PRISM Quartet Color Theory: Sō Percussion and PARTCH by Jean Ballard TerepkaJuly 7, 2016
PRISM Saxophone Quartet, founded more than 30 years ago and originally based at the University of Michigan, is a chamber music group of considerable elegance: so technically secure that virtuosity is not a goal but a vocabulary, these four musicians – Timothy McAllister/soprano sax, Zachary Shemon/ alto sax, Matthew Levy/tenor sax and Taimur Sullivan/baritone sax – present the music they commit to with unabashed but unsentimental passion, vibrant daring and generous tenderness. PRISM pushes the saxophones to unexpected modern edges without ever abandoning the instruments’ historical origins: even when playing music composed just months ago, the PRISM players never suppress the layered memories of aristocratic Baroque salons, nineteenth century concert halls and smoky twentieth century jazz clubs.Over the last several years, PRISM and two colleague chamber groups, Sō Percussion on the one hand and PARTCH on the other, have been engaged in the “Color Theory” project, and presented two separate concerts. Taking as their model early modern visual artists’ examination of pigment mixes through the insights of Isaac Newton’s discovery of color theory and prisms, the four saxophonists and composers with whom they collaborate have been using “color theory as a framework to explore the spectra that make up instrumental sound.” The results were exhilarating.
As though to locate their audiences in the “regular” context of saxophone music, PRISM began both their Sō Percussion concert and their PARTCH concert with works for four saxophones alone. The New York premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’ 2014 Saxophone Quartet set the subject of microtonality as the language of all the works in the Color Theory project. Shapes, as well as colors are evoked, especially by Haas’ Quartet which, in addition to presenting sound in a full range from fortissimo to the most whispered – barely even breathed – pianissimo, called up images of fluidity and liquids’ movements.Similarly, in the second piece of the second concert, Iannis Xenakis’ devilishly difficult 1987 XAS, the second oldest piece in these two concerts, multiphonic tones as well as what might have seemed, three decades ago, like wildly exotic allusions – saxophones echoing Javanese gamelans, for instance – served two functions. First, the saxophone-alone works placed in the ear of the audience the “first partner” of the Sō Percussion and PARTCH collaborations; second, they provided historical location for both the rootedness and the daring of the collaborative works.
In a programmatic decision at once sensible and felicitous, Sō Percussion and PARTCH each performed pieces for their own ensemble.In the first concert, Sō Percussion presented Bruce Dressner’s 2013 Music for Wood and Strings, a ten minute excerpt of a larger work, a work that calls for both traditional and specially made instruments and that operated on a constantly shifting and vibrant continuum between unstoppable pulse and ravishing melody.
In the second concert, PARTCH presented Castor and Pollux, the first piece in a trilogy of works, Plectra and Percussion Dances, dating from the early 1950s. Harry Partch (1901-1974), one of America’s most unusual twentieth century musicians, was a composer, performer, formal philosopher and parapatetic. He was also a perfectly astonishing instrument builder: his “Instrumentarium,” totaling more than 25 beautifully hand-made instruments of wood, organic elements, metals and glass, is serenely elegant and innovative.The instruments belonging to PARTCH, a group of seven musicians, making their East Coast debut, are among the very few extant authentic Harry Partch instruments and are exquisite works of craftsmanship. Partch created these instruments because the standard instruments were inadequate transmitters of the musical sound universe carried in his creative mind.
With names as evocative as diamond marimba, chromelodeon and cloud chamber bowls, these instruments are reminiscent of the instruments we all know, but are simultaneously quite other-worldly: they transport us, removing us from our regular locations, and requiring us to listen to music as if from other places, with only a distant memory of traditional musical proportions, harmonies and scales.Castor and Pollux is, in Partch’s words, “infectious dance music … Atonal-dynamic dithyramb. A ritualistic ecstasy.” As the seven musicians move in pairs, triads and quartets around and among the instruments, they presented two sets of mirror movements – twins to each other – called Insemination, Conception, Incubation and Delivery. It is wonderful, lively and unexpected music, at once cerebral and physical: you find yourself careening from thought to thought and question to question even as you find it hard to sit decorously still.
