Jazz Album Review: “Seven Skies Orchestra” — Ramping Up the Musical Possibilities

By Michael Ulllman

Tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman’s work is customarily full of subtle surprises, akimbo with shifts and side-trips. This new recording, with a sextet, is no exception.

Ivo Perelman, Seven Skies Orchestra (2 CDs and digital download)

I’ve found it impossible to keep up with the prolific, mostly free jazz, saxophonist Ivo Perelman, who was born sixty years ago in what one of his recordings called Soccer Land (Brazil). Although he has recorded on other instruments, including the cello, he plays mostly on the tenor saxophone. He never lets up. Last year, for instance, he put out a huge box of woodwind duets, Reed Rapture, with 103 items featuring James Carter, David Murray, Dave Liebman, Lotte Anker, and others. He had other projects during that time. In 2021 Perelman released a nine disc set which he called Brass And Ivory Tales. And there were small band recordings as well. Sometimes I wonder if he can keep up with himself: his favorite titles seem to be “Untitled” and “Part One,” “Part Two,” and so on.

Duets seem to come naturally to him. I imagine he likes the exposed conditions, the need to listen to the other and at the same time the relative freedom of the duet. I’ve heard him mostly in such pairings and in small groups: especially his duets on record. He’s performed recently with the admirable pianist Matthew Shipp in a quartet session, Heptagon. Their offering Fruition, released last October, was their eighteenth disc of saxophone-piano duets. Now he has come up with something different. Seven Skies Orchestra, to which I am listening on a download, is a sextet of virtuoso musicians. Its instrumentation is distinctive; notably, it has neither drum nor piano. The ten numbers recorded here available on 2 CDs or as a digital album — were made by what I am tempted to call a string-y sextet that features Nate Wooley on trumpet, Mat Maneri playing viola, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Joe Morris on bass and Mat Moran manning the vibes. Amusingly, the pieces on Seven Skies Orchestra are numbered but they aren’t placed in numerical order on the download (though they are listed that way on the album’s Bandcamp page). The first improvisation of the ten is “Seven.” One has to wait until nearly the end of the second disc for “One.”

Despite the number of musicians participating, the music is never thickly textured. It’s invigorating but not overpowering.. The pieces are often introduced by a single instrument. “Seven” begins with a single resonant note from the vibes. Mat Moran subsequently develops this static beginning into a (nearly) repeating phrase. The bass enters followed, almost immediately, by the saxophone and trumpet and strings. Perelman does not seek to dominate the subsequent group improvisation. Still, soon enough in this piece most of the band members fade away, leaving the saxophonist to play prominently while the others react. Yet even here the proceedings are fluid. The middle section of the fourteen minute “Seven” has — for a minute or so — trumpet and sax spotlit in the foreground, one answering the other. Then the viola becomes the main voice. After the sax plays frantically, in short bursts, the band responds. Ten minutes in the band goes silent and Perelman provides what could be a kind of second movement, mostly high, fraught-sounding phrases and short squeaks. Six proffers a longish section for solo viola.

“Nine” begins with solo bass: its first few bars sound something like Mingus. At six minutes or so the piece turns into a dialogue between saxophone and cello over Joe Morris’s bass line. It’s gentle and probing but, as the piece moves towards its climax, the music becomes disturbing, as if to assert that we live in an age of anxiety. Yet, despite that, the piece ends sweetly. “Three” begins with poppy verve from the tenor: six minutes in the band buzzes like angry bees — somehow suggestive of a non-binding tonal center. Soon two string instruments come forward while Perelman plays high-flying long tones above them. Gradually the rest of the group intervenes, or enters: we hear Mat Moran’s vibes, bowed cello, and various bass sounds with Perelman cutting through them all. Remarkably, one can almost feel the players listening to each other — they are patiently building a conversation. The music never sounds chaotic to me. Around five minutes in, the equivalent of a hush arrives, so that we hear vibes and cello in a subdued duet, while Joe Morris offers isolated notes on bass.

The opening of “One” is mysterious: there seems to be creaking in the bass as the trumpet (I am guessing) blows into his horn pitchlessly. It sounds disordered — or perhaps preordered? Around seven minutes in, the strings — all of them — play pizzicato while the vibes swirls around them. The horns are silent. Until the Perelman enters quietly and the trumpet plays over an interlude of other-worldly squeaking. The resultant group improvisation is egalitarian — no one is on top. The last piece on Seven Skies Orchestra is “Four.” It opens with the entire band on a tear. Bassist Morris plays a fast walk, and the others let loose for about a minute. Then, and this is typical of a Perelman-led piece, the bottom drops out and we are treated to a quieter conversation. His work is customarily full of subtle surprises, akimbo with shifts and side-trips. The added members of this sextet only enrich the musical possibilities: new sounds and shapes emerge, and the result is fascinating.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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