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PRISM Quartet: Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1

Karl Ackermann By

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Not quite as well-known as the World Saxophone Quartet or the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the PRISM Quartet practices a unique approach to this category of ensemble playing. In part, PRISM takes a more direct aim on improvisation as opposed to the more blended method of WSQ or the openly free style of Rova. More idiosyncratic is the evolution of the quartet over three decades. When tenor player Matthew Levy founded the group in Michigan, its original mission was specific to a fault; performing the classical works of twentieth-century French composers. Early on, the prominent composer William Albright—whose musical interests ranged from ragtime to atonal—recommended a more avant-garde direction. It was advice that that Levy embraced and now PRISM's evolution comes closer than ever to the definable jazz world on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1.

The current quartet line-up consists of Timothy McAllister on soprano, Taimur Sullivan on baritone, alto player Zachary Shemon and Levy, the only original group member. The two-disc set also features compositions and performances from Steve Lehman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenón 99, Dave Liebman, Greg Osby and former PRISM member Tim Ries. It's as superb a collection of modern, top-shelf saxophonists as one could find on a single release. The guest roster's collective jazz pedigree moves PRISM from third stream to improvisational jazz without abandoning the quartet's classical roots altogether.

The compositional credits on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 are spread out among the guest performers with Mahanthappa and Osby each providing a single contribution but—in aggregate—well over thirty minutes of excellent music. Mahanthappa's "I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight"—the best song title in recent memory—opens with long, fluid lines that lead up to choppy phrases that weave circuitously toward a Tom Waits-like burlesque of swirling reeds. Like the succeeding composition, Zenón's "The Missing Piece," the arrangements consist of melodic fragments; proxies for unlabeled movements, their pace rising and falling as they transition.

Ries' "Name Day" pulls in a number of global influences from Middle-Eastern, klezmer, and bolero mixed in with harder swing elements. He and the quartet are joined by Zenón allowing the six players to independently change direction while keeping the sound full. The five-part suite, "15 Places at the Same Time"—written by Lehman—incorporate moments of unruly dissonance and free improvisation—especially on "Solo" and "Radical Alignment"—loosely stitched together through the unbroken set. Osby's "Covenant of Voices" and Liebman's "Trajectory" occupy almost forty minutes of the second disc and the pieces are by turns animated, warm and spiked with surprising innovation. The album closes beautifully with John Coltrane's "Dear Lord."

It is the intention of the PRISM Quartet that Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 is just that—the first volume in a new experiment that tests the musical boundaries of the saxophone family. The quartet has in the past worked with the ensemble, Music from China, producing two highly unique albums. Another collection, Pitch Black (Innova, 2008), includes spoken passages from prison inmates and street preachers as well as Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. In some cases, PRISM loops and manipulates the voices making them surreal instruments. Experimentation is a way of life for this group and on Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 they have a phenomenal album filled with illusion, atmosphere and great music.

Track Listing: (Disc 1) I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight; The Missing Piece; X Marks the Square; Name Day. (Disc 2) 15 Places at the Same Time (1-5): Line/Texture; Gesture/Rhythm; Solo; Radical Alignment; Afterlife; Covenant of Voices; Trajectory; Dear Lord.

Personnel: Timothy McAllister: soprano saxophone; Taimur Sullivan: baritone saxophone; Zachary Shemon: alto saxophone; Matthew Levy: tenor saxophone; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; (Disc 1: 1) Miguel Zenón: alto saxophone (Disc 1: 2, 3, 4); Tim Ries: (Disc 1: 3, 4); Steve Lehman, alto saxophone (Disc 2: 1-5); Dave Liebman: soprano saxophone (Disc 2: 6-8); Greg Osby: alto saxophone (Disc 2: 6-8).

Title: Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Innova Recordings

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