On both evenings, the set-up for the newly composed collaborative works – PRISM-and- Sō and PRISM-and-PARTCH – took place during the first half of the concert, and the new works were presented after the intermission.Steve Mackey’s eight-movement Blue Notes and Other Clashes is splendid: it is accessible and warm, an homage to song genres and dance steps by means of Mackey’s first musical experiences as a blues guitar player. The blues trope of things that “hurt so good” provided Mackey with an ironic perspective through which to consider musical color theory; Blue Notes, however, is a fundamentally sunny piece, concluding with a huge last moment so substantive as to be able to stand almost on its own.
Donnacha Dennehy’s The Pale, first written in 2003 and set in a new instrumentation for this project, was conceived by the composer as a response to global wars and an invocation of the fourteenth century British Pale around Dublin. This is a piece about boundaries and borders, and about both life’s and creativity’s insistence on their own illimitable energies; it has moments of genuine revelation.The two quartets – four saxophonists and four percussionists on multiple traditional and non-traditional instruments – made a densely multifaceted sound; at some moments, images of large Romantic symphony orchestras were conjured up and at others, an entirely new aesthetic of versatile orchestral sound seemed to be establishing itself.
The first of the two new PRISM-and-PARTCH collaborations was Skiagrafies by Stratis Minakakis, a work that, as the composer himself said in his brief comments to the audience, is about minute gradations of shadow and light, imagined etchings’ traces and relationships of line and space. For Minakakis, who conducted, color theory is not about hues, but about light. Infused with the Partch intimate strangeness, this music began with tendril-like delicacy, gradually expanded to great sound masses of simultaneous divergences and convergences, and then ended with a fade into distance.The concluding work of the PRISM-and-PARTCH collaboration – and of the Color Theory project concerts – was Ken Ueno’s Future Lilacs, a world premiere, like Skiagrafies. Future Lilacs is a fascinating work, luminous in places, about what Ueno calls microtonal explorations and the imagination of “counterfactual histories.” Ueno creates a world of unexpected urgencies: the electric guitar sounds insistently and hypnotically Asian, and the combined saxophones and Partch instrumentarium create a world in which we, the audience, are visitors. The final sung note of a cloud chamber bowl functioned as both valediction and invitation to memory.
The PRISM-and-PARTCH instrumental sound is rich and multilayered; even more than the saxophone-percussion sound, it is sensuous, organic and earthy, resonantly suggestive and capable of great power. Because the instruments are so unusual, the exceptionally close collaboration between composer and musicians is necessary. Both Minakakis and Ueno were profuse in their thanks to PRISM and PARTCH; indeed, thanks abounded, between composers and musicians, musicians and audience, friends, colleagues and Roulette regulars.And thanks were well deserved all around. Superb musicianship, artistic vision, collaborative daring and splendid imagination on the part of all involved in the production of PRISM’s Color Theory project made for two wonderful evenings of thrilling music. ... Link
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM JUNE 14, 2016Two years ago, an English high-tech company drew a flurry of media attention when it invented Vantablack, the “blackest black” ever created, made of a light-guzzling material so dark it looked like a void. New colors are mixed all the time, of course, though they rarely get the sort of fanfare that greeted the French artist Yves Klein’s deep shade of ultramarine, IKB, in 1960, or the accidental invention of mauve by the Victorian chemist William Perkin.
In music, too, composers and players are continually working to come up with new tone colors. In two concerts last week at Roulette in Brooklyn, the Prism Quartet, a saxophone ensemble, produced an intriguing palette of sounds that included tone colors never heard before.The concerts, presented under the title “Color Theory,” were fashioned as a sort of laboratory in which to explore the notion of color in music. The program included three commissioned works by different composers illustrating the complex, and subjective, nature of color in music.
