PRISM Quartet

People’s Emergency Center

Among the country’s most celebrated chamber ensembles, the PRISM Quartet (Timothy McAllisterTaimur SullivanMatthew Levy, and Zachary Shemon) releases their CD People’s Emergency Center on May 27, 2014 on Innova Recordings.

Having commissioned over 200 works of new music from composers around the world, PRISM now turns to  the eclectic and inventive compositions of their founder and resident composer Matthew Levy.

Expanding on the saxophone quartet format, the two-disc People’s Emergency Center features a number of today’s leading jazz artists including Rudresh MahanthappaJason MoranBen MonderJay AndersonBill StewartFrançois Zayas, and former PRISM member Tim Ries. Levy builds his pieces around each improviser’s distinctive voice. “The intent is for both improvisation and accompaniment to evolve simultaneously on organic, parallel paths,” says Levy. Three compositions are written for the unaccompanied PRISM Quartet as well.

Much of PRISM’s work has been to place the saxophone in unexpected settings—from collaborations with traditional Chinese instruments and early music ensembles, to pioneering work with electronic wind instruments. Levy’s compositions bridge the saxophone’s dual heritages in classical music and jazz by integrating compositional techniques and saxophone performance practices from both areas of music, while also drawing from rock and world music.

2014 marks PRISM Quartet’s 30th anniversary, and the group is busier than ever, charting fresh musical terrain with groundbreaking projects.

Guest Artists:
Tim Ries, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Moran, Ben Monder, Jay Anderson, Bill Stewart, Francois Zayas, and Richard Belcastro

Record Label / Catalogue Number:
innova/890

Release Date:
May 27, 2014

Liner Notes:
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As a guiding force behind the omnivorous PRISM Quartet, Matthew Levy has been a musical midwife: helping to birth a large and eclectic repertoire of works built around the endlessly versatile sound of the saxophone quartet. 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.

People’s Emergency Center is a chance for PRISM to finally focus on Levy’s own music, which draws freely—and often surprisingly—from classical, jazz, world, and rock traditions. The album begins with a particularly instructive example. Under the Sun is a three-part suite scored for piano (the redoubtable Jason Moran), saxophone choir, percussion, and, in its third and final movement, the Indian sitar. In the opening movement, “Awakening,” a keyboard/percussion groove serves as the engine driving the rustle and hubbub of a… what? Are those birds taking flight and singing? Or is it the sound of the urban jungle yawning and stretching to life? Either way, the winds are overdubbed to form choirs of Philip Glass-style intensity, streaked through with jagged flashes of piano. With its striking collision of American Minimalism, the rhythms of Latin and African music, and the improvisation of jazz, “Awakening” is a major statement of intent at the start of the album.

The album includes three works written just for PRISM, including “Lyric.”  Levy’s voracious musical appetite apparently includes the French “Spectralists,” composers like Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, who create deeply-hued textures by analyzing the component parts of each sound and making those parts explicit, either by “splitting” the sound so that one or more of its overtones are audible, or reinforcing those harmonic components with other instruments. Working with this so-called “harmonic series” quickly moves the music out of standard Western tuning, and there are moments in “Lyric” that are both beautiful and unsettling—take, for example, the almost metallic ringing sound of the sax choir that ends the piece, a sign of mourning for the composer’s mother, in whose memory the work was composed.

The recording also features four works, including Serial Mood, in which PRISM is joined by an all-star line-up of jazz artists. Serial Mood is a punning title: here, Levy manages to combine the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, whose early 20th century experiments set music free of the constraints of tonality, with the strongly tone-centered modes of classical Greek music. The first part, “Reflection,” features Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose alto solo is full of movement and quicksilver changes of tone color, over a backdrop of softly roiling saxes and some rather insistent bass and drums, courtesy of Jay Anderson and Bill Stewart. The second half, “Refraction,” rides on a fierce post-bop groove, but the texture clears out in the middle to allow notable solos by Ben Monder, Tim Ries, and Matthew Levy himself.

