PRISM Quartet celebrates three decades of adventurous sax music with Heritage/Evolution at World Cafe Live - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
PRISM Quartet | photo by Jacqueline Hanna

At the time that a group of students at the University of Michigan joined forces to form the PRISM Quartet in 1984, the saxophone repertoire was largely limited to mid-20th century French conservatory music. Following one concert featuring a program of that material, composer William Albright approached the group and offered up a piece of advice.

“You guys sound great,” tenor saxophonist Matt Levy recalls Albright saying, “but stop playing that French shit.”

Over the course of the ensuing three decades, PRISM has played an instrumental role in ensuring that future sax quartets aren’t limited to that French shit. The adventurous ensemble has commissioned numerous works by renowned composers who have explored the full range of the instrument’s potential. To celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, the PRISM Quartet will embark on a series called “Heritage/Evolution,” offering new compositions written for the group by several of modern jazz’s most inventive voices. The series kicks off Friday night at World Café Live with pieces by eclectic altoists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Steve Lehman.

“It seems like yesterday we were students at the University of Michigan, playing at restaurants and shopping malls,” says Levy, the sole remaining founding member of the group. “Things progressed so quickly, but looking back I think our most proud accomplishment has been creating a repertoire for our medium where there wasn’t a lot to start with just by virtue of the instrument’s age.”

The current line-up – Levy on tenor, Timothy McAllister on soprano, Taimur Sullivan on baritone, and Zachary Shemon on alto – has been together since 2007, when Shemon replaced co-founder Mike Whitcombe. In addition to creating an impressive body of work for four saxophones, PRISM has also sought to place their sound in a stunning variety of unusual contexts, working with traditional Chinese instruments, percussion ensembles, or electronic musicians.

“Heritage/Evolution” was born of Levy’s own interest in combining jazz and classical vocabularies. The monthly series will continue through June with contributions by Dave Liebman, Greg Osby, Miguel Zenón, and Time Ries, a former PRISM member who has also toured extensively as saxophonist with the Rolling Stones. That interest is reflected on PRISM’s new CD People’s Emergency Center (Innova), which features Levy’s compositions for the quartet plus a number of jazz soloists, including many of the saxophonists contributing to the new series as well as pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Ben Monder, drummer Bill Stewart, and percussionist François Zayas.

“For this particular project I proposed the idea of bridging the dual history of the saxophone in both classical music and jazz,” Levy explains. “I thought that might be a fascinating way of looking at our instrument and embracing its heritage as an inspiration for new work. In my own writing I’ve been interested in this idea of combining the elements from each area of music that I love most; the elements of jazz that attract me are improvisation and rhythm, and in classical music I’m interested in thinking about development over an architecture that might be through-composed and draw on lots of textures and practices in both traditional and contemporary classical music.”

Friday’s opening concert features two saxophonists who are extremely well-versed in combining different musical languages into an evolutionary hybrid. Rudresh Mahanthappa draws on elements of his own Indian-American heritage as well as a wide palette of jazz influences, while Steve Lehman employs spectral music into his own rigorous compositions. “Steve and Rudresh have each written quintets that are really about finding the common thread to tie together their own unique voices with PRISM’s sound.”

For his piece “I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight ,” Mahanthappa drew on an especially unexpected source: the famous viral video of Ohio Republican Phil Davison’s exceedingly impassioned speech seeking the nomination for Stark County treasurer. “I know I’m late to the party, but by the time somebody turned me on to that video I probably watched it fifty times in the first few days,” Mahanthappa laughs. “For me, it was like listening to a really good song.”

In part, it was simply Davison’s unapologetic phrase that led Mahanthappa to use the YouTube sensation as inspiration for his PRISM commission. But he also found something fascinating in the office-seeker’s raw, strident tone. “When we think of music that speaks, it’s not always music that’s beautiful on the surface that’s the most captivating,” he says. “That speech has an arc to it, this sense of passion combined with confusion. It’s very funny and very sad all at the same time – and actually kind of frightening in some places. So at a basic level it seems appropriate to try to bring that out with music and with this particular cast of characters.”

To achieve that result, Mahanthappa’s piece heavily employs extended techniques on the instruments. “I tried to exploit some of the extremes of the saxophone’s sound,” he continues. “The piece actually vacillates between treating the group as four individual saxophonists and treating it as one big saxophone; the group is functioning as a single instrument to some degree. PRISM is unique in their scope and ability, so I really tried to take advantage of that.”

The title of Lehman’s piece, “15 Places At the Same Time,” implies exactly the multi-faceted approach he’s taken to the composition. “That title comes from the idea of trying to see how I could expand on what I do as a saxophonist,” Lehman says, “my language, my way of negotiating the instrument and of dealing with rhythm, harmony, melody and timbre, and to see what new perspective I could find on that by expanding it for this superb saxophone quartet. There’s five movements and each one explores that idea of expanding or exploding my language as a saxophonist from a different perspective.”

Having earned his Masters from Wesleyan University and doctorate from Columbia University, as well as composing for such acclaimed ensembles as So Percussion and the JACK Quartet, Lehman has extensive experience in the classical world, but doesn’t see a hard divide between that work and his more jazz-oriented efforts. “Regardless of whether I’m working with an ensemble whose orientation is more classical versus more in the domain of improvised music, I’m always looking for the same thing: I’m looking for ways to create a musical environment and have it transformed and made better by the people I’m working with. The tools that the guys in PRISM use to put their stamp on a piece and transform it is a different set of tools than a group of musicians that are more oriented towards improvised music would use, but globally the goal is the same. It’s for us to try to find a way to work together and make the piece much better than I could make it by myself.”

Tonight’s program will also include a collection of short pieces called “Dedications;” the U.S. premiere of a piece by French spectral composer Fabien Lévy, a mentor to Lehman; the world premiere of a piece by Kaeli Mogg, the winner of a competition that Prism held in conjunction with the Walden School for Young Composers; and a performance by Dual Identity, the duo project of Lehman and Mahanthappa.

PRISM Quartet headlines World Cafe Live in Philadelphia tonight, April 11th at 7 p.m. Tickets to the all ages show are $22 at the door, more information can be found here.

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