For each concert, Prism teamed up with one other group: on Tuesday, So Percussion, and on Sunday, Partch, a Los Angeles-based ensemble that performs on the instruments invented by the composer Harry Partch to produce a wider palette of microtonally spaced pitches. Among those instruments are outlandish cloud-chamber bowls that look like hanging glass sculptures. Those bowls and a baritone saxophone, for example, created a blend, never tried before, that resulted in a delicate sandy-edged golden hum.Introducing his “Skiagrafies (Shadow Etchings)” from the stage, the composer Stratis Minakakis said he had been inspired by Beethoven’s exploration of tiny gradations at the ultraquiet end of the volume spectrum at the end of his career. During that time, Beethoven is known to have read Goethe’s treatise on color theory, which includes detailed observations of colored shadows.
The shadow world of “Skiagrafies” proved to be an alluring haze, grown out of that opening whisper-blend of a soft baritone saxophone note; it splintered into multiphonics that seemed to be enveloped, as in a translucent bubble, in the sustained warmth of a cloud-chamber bowl that was bowed across the rim with a double bass bow. This chord set the color scheme for the ensuing music with its soft, mournful saxophone ululations.According to the concert’s organizers, this was the first time the Partch instruments had been combined with a quartet of saxophones. After Sunday’s performances, the symbiosis seemed promising.
The composer Ken Ueno said he had decided to pay homage to Partch in his own response to the color commission by further adapting his instruments. For his “Future Lilacs,” he explained from the stage, he introduced “hacked” instruments of his own invention to the ensemble. One was a juiced-up electric version of Partch’s guitar, tuned to G on all strings, and a tenor sax turned into a “hookah sax” through the insertion of a seven-foot rubber tube between the instrument’s neck and body.The rubbery sputter that this exotic-looking instrument now emitted added to the dynamic contrast between organic and inorganic sounds in “Future Lilacs.” The work opens with a dynamic rock-charged section in which the electric guitar worries away at a single note with microtonally altered impulses, then settles into a languid postlude that again makes beautiful use of the ethereal cloud-chamber bowls.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Prism and So Percussion presented Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes and Other Clashes.” In introductory remarks from the stage, Mr. Mackey, an electric guitarist with a strong background in blues and rock, said he had been inspired by the “blue note” in jazz, “the right wrong note that hurts so good.”In eight short movements, Mr. Mackey brewed up heady concoctions, with needling dissonances sometimes subtly, sometimes sharply roughing up the musical textures. “Deep Hymn” grew out of the hum of a prayer bowl with quiet, sustained saxophone chords warmed by metallic percussion sounds. The marimba and steel drums injected a tropical note into “Rustic Ballad”; “Off Waltz” combined a sultry Scheherazade-like riff with a deep groove.
But Mr. Mackey’s evocative titles, combining a word from the visual arts with one from music, showed how subjective the perception of tone color remains. One movement dominated by a blend of saxophones with vibraphone and steel drums seemed to me a beautiful study in growing density and brilliance, its golden shimmer brightening with the addition of high notes in the soprano saxophone. The title of this gleaming gem? “Pale Lament.”A version of this review appears in print on June 15, 2016, on page C7 of the New York edition with the headline: Can You Hear That Crazy Forest Green, Man?... Link
NEW YORK--In remarks introducing Vamp (2016), composer Anna Weesner recalled her father characterizing the saxophone as “a vulgar instrument,” an assessment hard to fathom after hearing the sophisticated gloss that the PRISM Quartet gave her new piece, just one of six world premieres the saxophone foursome presented on March 20 at Tenri Cultural Center, a small, high-ceilinged gallery space in New York's Greenwich Village. Weesner uses a repeated motif—framed by well-timed pauses—to create a pulsing heartbeat, and the timbres produced by this one were uncannily diverse, often evoking other instruments, such as clarinet, trumpet, or bassoon.Composer Kyle Bartlett uses a catalog of extended techniques in the five sections of her entertaining Unfolding (2016), including airless key clicks, for a light percussive effect. (The third movement, “Clockwork,” deploys these exclusively.) In the second movement, titled “Vulgarly” (perhaps acknowledging Weesner's father's comment), mechanical rhythms are interrupted by brief outbursts of flutter-tonguing (a sound similar to a tremolo) and slap-tonguing (sharply glottal popping sounds), turning instruments that are usually all about melody into ones about texture instead.