Reviews

  • "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. "

    - POPMatters- PEC review by John Garratt, Assoc. Music Editor, July 29, 2014

  • "It's tempting to read greater significance into the fact that these two dramatically different Prism Quartet releases have been issued at the same time, a move that suggests the group's desire to call attention to the broad scope of the projects it tackles. Could any two releases be more different than one that couples the saxophone outfit with contemporary jazz musicians on the one hand and four Chinese classical composers on the other? That the results succeed as well as they do speaks to the talent and experience Timothy McAllister (soprano), Zachary Shemon (alto), Matthew Levy (tenor), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone) bring to the challenge. It's no exaggeration, by the way, to call the Prism Quartet one of the US's foremost chamber ensembles, given that the group has been active for nearly three decades, has commissioned over 150 pieces, and has issued more than sixty works on labels such as Albany, Innova, Koch, and Naxos. Music from China: The Singing Gob i Desert is naturally the more through-composed of the two releases. Recorded in early 2012 in Pennsylvania, the album features long-form works by Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man, and Huang Ruo, all but one of whom were born in the 1970s. In arrangements that fully integrate the quartet's saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments, the album achieves a legitimate East-West fusion. The Prism Quartet is joined on the release by the Music From China ensemble (founded in 1984), which features the playing of Wang Guowei (erhu), Chen Yihan (pipa), Helen Yee (yangqin), Frank Cassara (percussion), and guest Hu Jianbing (sheng). On all four pieces, the merging of the saxophone with the sonorities of age-old Chinese instruments makes for an arresting and original sound; if on paper, the two might appear strange bedfellows, the results argue otherwise. It's important to emphasize that any presumed separation between East and West is further weakened by the fact that the composers involved grew up being influenced by both cultures and that all have strong Western ties: Sheng, for example, is a professor at the University of Michigan, while Liang and Man both hold positions at the University of California. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as Asian-American composers instead of Chinese. Sheng's “The Singing Gobi Desert” takes its inspiration from the sands of the titular desert where winds, during dry conditions, can cause sand particles to rub against each other and produce an eerie musical effect. A feast for the ears in terms of tone colour, Sheng's folk-styled exploration is marked by the contrasts between the saxes and pipa and erhu but also reveals similarities shared by the saxes and the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ. An episodic design characterizes the twenty-minute setting as it evolves through agitated passages—the saxes racing helter-skelter against a backdrop accented by percussive strikes, for instance—and others more dream-like, the spotlight shifting rapidly from one instrument to another and the musicians intertwining their lines within the ever-unfolding material. The generally frenetic level of activity subsides during the piece's closing section, however, which is rendered memorable by the erhu's humanlike cry and the stillness that sets in during the final moments. Like Sheng's composition, Liang's “Messages of White” evokes a landscape in musical form but in this case snow. Certainly the tonal character of the material, so unlike Sheng's, is icy, its surfaces hard. As Liang's piece develops, the activity level slowly increases and the arrangement grows complex; tinged with foreboding, an ominous theme emerges that's oddly suggestive of Bernard Herrmann in tone until the intensity dissipates, returning us to the icy harmonics and barren terrain of the opening moments. Initiated by an erhu solo somewhat reminiscent of “The Moon Mirrored in the Pool,” Fang Man's “Dream of a Hundred Flowers” pairs the saxes with the erhu, sheng, pipa, and yangqin—instruments traditionally used in Chinese opera—in such a way that the two groupings interact like Peking Opera voices. Intense and dramatic exchanges occur throughout, sometimes involving all instruments and sometimes two only, such as the one between the soprano sax and erhu that, like an especially heated argument, encompasses a range of emotions. At album's end, Huang Ruo scales back the instrumental resources for “The Three Tenses” in featuring pipa and saxophone quartet only. Though that limits the range of Chinese sonorities, it does afford Prism Quartet a greater role, which isn't unwelcome given that to some degree its presence is overshadowed in the other three pieces by the Chinese musicians. Ruo's piece, by comparison, feels more as if Yihan is the guest and the quartet the host, and it's also distinguished by a somewhat jazzier feel than the other three, at least until its closing third where a drone-like array of querulous sax figures appears alongside the pipa's insistent, bird-like pluck. In contrast to Music from China: The Singing Gob i Desert, People's Emergency Center presents the work of a single composer, namely the quartet's tenor saxist and guiding force Matthew Levy. Not too much should be made of that fact, however, as the four compositions on the Music from China recording achieve a homogeneity characteristic of one dedicated to the work of a single