Heritage/Evolution: Celebrating the Saxophone
Launched in 2014 to celebrate PRISM’s 30th anniversary season, Heritage/Evolution is an ongoing project that partners PRISM with master saxophonists who defy convention. Presenters may choose from nine new works composed and performed by jazz luminaries who join PRISM as guest soloists: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman, Tim Ries, Miguel Zenón, Dave Liebman, Greg Osby, Chris Potter, Ravi Coltrane, and Joe Lovano.
Since the saxophone’s invention by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1840, it has captured the imaginations of artists and audiences worldwide. Heritage/Evolution charts fresh musical territory, drawing on the saxophone’s cross-cultural heritage to blend jazz with everything from South Indian and Western classical music to Romani and Latin American folkloric music.
Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of today’s most innovative jazz composers and performers, fusing jazz and the culture of his Indian ancestry to break new musical ground. Down Beat’s 2012 alto saxophonist of the year, he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the coveted Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. He leads several groups, including Samdhi and the Indo-Pak Coalition, and has collaborated with Bunky Green, Jack DeJohnette, and Kadri Gopalnath.
Described as “one of the transforming figures of early 21st century jazz” by The Guardian (UK) and as “a quietly dazzling saxophonist” by The New York Times, Fulbright scholar Steve Lehman is the first composer to integrate jazz and Spectral music, a form of classical music in which the physics of sound inform compositional decisions. His 2009 recording, Travail, Transformation & Flow was chosen as the #1 Jazz Album of the year by The New York Times.
Multiple Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón is widely considered one of the most influential saxophonists of his generation. He studied classical saxophone in his native Puerto Rico before developing a unique voice as a composer/conceptualist whose work blends Latin American folkloric music and jazz. A founding member of the acclaimed SF JAZZ Collective, he has released six recordings as a leader including the Grammy nominated Alma Adentro (2011).
Hailed by The New York Times as “a singular talent, a player’s player,” Tim Ries is a versatile and thoughtful saxophonist and composer whose collaborators have included Phil Woods, Tom Harrell, Al Foster, John Patitucci, Danilo Perez, Red Garland, Badal Roy, Maria Schneider, Chris Potter, Donald Byrd, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and Sheryl Crow. A former member of PRISM (1993–2001), he has released eight recordings as a leader, and currently tours with the Rolling Stones.
Saxophonist, composer, producer, educator, and Pew Fellow Greg Osby has made an indelible mark on contemporary jazz over the past 20 years. Described by The New York Times as “a pacesetter” who composes work that is “intricately coiled,” he has performed with Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack DeJohnette, and Andrew Hill and released 15 solo recordings on Blue Note before founding his own Inner Circle label, a platform for today’s brightest artists.
David Liebman’s career has spanned over four decades, beginning in the 1970s as the saxophonist/flautist of both the Elvin Jones and Miles Davis groups, and continuing as a leader of his own ensembles, including Quest and Saxophone Summit. Down Beat’s 2011 soprano saxophonist of the year , he is an NEA Master of Jazz whose discography of nearly 350 records “defines unpredictability, incorporating his fascination with the worlds of jazz, rock, ethnic and contemporary classical music” (Washington Post).
Chris Potter is a world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader. The youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize, he was named Tenor Saxophonist of the Year 2013 by the Jazz Journalists Association. DownBeat called him “One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet.” His compositions draw on a vast range of music, demonstrating what Bill Milkowski called “a penchant for risk-taking and genre-bending.” Potter’s discography includes 15 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 albums. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his solo work on “In Vogue,” a track from Joanne Brackeen’s album Pink Elephant Magic, and was prominently featured on Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning album, Two Against Nature. He has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, and Ray Brown.
Ravi Coltrane is a critically acclaimed Grammy nominated saxophonist, bandleader, and composer. The son of John and Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane firmly established himself as a forward-thinking jazz musician with a strong musical identity influenced by, but set apart from, his father’s legacy. In the course of a twenty plus year career, Ravi has released six albums as a leader. His latest, Spirit Fiction, was released in June of 2012 for the Blue Note label. It was described by AllAboutJazz.com as a “new level of compositional and improvisational excellence…a complete, seamless musical statement.” Additional credits include performances as well as recordings with Elvin Jones,Terence Blanchard, Kenny Baron, Steve Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Jack DeJohnette, Matt Garrison, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Geri Allen, Joanne Brackeem, and The Blue Note 7. He is a co-leader of the Saxophone Summit with Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman, and founder of the independent record label, RKM.