North Carolina-based composer and educator Ben Hjertmann describes his Awake, Alive, Amok, Ajar (2016) as “a work on the verge of losing control.” Its emphatic lines—brightly lit with occasional rhythmic ostinatos—converge like four uninhibited conversations, as if four people were all arguing their points simultaneously. At times the lines are anchored by a rhythmic groove; at others they dissolve into pitchless puffs of air. The result was appealing, as if Steve Reich had somehow crossed paths with John Coltrane.
I look forward to the day when this is not news, but the fact that three of the composers represented on the program are women deserves noting. The third and youngest, Jane Lange, is a student at the Walden School in New Hampshire, where the quartet has had a long relationship, and she is the latest winner of Prism’s annual commissioning contest. SomewhatMusic, Mostly Noise(2016) could be retitled, “somewhat noise, mostly flat-out lovely.” It begins with a striking group glissando, descending as if in slow motion, and then travels through a landscape of short, microtonal slides. (It reminded me somewhat of Charles Ives's song, “Like a Sick Eagle,” in which the singer gently slides from note to note through quarter-tones.) The sheer tonal beauty is beguiling, but Lange's end result—a “sighing” effect—is even more striking.
Side Streets (2016) by Jay Reise, professor of music composition at the University of Pennsylvania, is a tribute to jazz saxophonist and composer Jimmy Giuffre (whose popular 1947 tune, Four Brothers, was written to show off the saxophones in the Woody Herman Orchestra). After a complex opening chord, again showing the PRISM crew's refined balance, Reise alternates soaring lines with bursts of peppery, jumping rhythms, leading to a gently elegiac close. His warm chordal harmonies were perhaps the afternoon's most explicitly jazz-influenced, and somewhere, Giuffre was probably smiling down in approval.
Founded in 1984, PRISM has become highly regarded for its performances, educational efforts, and commissioning—to date over 200 works by a wide array of award-winning composers. The superb artists who make up the quartet—Timothy McAllister (soprano), Zachary Shemon (alto), Matthew Levy (tenor), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone)—could not have been more committed throughout the afternoon, wearing their virtuosity lightly and showing the premieres in the best possible light. If any of this could remotely be considered “vulgar,” we could use a lot more of it.
The afternoon ended with Stratigraphy (2016) by James Primosch, also on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Introducing his piece, Primosch mentioned he was inspired by geology—the word refers to the analysis of strata—and by spectralism, after reading pianist Marilyn Nonken's book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age (2014, Cambridge University Press). Also director of piano studies at NUY's Steinhardt School, Nonken has long been at the forefront of contemporary piano music, and has commissioned many new works. Here, as a guest with the ensemble, she offered clean, expertly balanced keyboard sound, often in delicate tracery—a welcome counterpoint to the saxophones. Primosch makes maximum use of the instruments' contrasting timbres, framing the quartet with the piano—the latter often at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Each of the six movements has its beauties, but I was most struck with “Game of Pairs” (a nod to Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra), and the motoric sparkle of “Geochronologic.”
Most instruments within the realm of Western classical music have a long and elaborate history, their origins veiled in a certain amount of mystery. Violins, flutes, cellos, oboes — all have long lines of ancestry and plumed pedigrees, all have pedagogues and pedagogies. As a result of this long history and the deeply ingrained traditionalism inherent in classical music culture, new instruments often have difficulty establishing themselves within the repertoire, forced to overcome the prejudices and obstinate attitudes of the elder instruments. This is certainly the case with the saxophone, whose origin — in sharp contrast to earlier instruments — is a clear and specific part of the historical record. Invented by Adolphe Sax in 1840, the saxophone has since become most famous for its prominence in jazz music, played virtuosi such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
But in addition to the saxophone’s well-known affiliation with jazz, the last several decades have seen the rise of saxophone in the classical music sphere. Soloists and chamber groups of enormous ability dazzle audiences with newly composed music for their instrument — and perhaps there is no more famous classical saxophone ensemble active today than the Prism Quartet, who will be performing in Ann Arbor Saturday.