composer. If anything, Levy extends the compositional circle of the double-disc set by mixing a variety of genres and styles into the twelve pieces. That being said, the participation of esteemed jazz players, many of them multiple DownBeat Award winners and members of acclaimed ensembles—soprano saxophonist and one-time member of the Prism Quartet (1993–2001) Tim Ries, alto saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Bill Stewart, percussionist François Zayas, and sitarist Richard Belcastro—ensures that the dominant character of the project will be jazz-flavoured. (It's important to note that not all eight guests appear on all nine of the pieces on which they're featured, with a given piece augmenting the quartet with anywhere from three to five of them.) It's telling that the opening sounds of the first piece, the three-part suite Under the Sun, aren't by the Prism Quartet but by Moran and Zayas, with the quartet here and elsewhere generous in the degree to which guests are granted the spotlight. In the opening part, the saxophonists assume a serpentine presence, with their Philip Glass-like patterns woven into the background fabric over which the solos appear. That Moran is the focal point of this setting is rendered even more clear when the second part, “Lonely Pairs,” gives itself over entirely to the pianist for a brooding rumination, before “Judgment” brings Belcastro into the fold for a six-minute exploration characterized first by introspection and then joyful exuberance. Been There, which takes its name from a documentary film Levy scored about the People's Emergency Center in his Philadelphia hometown, opens with a jazzy first movement that derives its Latin-funk kick from the splendid Anderson-Stewart rhythm section and features a scalding solo by Monder and a Shorteresque turn by Ries. Halfway through, “People's Emergency Center” takes an abrupt left turn and shifts into funk mode, with the baritone sax's honk acting as a pumping bass line. Movement two, “Gymnopedie,” obviously draws from Satie for inspiration in both title and mood, with Levy fashioning the piece as a heartfelt ballad scored for tenor sax, guitar, baritone sax, and drums. Though Serial Mood naturally invokes Schoenberg-ian serialism in its title, it less adheres to a strict twelvetone structure than an open-ended jazz feel due to the presence of Stewart, Anderson, and especially Monder, Mahanthappa, and Ries, who elevate the two-part setting with freewheeling solos. The second part especially, “Refraction,” embraces a jazz feel in its swinging groove and big band-styled arrangement, though mention must be made of the supple sax textures the quartet generates as a backing for Monder. It's hard not to think of Duke Ellington during the stirring ballad “Brown Eyes,” especially when Ries emotes so wistfully against a delicate backdrop provided by Stewart, Anderson, and Monder (Ries and Monder, as it turns out, performed the piece at Levy's wedding), and it's likewise difficult not to think of Sonny Rollins when the joyous calypso-styled swing of “Mr. Bobs and Lori Ann” arrives. To counterbalance the pieces featuring guests, People's Emergency Center includes three settings scored for the Prism Quartet alone, the first of which, “Lyric,” exudes somewhat of a mysterioso quality in its subtle handling of texture and exploration of harmonics and tuning. Composed in memory of Levy's mother, “Lyric” moves through a number of moods during its fifteen-minute journey, with the saxes at times suggesting the coiling movements undertaken by bassoon, oboe, clarinet, and sax within a neo-classical Stravinsky composition. Elsewhere, Levy's adventurous side gets a workout on what's essentially a tape collage, “Beneath,” the creation of which involved him gathering a library of sounds from each ensemble member and then assembling them into a chilly ambient-styled meditation. Levy was wise to position “Above” last, however, given that it's so much easier to warm up to an account of its lyrical and tender mood. Ultimately, if there's a criticism that might be levied against these high-quality recordings, it's that, as wonderful as they are, the Prism Quartet sometimes feels too much relegated to the background, as if they're the guests on the recording, though that is rectified on the Levy set to some degree by including pieces performed by the quartet alone. Such ego-less self-effacement is commendable, but a slight adjustment to the balance between the quartet and its collaborators wouldn't have been unwelcome. "

    - Textura review- Gobi and PEC, June 2014

  • "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. "

    - WRTI- PEC review by Kile Smith, Classical CD Selection. May 22, 2014

  • "The Best Jazz of 2014. People’s Emergency Center finds PRISM Quartet “frontman” Matthew Levy stepping out of the shadows, though not in a way that you would think. After spending their career collecting pieces to perform from outsiders, PRISM has now recorded a double album of Levy originals. I’d be shortchanging it to say that it’s “too big to fail”. No, People’s Emergency Center is too awesome to do anything else but succeed. Beefed up by the presence of Tim Ries, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Moran, Richard Belcastro, Ben Monder Jay Anderson, Bill Stewart and François Zayas, Levy and his three sax partners are almost reaching out to grab chamber jazz greatness. "

    - PopMatters, John Garratt, December 18, 2014

Behind-the-scenes Photos

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Click HERE for images on the making of People’s Emergency Center.