Ivo Perelman Quartet : The Hour of the Star

Ivo Perelman’s new album, The Hour of the Star, is a musical response to Clarice Lispector’s expository novella of the same name. The final and best-known of the Brazilian writer’s works, The Hour of the Star is a bleak, self-conscious allegory about a poor, unattractive woman’s confrontations with life and death. The tenor saxophonist’s disc isn’t so much a soundtrack to the story-a low hum with occasional scrapes would sound more appropriate-as a starting point.

Despite the subject matter, the record isn’t all gloom and doom. Perelman, a Brazilian himself who moved to the United States in the 1980s, has assembled a cast of free-improv all-stars for the occasion: pianist Matthew Shipp, drummer Gerald Cleaver and Joe Morris, who is best known as a guitarist but plays bass here. (It’s half-accurate to call this a quartet: Shipp plays on four of the six tracks, and one of them is a duet with the leader.) The group announces itself on “A Tearful Tale” via staccato sax notes, spiky chords and a skittish rhythm section. Perelman soon clusters his notes into bursts, bending the longer ones that end each phrase. Here, and again on the title track, Perelman’s declarations grow increasingly anguished as the tune wears on.

Free, unhinged performance is the hallmark of this album. Songs lack melodic centers but not heart-Shipp makes sure of that, providing emotional gravity with his steady, funereal chords that approach marchlike cadences. Even the spare horn-and-piano duet, freeform as it is, is rife with agony. Yet, as in the book, there are moments of unbridled joy. “Singing the Blues” may have little on Bix Beiderbecke, but it is full of soul, warmth and, yes, swing. With Shipp on coffee break, Morris walks the bass and Cleaver turns to bebop. Perelman, of course, eventually disregards the rhythm, and the rhythm section disregards him right back. This album’s source material may depict a low point of life in Rio, but The Hour of the Star represents a high point for free jazz.