“The Prism Quartet formed in 1984,” said Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophonist for the quartet and associate professor of Saxophone in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “At the time, they were all graduate students at the University of Michigan here, all under our great mentor, the professor emeritus of Saxophone Donald Sinta.”
While the quartet originally formed as a group of students seeking to advance their education through competition, it soon grew into something with a greater sense of purpose.
“They formed to perform locally and also to compete in local and national chamber music competitions — they ended up doing really well, and won a few major competitions, which led to a more serious plan and mission for the group,” McAllister said. “Very quickly the group started to get involved with commissioning new music — contemporary music by living composers, namely those associated with the University of Michigan here, faculty (and) recent graduates.”
In the years following its founding, Prism was a major force in the promotion of the saxophone as a serious chamber music ensemble rivaling the traditional string quartet, a heterodoxy which soon distinguished them from the crowd.
“The idea of the saxophone quartet being something out there that would rival the traditional chamber music models — I think that was much more a pioneering effort on behalf of Prism,” McAllister said. “(Because ensembles like the string quartet) have so much more history, (Prism) worked very quickly to make up that ground, just by getting today’s most important composers to write for the saxophone quartet.”
Since its founding, Prism has had several member changes. McAllister himself was hired in 2000, the third soprano saxophonist to be a member of the ensemble. Today, the quartet is comprised of McAllister, Taimur Sullivan on baritone, Zachary Shemon on alto and Matthew Levy — the only remaining founding member — on tenor.
“We’ve always hired from ‘Michigan aesthetic,’ which is quite singular, both born out of the playing styles of Donald Sinta himself and his teacher Larry Teal, who was the first professor of saxophone anywhere in the United States,” McAllister said. “The first professorship in that field started here at Michigan. We’re very proud of that.”
Prism has long been associated with the University, and in the past few decades has served as a model to saxophone students in the School of Music, Theater & Dance.
“I did four degrees here at the University of Michigan, in the music school, and I knew for myself I grew up knowing about the Prism quartet, I came to college here knowing its history and its trailblazing status,” McAllister said. “That was an inspiration for all of us who were in the (saxophone) studio at the time.”
For the concert on Saturday, Prism will be working with several creative collaborators. Renowned jazz saxophonists Diego Rivera and Andrew Bishop will be joining the ensemble for performances of “Improvisations” by Chris Potter, “Found” by Matthew Levy and John Coltrane’s ballad “Dear Lord,” arranged by Dave Liebman.
“We wanted to really collaborate with some really fantastic local jazz musicians, because the program called for that,” McAllister said. “The goal has been to show this merging of the classical tradition with the more academic jazz tradition, and basically to show the middle ground, to create a collaboration that demonstrates both sides of the instrument as a single organism.”
The program’s primary featured piece is “Improvisations” by Chris Potter — a legendary jazz saxophonist — which was composed for the quartet, the concept being that the composer/performer would join the quartet to play in their own piece. When the piece was premiered it was played by Prism, Potter and Ravi Coltrane, the son of John Coltrane. On this week’s program the piece will be performed with Rivera and Bishop.
“The whole concert is quite a collage of a lot of our activity. It showcases some of our more serious classical pieces, it showcases some heavy concert jazz music and it has some transcriptions,” McAllister said. “So it’s kind of a nice survey of our legacy, of the kind of activity that we’ve embarked upon for the whole history of the group but also in the more recent history of the group.”
In the upcoming concert, Prism will also be premiering a new piece by William Bolcom, a Pulitzer prize winning composer and professor emeritus in Composition at the University. Bolcom’s work, “Schumann Bouquet,” is a transcription of piano music by the Romantic era composer Robert Schumann.
“We wish for no major composer living composer to leave this Earth without at least considering writing for saxophone quartet,” McAllister said of the quartet’s mission. “And if we can have a place in getting those people to write for our medium, great; if we can be at the forefront of getting their attention, great … but we really actively seek out the leading figures of our time.”
Those who attend Prism’s Saturday concert will witness a broad collection of musical styles, as it is a program designed to break the oft-found stylistic unanimity common in classical music concerts.