Joe Lovano is a Grammy-winning saxophonist, composer, and arranger. DOWNBEAT magazine has twice named him Jazz Artist of the Year. He also topped both the DOWNBEAT readers and critics polls as Tenor Player of the Year in 2000. Lovano has collaborated with many legendary musicians, including McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, Joshua Redman, Bill Frisell, Branford Marsalis, Jim Hall, and Paul Motian. He is the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance at the Berklee College of Music and a faculty member in the Berklee Global Jazz Institute.
John Schaefer’s Liner Notes from Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 (Innova Recordings): You’ll notice this collection of pieces is not simply called Heritage/Evolution. It’s called Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1. That “1” is a statement of intent: this is not a one-time project, but the first step in a major new initiative by the PRISM Quartet. Building on their own thirty-year heritage, PRISM’s series of musical explorations documents an instrument and performance practice that continues to evolve.
That evolution has followed a typical Darwinian path—where superior developments spread, and often replace older ones. Adolphe Sax’s most successful invention (and really, his only successful invention) has proven to be so versatile and adaptable that it has spread well beyond Europe. The past century and a half has seen the evolution of traditions of saxophone playing in India, in West Africa, in the Balkans, and in Latin America. Now, in this first group of Heritage/Evolution works, PRISM has commissioned composer/sax players who refer not only to those world music traditions, but to electronic music too.
The opening salvo from PRISM is a collaboration with the New York-based composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose piece I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight is built on two parallel structures: one is a viral YouTube video featuring Phil Davison, who ran for the Republican nomination for Treasurer of Stark County, Ohio in 2010. “His speech is nothing short of insane and unintentionally hilarious,” Mahanthappa notes. His own composition reflects “the spirit of spontaneity while also following the arc of Davison’s speech in all of its erratic emotion, unrequited valor, and heartfelt (yet possibly misplaced) sincerity.” But that only tells half the story, for I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight also follows the form of South Indian classical music, where a slow “alap” section leads into the faster composed section, the song or “kriti.” The opening of the piece features Mahanthappa soloing over a drone which eventually blooms into slow moving chords. This leads to a faster, songlike melody that is then varied, elaborated, and fragmented. A squall of disputation among the saxes is silenced by a solo that seems to owe as much to the Carnatic sax master Kadri Gopalnath as it does to Marshall Allen (the longtime sax player in Sun Ra’s Arkestra). And at the end, the ensemble returns to the main song melody—a move common to the playbooks of both jazz bands and Indian classical musicians.
With its quicksilver shifts from South Indian-style ornaments and inflections to jazzy harmonies and bluesy smears, Mahanthappa’s piece offers an extraordinary and elegant blurring of the Carnatic and the post-bop traditions. Miguel Zenón does something similar with one of his two works here. His genial, playful work called X Marks The Square begins and ends with him playing Afro-Caribbean percussion under a syncopated melody in the saxes. Once Zenón picks up his own sax, he forms a sextet with PRISM and fellow composer Tim Ries. The six lines begin weaving in and out in a way that blurs the distinction between soloist and accompanist. Even the “solo” near the end finds itself being echoed by the others.
Zenón is also represented by an earlier work, the only composition in this collection not specifically written for Heritage/Evolution. The Missing Piece is a ballad, in an ABA song form. A series of rich, slowly rocking chords supports a simple, lyrical melody. “It’s built around the idea of having a rubato melody over a more rhythmically-consistent groove,” he explains.
Tim Ries and Miguel Zenón also team up in Ries’s piece called Name Day. Ries, a former PRISM member, has toured the world with the Rolling Stones and issued several albums of world music. This explains the highly embellished, exotic opening solo in Name Day, and an early passage with a strong bassline under sturdy rhythmic chords: it may not be rock, but it is certainly the work of someone who knows rock. The main influence here though is the music of Hungary. “Since 2002,” he says, “I’ve travelled to Hungary several times a year to work with the East Gipsy Band and pianist Kalman Olah, among other musicians. My love of Hungarian folk music, Roma music, and the music of 20th century composer Béla Bartók, which itself is rooted in Hungarian folk music, served as inspiration for my PRISM Quartet commission.”
