Saxophonists in PRISM Quartet Mix Classical Music with Jazz
Posted 7/1/2014

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 co-lead.

Shaun Brady

David Liebman (from left), Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy and Greg Osby perform in Philadelphia on June 11.


Galen Weston

Skidmore College



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