“There can be such a chameleon-like quality to the instrument so much that from piece to piece, style to style, genre to genre, you will feel that each of those is genuine, and almost complete identifiable with the saxophone,” McAllister said. “And yet each piece will sound different.”
SHAUN BRADY, FOR THE INQUIRER POSTED: Saturday, June 13, 2015, 3:01 AM
The Painted Bride hosted a celebration of the saxophone Tuesday night. The PRISM Quartet welcomed two of the most celebrated performers in modern jazz for a show blurring the lines between jazz and classical music. In this latest installment in the Heritage/Evolution series, PRISM's season finale added Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane to the mix.The show opened with two pieces by PRISM founding member and tenor player Matthew Levy. The pastoral "Found," written in honor of the composer's second wedding anniversary that night, began with Coltrane playing solo. PRISM entered with gentle pules and choral swells. Their lush harmonies provided an evocative, impressionistic palette for Coltrane (tenor) and Potter (soprano).
Originally written in 1998 for a project with jazz drummer John Riley, "Real Standard Time, Planet X" was presented in a new arrangement. The intent of the piece, Levy explained, was to imagine a meeting between Arnold Schoenberg and George Clinton, a melding of serial music and funk. Baritone player Taimur Sullivan provided the latter, laying down a groove to anchor the piece's snarled polyphony, spurring knotty soloing from the guest artists.Potter and Coltrane then left the stage for "Your Gentle Heart," a tender lament written by former PRISM member (and longtime Rolling Stones sideman) Tim Ries in memory of a friend's daughter killed in a car accident.
The centerpiece of each of the Heritage/Evolution performances has been the premiere of new compositions written for the ensemble by their jazz-world guests. Despite being the son of a sax legend, Coltrane instead invoked his mother, pianist Alice, in the harmonies of his contribution to the set, "Tones for M." Like Levy's "Found," the piece reveled in the density and richness possible in the massed woodwinds. Whatever its inspiration, Coltrane's piece ultimately proved a spotlight for the instrument, leaning heavily toward the jazz end of the scale and culminating in a thrilling tenor duel between the composer and Potter.Potter has experimented in his own work with more complex orchestrations, as in the cinematic electro-acoustic sound of his latest CD, Imaginary Cities.
His contribution was the evening's highlight, a complex piece titled "Improvisations" that arranged and harmonized a series of his own improvisations, recorded in a dressing room in Osaka, Japan. In a post-show discussion, Potter explained that the piece realized a long-held desire to flesh out his improvisations with the voicings and harmonies he hears in his head while playing.Immediately recognizable as Potter's distinctive voice, the five movements of "Improvisations" - which actually contained no improvisation in their final form - surrounded labyrinthine melodic lines with countermelodies and layered orchestrations, or passed molten flurries from one quartet member to another, expanding the range of Potter's soloistic imagination.... Link
How better to celebrate three decades of saxophone virtuosity than with more saxophones? On June 11 at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, the PRISM Quartet wrapped up “Heritage/Evolution,” its 30th anniversary series, with newly commissioned compositions by David Liebman and Greg Osby. The show was the third in a series featuring new pieces penned by jazz composers for the classical sax quartet, which formed at the University of Michigan in 1984. Previous concerts debuted works by Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman, Miguel Zenón, and former PRISM member Tim Ries.
The World Cafe Live concert began with four brief pieces by composer Jennifer Higdon from a 1996 suite titled Short Stories. Each piece highlighted a specific element of the quartet’s playing, from the swirling, intertwining lines of “Chase” to the pointillist round-robin of “Stomp And Dance.” The short works had the feelings of etudes, with a rigidity that stood in stark contrast to the pieces written by the jazz composers featured on the evening’s bill. Still, the quartet’s technical brilliance was on vivid display.
