CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Ivo Perelman: Adventures of a Well-Recorded Saxophonist

The exact number of albums this prolific Brazilian has made is a little unclear, but his tenor tone isn't

Ivo Perelman
Ivo Perelman at the SESC Pompeia in Saõ Paulo, 2019 (photo: Edson Kumasaka)

Live in Nuremberg, tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman’s new album on SMP with pianist Matthew Shipp, is his 95th recording under his own name—at least. “I’ve also heard over 100,” says Perelman, who was born and raised in Brazil but lives in New York. “I haven’t kept count myself.”

Whatever the tally is, it’s a big one. Perelman, 59, made his first recordings in 1989 and 1991 before upping the frequency in 1994. Since then, he’s released an average of almost four recordings a year, with a remarkable number of collaborators (even if he has a smaller circle that he returns to most often) and in settings of various sizes and instrumentations—nearly all of them free jazz. Recently he’s put most of his energy into duos and trios, with occasional quartets, as on all but one of his 2018-19 Strings tetralogy.

“It’s my favorite thing, to go into the studio and make music as a document,” he says. “I love it.” Though Perelman does perform live—as his newest album demonstrates—gigs don’t serve as preparation for his record dates; as a free improviser, there are no compositions, per se, to woodshed. (When he records, he titles the spontaneously composed pieces after the fact.) Instead, he does his prep work through practice and deep study: theory books, works of contemporary classical composers and fellow avant-garde jazz travelers.

“I do all this incredibly intensive, detailed work to be ready to make the recordings,” Perelman explains, “and then when I come into the studio and play, my job is to forget all of it and surrender myself to the moment.”

Regardless of the context, Perelman’s tenor sound is consistent. He has an alluring, semi-permeable tone that even when it shrieks or veers into atonality—which is often—remains melodic, even lyrical, at its core. With good reason: His first loves and most enduring influences on the sax are Stan Getz and Paul Desmond, personifications of cool jazz who seem as far removed from Perelman’s free forms as musicians can get.

“He can really evoke an authentic old-school sound,” Shipp says. “Ivo is one of the major tenor players on the planet.”

Growing up in São Paulo, where Perelman was born in January 1961, there wasn’t much jazz to speak of beyond the bossa-nova craze that hit when he was a baby. His parents preferred classical music, and young Ivo started his musical life on classical guitar. He proved to be a prodigy, performing Villa-Lobos and the like in concerts and on television by the time he was about 13. But before long he found it constrictive. “The classical world is very strict. You memorize all this stuff, and you are not, absolutely not, allowed to deviate from it,” he says. “I wanted to express myself.”

He soon forsook the guitar, but he was unsure what to replace it with. He tried mandolin, then clarinet, cello, bass—all of them beautiful, none of them right. At last, when he was 16, he picked up an alto saxophone and it clicked … but even this didn’t have the magic that he finally found three years later with the tenor. “I loved it immediately.”

By then he had already been a jazz lover for a few years, though he hadn’t encountered the free players; most of what he’d been able to find was swing and bebop, like Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Desmond, and Getz, and even those only came on expensive import records. The same kind of rarity extended to gigs for a working musician, and by the time Perelman was 20 and wanted to dedicate himself to jazz, he knew he had to go to the States.

Yet on arriving at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1981, he still didn’t find his niche. Classes had the confining feeling he’d gotten from his classical immersion, burying him in chords and structures when he just wanted to explore. (“I was completely undisciplined,” he says in retrospect, and not a little ruefully.) He lasted a year, then moved to Los Angeles and played weddings and other private events. But he also hit the jam sessions, in whose loose atmospheres he could let fly—and found his way to the basics of free improvisation on the bandstand, independent of any sort of study.

“I barely knew who Albert Ayler was,” Perelman recalls. “But once people told me there was this whole group of musicians who had been doing what I was doing, I started studying them. I found out that they had all gone to New York, and that’s when I knew I had to go there too.”

Before he left California in 1989, Perelman managed to make his first recording on K2B2 Records—the label owned by saxophonist Marty Krystal and bassist Buell Neidlinger, two of the few truly kindred spirits he had found in L.A. Ivo included a remarkable assemblage of musicians, including fellow Brazilians Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and Eliane Elias, as well as bassist John Patitucci and drummer Peter Erskine (among others). But it was when he got to New York’s East Village, the heart of the “Downtown” scene of the period, that Perelman found his people.

He met bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Andrew Cyrille, playing with them at the original Knitting Factory and other Lower East Side venues. They were intrigued by his concept, which married Brazilian folk idioms with free jazz. (Both Hopkins and Cyrille, along with Purim, would appear on his second album, 1991’s Children of Ibeji.) Slowly his circle expanded to include guitarist Joe Morris, bassist William Parker, and Shipp, who would become the core of his regular group of collaborators—Shipp and Perelman appear together on at least 37 albums. “Our vocabularies work together,” the pianist says. “And I think we keep finding new ways to shake it up and reboot the whole thing.”

Perelman’s style has evolved considerably from its avant-Brazilian guise. For one thing, a bout of tendonitis in the mid-1990s forced him to develop techniques with less fingering: longer tones and varied blowing styles. For another, he’s constantly bombarding himself with new ideas, whether in his intricate studies or in his dizzying array of collaborations. Here a thoughtful marathon of polyphony with Morris and violist Mat Maneri (2015’s Counterpoint); there a duo with bass clarinetist Jason Stein (2018’s Spiritual Prayers); elsewhere a metamorphic quartet session with Shipp, bassist Whit Dickey, and drummer Gerald Cleaver (2013’s Enigma). The sheer number of such summits can’t help but affect his imagination.

“There’s nothing that is as exciting as that kind of communication with someone whose music and creativity you admire and are comfortable with,” Perelman stresses. “I don’t know if I can make a hundred more, but I’ll make as many as I can.”

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

Ivo Perelman: Man of the Forest (GM, 1995)
Ivo Perelman feat. Louis Sclavis: The Ventriloquist (Leo, 2002)
Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp/Joe Morris/Gerald Cleaver: The Hour of the Star (Leo, 2011)
Ivo Perelman & Whit Dickey: Tenorhood (Leo, 2015)
Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp: Live in Nuremberg (SMP, 2020)

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.