Rich Perry on "Wee"

Rich Perry at Smalls with Jimmy Macbride
The first time I heard Rich Perry was on "Three Romances, Part 1: Choro Dançado" from Maria Schneider's Concert in the Garden (2004), when he comes in echoing Donny McCaslin's descending clarinet line leading into his solo. His sound in those first couple of notes made me do a double-take: although Donny has a fine sound on clarinet, Rich's palm key D and other high register notes have this just unbelievably silky and warm-bodied sonority. Since then, I've had intermittent Rich Perry listening phases and I've come to start to think of Rich Perry's playing as sort of like dark chocolate—as in, I like it in moderation but start to feel numbed when I listen to him too much.

To me, I find his tone, his style and diversity of articulation, elastic time feel, and periphrastic harmonic approach to be his most defining traits, playing-wise. Early on, I couldn't help but compare him to Joe Henderson whenever I heard him, but after checking him (and Joe) out more, it's more clear to me the differences between their playing and sounds—Rich's sound doesn't take on the same rough edge when he's really going in for it like Joe's sound, and Rich's sound is also a bit broader sounding, i.e., maybe a bit more diffuse than Joe, whose sound tends to be more pointed w/r/t core sound.

Rich also is one of the few contemporary tenor players I can think of who consistently uses staccato in his lines. Sonny Rollins is another prominent saxophone player who actually regularly uses staccato, but Rich really has the slur-slur tongue tongue thing going in some of his phrasing, which is a nice stylistic idiosyncrasy. He also ghosts and shades notes with bends and falls (into other notes, too) with great ease, like Dick Oatts (Oatts & Perry is definitely essential listening for this vibe of contemporary, heavily-inflected saxophone playing, I think). And harmonically, Rich really goes deep into the possibilities of the line as a self-sufficient musical entity; as I wrote in an earlier post about Mark Turner, there's a sense that creating a line that can transcend harmonic and rhythmic constraints imposed by the tune is a high priority in his playing. 

It's funny, in a way, because Rich ends up being both very conservative yet also very radical: he consistently sticks to the standards for many of his records and doesn't seem to record many of his tunes or try to promote himself as a composer (or in general, I think). But still, he overlays and implies harmonic motion that less often runs parallel to a tune, as I think is more common among contemporary musicians, but instead extends the existing harmonic structures of tunes and runs with them until he's stretched far from the harmonic gravity of the tune, eventually bringing it back or else laying on these logically reached dissonances to stand as extended consonances in their own right. This, I think, is a more radical way of playing that I've been into for a while and that I think many other musicians have been into (a friend told me that Stefon Harris is into approaching existing harmonies on standards and finding ways to build new progressions from the original progression that create their own linear pathway through the tune, which sounds similar).

Still, I occasionally feel a bit conflicted about how much I want to reach towards Rich Perry's direction in playing. What I fear is that putting the line as one of the major priorities of the improvisation would make the group interplay possibly suffer, considering how much effort it takes to spontaneously compose these new paths through tunes with a line that can withstand any amount of dissonance and still be effective melodically. That's not to say that there's no group interplay on Rich's records, but that this is a risk of going too far into the hip harmonic and rhythmic stuff without tying it into how to play better with other people, which seems to happen relatively often with young players like myself. 

I finally took the plunge and transcribed some Rich Perry to see what was going on, and it's very fascinating. A while back I posted a transcription of Stan Getz playing over a rhythm changes head called "Wee" from For Musicians Only (1956), so here's a contrasting contemporary approach to the same set of changes half a century later. It became quickly apparent to me that Rich's sometimes unexpected melodic and harmonic choices are significantly less effective musically without his trademark delivery and phrasing, which seemed especially more relevant for his heavily stylized playing. I completely recommend checking out some of his records if you haven't, like Live at the Kitano, Vol. 1-3 (this solo is from Vol. 2). 

One last thing: I remember when a friend in high school first introduced me to Rich Perry by playing me some music but then criticizing his album cover designs, which almost inevitably feature a stoic-looking Perry looking off into the distance with his horn in some urban scene. My friend's words were memorable, along the lines of, "Man, all his album covers look like they could be for a Christian rock band," which I thought was just great. Here's the solo:

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I had the chance to share the stage with Rich my senior year of high school. I played in a greater New York-area collegiate-type jazz ensemble called the Jazz Band Classic, which is affiliated with the New York Youth Symphony, and we played a few Jim McNeely and other assorted charts with Rich as a guest soloist. Not only was he a kind guy, but his sound was just as great as on the records, albeit with less reverb. I sat right in front of him at one of the rehearsals, and I remember just being struck by how big and focused his sound was. I later traded some phrases with him on a Supersax arrangement of "Bebop" at a gig in the West Village, which was rather intimidating, but it was a great time nonetheless.