Liebman and Osby joined the quartet for “Serial Mood: Reflection,” a piece featured on PRISM’s latest CD, People’s Emergency Center (Innova), and written by Matthew Levy, the quartet’s tenor saxophonist and sole remaining founding member. In this arrangement, PRISM’s now muttering, now swelling, now zig-zagging lines served as backdrop for improvisational excursions by Osby (on alto) and Liebman (on soprano, as he remained throughout the performance). As a segue into those saxophonist’s works, the piece served as an ideal spotlight on PRISM’s longstanding attempt to blur the lines between the jazz and classical worlds. Both jazz saxophonists’ compositions were surprising for anyone who’s followed the two artists’ careers. Osby rose to prominence as part of the M-Base movement, imbuing jazz with angular modernity, but his “Covenant Of Voices” was lush and unexpectedly gorgeous; Liebman is a longtime Coltrane disciple comfortable with the breadth of jazz from bop to free, but his “Trajectory” felt steeped in 20th-century classical rigor.
Osby explained that “Covenant Of Voices” was inspired by the haunting sounds of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. The piece didn’t mimic the sound of the choir, but it did corral the collected saxophonists into rich, evocative harmonic masses. It began with the composer playing solo, a short, dusky fanfare that trailed away, leading to soft, watercolor ebbs and flows by the quartet. Liebman entered for a soprano solo over PRISM’s softly surging motifs, turning the piece into a melancholy lament. Osby followed, moaning where Liebman keened.
The evening’s second half was given over entirely to Liebman’s work, beginning with an arrangement (by Liebman’s wife, Caris Visentin) of “Breakaway,” a movement from his multitracked 1985 suite The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner. The web of sax lines supported the composer’s fiery solo, replete with grunts, gasps and overblowing. He followed with another piece from the same year, “A Moody Time,” a strident and stormy depiction of depression that nevertheless ended with the optimistic uplift of a buoyant vamp, with Liebman and Osby trading solo statements back and forth. The evening concluded with an evanescent Liebman arrangement of Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.”
The highlight of the program came in the form of Liebman’s commission for the occasion, “Trajectory,” which gave the members of PRISM license to improvise within specific cells or in predetermined rhythmic patterns. The piece determinedly explored the various combinations possible within the quartet, beginning with baritone saxophonist Taimur Sullivan and altoist Zachary Shemon parrying flurries, only to quickly be subsumed by Levy and soprano player Timothy McAllister taking their own turn, with various other pairings following. A trio playing clockwork unison lines then became the full quartet providing long tones for another Liebman solo, then trading short bursts and blasts with Osby contributing to the brusque call and response. The stringent piece ended tenderly, seeming to drift off into the air like breath through their bells.
This June 11 show proved to be a celebratory ending to a successful series that had begun two months earlier on the same stage with pieces far more characteristic of their composers. Mahanthappa took tongue-in-cheek inspiration from a viral video for his piece, “I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight,” which exploited the instruments’ flexibility to capture the YouTube hit’s combination of passion and confusion. Lehman’s “15 Places At The Same Time” was a prismatic explosion of his own instrumental voice, splitting his individual language among the various members. While Mahanthappa and Lehman didn’t contribute to each other’s pieces, they did perform a piece from Dual Identity, the group they colead.... Link
The PRISM Quartet is a saxophone quartet led by Matthew Levy. Over the years, Levy and his band mates—Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon and Taimur Sullivan—have commissioned many modern compositions for them to perform. After all, the repertoire for soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones is probably pretty limited despite the relative successes of the World Saxophone Quartet and the 774th Street Quartet. Their double album People’s Emergency Center showcases original work by Levy himself. Writer John Schaefer gives Levy quite the hand-slapping in his portion of the liner notes: “But while championing so many of his colleagues, from the internationally renowned to the young and emergent, Levy has done a great disservice to a contemporary American composer with a distinctive voice: namely, Matthew Levy.” Yeesh!
