PRISM Quartet: Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1
Last year, textura had the great pleasure of reviewing two distinguished releases of very different character by the PRISM Quartet, the first, Music from China: The Singing Gobi Desert, a collection featuring the work of contemporary Chinese classical composers and the second, People’s Emergency Center, a double-disc set of compositions by Matthew Levy, the quartet’s tenor saxist. Of the two, it’s the latter that’s the natural precursor to the saxophone quartet’s latest release for the simple reason that the earlier two-disc set augmented the playing of the quartet—the aforementioned Levy, Timothy McAllister (soprano), Zachary Shemon (alto), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone)—with that of soprano saxist Tim Ries (a PRISM Quartet member from 1993 to 2001), alto saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Bill Stewart, percussionist François Zayas, and sitarist Richard Belcastro.
The new collection, Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1, extends the concept in dramatic fashion by involving six lauded jazz saxophonists in an even deeper way. For the new project, Ries and Mahanthappa return and are newly joined by Dave Liebman, Greg Osby, Miguel Zenón, and Steve Lehman. Each one is a celebrated figure in his own right: Mahanthappa has repeatedly been crowned Downbeat’s alto saxophonist of the year; Lehman’s Mise en Abîme was one of 2014’s most acclaimed jazz releases; Zenón’s work distinctively fuses Latin American music and jazz; Osby’s made an indelible mark on contemporary jazz in many Blue Note solo recordings and collaborations with Steve Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, and others; Rees has played with an impressive array of artists, among them DeJohnette, Phil Woods, Maria Schneider, Chris Potter, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon; and Liebman, a one-time sideman of Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, has been a key jazz figure for multiple decades.
Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 differs from People’s Emergency Center in one critical manner in particular: commissioned by PRISM Quartet, the compositions on the new recording are by the guests, not the quartet, and each guest performs his work with the group. The lines normally separating classical and jazz worlds blur if not vanish altogether on an incredible collection that sees the classical playing of PRISM Quartet merge with the jazz playing and composing of the collaborators. And collaborations these new compositions truly are, as the guests worked intensively with the quartet to bring their respective works to fruition. Anything but an oil-and-water proposition, the refined classical style of the quartet blends seamlessly with the jazz phrasing and soloing of the guests. The commissioning of new works isn’t something new to PRISM Quartet, by the way, as the group has to date commissioned over 150 works by a broad number of award-winning composers.
At the start, Mahanthappa’s “I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight,” in conformity with South Indian classical music conventions, follows a slow introductory “alap” section with a faster “kriti.” In doing so, the piece offers a fine illustration of the composer’s artful way of integrating the culture of his Indian ancestry into a contemporary jazz framework. With Mahanthappa’s alto leading the charge, the piece opens with the composer soloing over a drone before the syncopations of a wilder faster section take over, and the unaccompanied solo Mahanthappa lays down at the midpoint shows that the many awards he’s received weren’t mistakenly bestowed. Zenón’s “X Marks the Square” brings Ries on board for the only album piece to feature a non-saxophone instrument, specifically Afro-Caribbean percussion played by the composer in addition to his alto. In a setting that often collapses the distance separating soloist and accompanist, the sextet configuration is needed to accommodate the six lines intricately weaving through Zenón’s playfully effervescent composition. Inspired by Hungarian folk music and the music of Béla Bartók (itself rooted in Hungarian folk music), Ries’ “Name Day” takes flight in exotic manner before a subtle R’n’B feel enters into the material via the honking baritone riff that powers the piece. The Hungarian influences notwithstanding, the powerful rhythmic drive of the material suggests that the musical worlds inhabited by PRISM Quartet and the World Saxophone Quartet aren’t all that far apart.
Lehman in particular would seem to be a natural fit for the PRISM Quartet’s project, given the altoist’s interest in integrating jazz and Spectral music, a form of classical music in which the physics of sound influences compositional decisions. His 15 Places at the Same Time is, not surprisingly, the most arresting of the recording’s works on sonic terms; and while it is sixteen minutes long, the piece also parts company with the other composers’ works in being comprised of five miniatures. But despite their relative brevity, they’re compelling nonetheless, especially when the soundworld seemingly expands into otherworldly zones during their tenure. The second movement “Gesture/Rhythm” backs a flamboyant solo with chords played with a reverb effect, but it’s hardly the only example of Lehman’s arresting compositional voice. True to its “Trajectory” title, Liebman’s explorative travelogue maps out divergent pathways that see harmonious dialogues between two voices followed by comparatively agitated ones. Most of the compositions on the recording are long-form, ranging between ten and twenty minutes, with one exception: a lovely album-closing arrangement by Liebman of Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.” With PRISM Quartet joined by Liebman on soprano and Osby on alto, the musicians’ heartfelt live rendering of the 1965 piece makes for a fitting coda to this special release.
While all of the recording’s material is positioned at a consistently high level, certain pieces do stand out, and interestingly it’s the quieter ones that imprint themselves most powerfully. Composed in 1999 (and thus the only piece not specifically written for Heritage/Evolution) and featuring the native Puerto Rican on alto, Zenón’s “The Missing Piece” is one of the recording’s loveliest works. A ballad structured in ABA form, the dream-like work features an entrancingly lyrical melody buoyed by a gently flowing rhythmic underpinning. Osby’s “Covenant of Voices,” which features the composer on alto and Liebman on soprano, is even more beautiful. Like Zenón’s, Osby’s is moonlit in tone, with the composer in this case “inspired by the lilting textures, tension, tight harmonies, and indirect resolutions that are trademarks of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.” In this remarkably elegant exercise in counterpoint, the saxophones entwine delicately throughout the seventeen-minute setting, and an altogether haunting side of the composer is presented.
Another appealing feature of the recording is its literal embodiment of community: Liebman appears on Osby’s composition and vice-versa, and the same also occurs in the case of Ries and Zenón, and such generosity of spirit enhances the recording in no small way. That the release is titled Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 is significant, too, indicating as it does that at least one more volume can be expected to appear sometime in the future (purportedly Ravi Coltrane and Chris Potter already are on board for the second). Here’s hoping that the quartet’s next installment will be as indispensable as the first.