes influence there but there is a child's eye to his art which has an intrinsic appeal even to a complete artless viewer like me. Painted with skill, they are an insight into the switching, mercuric essence of this creative man.

SS: So, what about your visual art and jewellery? I have seen some of the jewellery and it is exquisite. So, how did you find the art and why did you then diverge into jewellery?

IP: In the '90's I suffered from tendonitis from over practicing the sax and that's when I started to paint to keep up my artistic output and sanity since I couldn't really play the sax for a while. After I recovered I kept the art up and still continue since it's become a wonderful parallel creative world that adds a lot to my music. Somewhere deep in the cerebral cortex, sound and light, music and arts communicate. I feel that playing the sax or painting resemble each other in many aspects; it is just a matter of translating languages where the main creative thought process is the same (in fact sound and light are just waveforms that the brain process indistinctively).

Jewellery is a quite recent discovery although I've been thinking about it for 25 years. It came to me as the culmination of distilling the line and having it be as expressive as possible, albeit in its maximum simplicity.

SS: Do you listen to other kinds of music? In your music there is a good deal of classical referencing and I wondered if your training whilst young had instilled this in you so that, whilst you are clearly a born improviser, the structure behind your work is always there, even if it takes a few listen to find it.

IP: Although I don't have much headspace or time any more due to being intensively involved with my own music I still listen to Brazilian pop music and composers like Elliott Carter or Bach occasionally. The 'classical' referencing you refer to may be a by-product of growing up in Brazil and being exposed to its rich lyrical music.

In my opinion being a born improviser does not preclude structure as you mentioned. Improvisation is an attitude and not a directive of content.

SS: What do you want for the future? You are involved in several disciplines so where do you want to see yourself 5 years from now?

IP: I'm constantly making discoveries and expanding my daily ritual of practicing the saxophone, incorporating literature from other instruments and rethinking methodologies all in an attempt to keep the practice fresh and interesting. I hope that 5 years from now this will not change because it really is what gets me out of bed every morning.

I also hope that my jewellery design will keep expanding because its element of utilitarian art is a welcome novelty in my career.

SS: Do you think young people coming into jazz have the right attitude, education and role models? Do you think the right music finds you if you listen out hard enough or do you think you make it happen?

IP: I can't really comment on young musicians' trajectories. I can only speak for myself and my personal artistic path. Everyone is unique and will carve out their own history and come to their own conclusions.

My opinion is that you can certainly learn and technically master the work of previous generations of jazz musicians but the historical veracity of their music cannot be replicated. It was the times they lived in and their inimitable personalities and life experiences that shaped the music they created and no school will give you that. Having said that, in a way I kind of regret I left Berklee college which is a wonderful place to learn the mechanics of how music works. I was young and anxious to do my own thing. I would have done it differently today but it was all part of my development, (having to find out things on my own).

It is 30 years since Ivo Perelman's first CD was released ('Ivo' ITM Pacific, 1990). His latest projects include a trio with Gordon Grdina and an Iranian percussionist, a quintet with British string musicians, vocalist Phil Minton and a duo with French microtonal guitarist Pascal Marzan. Also released soon are boxed sets of Ivo with pianists such as Aaron Parks, Marylin Crispell, Sylvie Courvoisier and others and a duo recording with Matt Shipp on piano and whit Dickey on drums. ESP label will also release a quartet with Ivo and Japanese musicians.

The process leading up to and interviewing Ivo has been interesting and relatively easy because he is great to work with. he is wrong about one thing though. I don't 'get' all his music. Some of it baffles and is way beyond my understanding. But what I do like is there is always a sense of process and a framework on which he hangs every note of his playing. Creative people just create and Ivo well, he's doing pretty good.

Read more about Ivo Perelman on the Free Jazz Blog.