It only takes one listen to People’s Emergency Center to understand from where Schaefer is coming. First of all, this 88-minute album does not lean on a stylistic center. When you pop one of the discs into your computer, whatever software you use will identify the music as “jazz”. In truth, jazz is just part of the picture here. Levy’s compositions sail far into contemporary classical territory too, leaving room for the occasional drone or world music influence. And even within the “jazz” label these songs don’t stick to just one subgenre. There’s the blanket term “post-bop” at work, things with a little more traditional swing to it, and some far out modern jazz as well. The other thing that makes People’s Emergency Center so special is the guest list. Former member Tim Ries returns to contribute soprano sax and rising jazz star Rudresh Mahanthappa provides some alto. The inimitable Jason Moran plays the piano, Richard Belcastro covers the sitar, Ben Monder does the guitar thing and Jay Anderson, Bill Stewart and François Zayas round out the rhythm section on bass, drums and percussion respectively. You can’t enlist help like that and expect everyone involved to just sleepwalk their way through some anonymous jazz session.The album’s first disc is debatably the more exploratory of the two. It has two selections from Levy’s score for the documentary Been There. This is where you’ll find the 13-minute title track dedicated to an neighborhood organization in Levy’s hometown of Philadelphia. The music is too abstract to be called jazz yet too boppy to be referred to as anything else. “Gymnopedie”, riffing off of Erik Satie’s made-up term, justify the 20th century claim that jazz was “America’s classical” music. “Lyric”, which runs longer than fifteen minutes, could fool the lay listener into thinking it was a Stravinsky piece. It’s on the second disc where Levy puts the swing back into his group with the 12-minute “Refraction”, another odd yet snappy piece of music that probably doesn’t rely on the tired old chart method. “Brown Eyes” sounds like a band winding down the after party after a wild night at the Cotton Club. After that comes doo-wop with “Mr. Bobs and Lori Ann” with a smooth performance by Ries. Serious compositions often tell stories. On People’s Emergency Center the individual tracks don’t tell stories so much as they act out 12 independent novels. All you need is one listen to the cyclical, sometimes minimal opening track “Awakening” to know that a) this will be a most unusual album and b) it’s going to be quite remarkable too. No matter what style you nail the PRISM Quartet and People’s Emergency Center to, this album should go down not only as one of 2014’s finest releases but also as one of the most unforgettable works of chamber music for years to come.
"Whether it's rhythmically striking, sonically challenging, or a charming tune, it is genial music offered warmly to a real world filled with real people who want something good to hear."
WRTI's Kile Smith, host of Now Is the Time, recommends...
Saxophonist and Prism Quartet founder Matthew Levy has spent his career getting other composers played; now the spotlight's on him in a new CD, and what a brilliance it reveals.
Call the Prism Saxophone Quartet contemporary-classical, call them avant-jazz, even call them omnivorous, but whatever you call them, they've been setting the gold standard for three decades. 2014 is in fact their 30th anniversary, and in that time, while centered in Philadelphia, they've been everywhere, stretching styles while inhabiting classical, jazz, world, and rock idioms.
Prism has commissioned more than 150 works, but in People's Emergency Center (Innova) they turn the entire two-disc set over to Matthew Levy.
People's Emergency Center is the first movement of Been There, and is also the name of a shelter helping women and children in West Philadelphia. It and the second movement, Gymnopedie (the word Erik Satie coined for his most famous piece), are culled from Levy's music for a documentary about the shelter. The Prism four (Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Zachary Shemon, and Levy), bass, drums, guitar, and former Prism member Tim Ries on soprano saxophone all create magic with swirling precision.
Levy's voice is at once vernacular and otherworldly, steeped in jazz but living in—as Henry Cowell would have it—the whole world of music. Serial Mood seems to ponder that post-Schoenberg world of harmony, and in doing so reveals a tasty secret known to Dizzy Gillespie, Gunther Schuller, and a few other hep cats: If you play 12-tone music with a hard, swinging beat, it sounds for all the world like be-bop.
That's one of the unexpected treats that Levy offers. Another is the overarching spirit of generosity—to the listener and to each player. All the music of his I've heard exhibits this. Whether it's rhythmically striking, sonically challenging, or a charming tune, it is genial music offered warmly to a real world filled with real people who want something good to hear. An excellent example is Brown Eyes, which here employs the whole band, but which Levy first had played in public in a smaller version. The occasion of the premiere? His wedding.
[Been There and Brown Eyes were featured on Now Is the Time, May 10, 2014.]
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