The Bartók influence can be heard in the quartal harmonies (i.e., built around the interval of the fourth) in much of the accompaniment, especially the chordal passages. And near the end, the texture opens out into something quieter, reminiscent of Bartok’s so-called nachtmusik (“night music”—like the slow movement of the Concerto for Orchestra, for example).
Steve Lehman’s 15 Places At The Same Time makes the most subtly daring use of PRISM yet: in the course of a series of short miniatures, Lehman and PRISM produce sounds more often associated with electronics, sound effects, and percussion. Lehman, who has long worked at the intersection of improvisation and electronics, calls for rustling, whistling textures at the start. Later striking moments include a series of chords played with a reverb effect (without an actual reverb device—a real feat of rhythmic and breathing control), and a solo that recalls the sounds of traditional Japanese music. At the heart of 15 Places at the Same Time is an exploration of the boundaries between genres and between the performance practices of various traditions; Lehman adds that this work is reinforced by the idea of “improvisation as a creative practice situated at the threshold of structure and disorder, individuality and community, understanding and mystification, and the known and the unknown.” (You might add “acoustic and electronic” to that series of dichotomies.)
Another world music tradition colors the dark-hued, even moonlit piece Covenant of Voices, by Greg Osby. In this sextet, David Liebman and PRISM join Osby in a piece that he describes as being “remotely inspired by the lilting textures, tension, tight harmonies and indirect resolutions that are trademarks of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.” For the many fans of the Bulgarian State Radio And Television Female Vocal Choir, as they were officially known, this piece is not based on the earthy, intricate rhythms of songs like “Erghen Diado,” but rather the haunted, nocturnal world of songs like “Kalimankou Denkou,” with its keening solo and almost diaphanous accompanying ensemble. Even as the mood changes from noir-ish to more rhythmic, Osby deploys the six voices in unusual forms of counterpoint. Solos can stand out from and in contrast to the ensemble, or play the role of primus inter pares, unspooling material that seems to grow out of the overall texture.
This idea of playing with interacting voices, with splitting the group up into its component parts, is central to David Liebman’s Trajectory as well, scored for the same six saxophonists. Conversation and rhetoric are the order of the day. There are duos where the two lines flow along their separate but harmonious ways, and there is an argument when too many voices get involved later in the piece. “This openness and spontaneity is akin to what jazz musicians do all the time,” Liebman points out, “the success of which depends upon the musician’s responses to each other in combination with the written music itself.” Trajectory is thus a piece as much about listening as it is about being heard.
Liebman also offers a lovely, affecting coda to this first edition of Heritage/Evolution: an arrangement of John Coltrane’s Dear Lord. Essentially a beautiful, hymn-like chorale with a melody that has an unexpected taste of Ennio Morricone’s film music to it, Dear Lord is, as Liebman neatly puts it, “a kind of benediction to the dense music being played at this performance.”
Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 promises that there will be a second volume, at least. And it implies that the evolution of the saxophone will continue. As evolutionary biologists have pointed out, these things don’t just happen; there’s usually an outside agency (climate change, the introduction of a new species into the ecology, etc.) that provokes big evolutionary moments. For the sax, the PRISM Quartet has been and still is one of those agents, tirelessly exploring the possibilities of this most versatile instrument.
All Heritage/Evolution compositions were commissioned by PRISM Quartet, Inc. with major support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Additional commissioning support for X Marks the Square and I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight came from The Presser Foundation.
Tom Greenland, The New York City Jazz Record
"Demonstrating admirable control over his dynamic range, Osby began with a low-pitched motif, soon joined by soprano saxophonist Timothy McAllister—whose beautiful high register rivaled that of a coloratura vocalist—leading the quartet through a gorgeous chorale, which also showcased alto saxophonist Zachary Shemon’s dulcet tone and Liebman’s ever boisterous soprano."