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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Prism Quartet - Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1 (Innova, 2015) ****

By Stefan Wood

The Prism Quartet is comprised of four saxophone players: Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy, and Zachary Shemon.  Formed in 1984 at the University of Michigan, the group's original purpose was to perform classical compositions by contemporary composers.  Over the years they embraced free improvisation, and have collaborated with jazz musicians -- Gerald Cleaver, Dave Liebman, and many others.  On their latest effort Heritage/Evolution, Volume 1, they are joined by Rudresh Manthappa, Miguel Zenon, Tim Ties, Steve Lehman, Greg Osby, and Dave Liebman.  

According to the liner notes, this album inaugurates a new initiative by the group to build on their past by exploring new ways of musical expression on the saxophone.  It may be an instance of 
classically trained musicians who have worked with composed works are now moving into the realm of creative improvisation and free form composition.  Saxophone quartets are not new -- the World Saxophone Quartet, ROVA, 29th Street Saxophone, and Odean Pope's wonderful Saxophone Choir are examples of improvised sax ensembles.  The Prism Quartet puts forth an excellent effort on this album, straddling the line of classical and jazz. 

The opening track is a standout:  "I Will Not Apologize for My Tone Tonight," written by Mahanthappa, a vibrant post bop piece with Indian classical influences, where a slow solo beginning leads to a faster group interplay, then again solo.  "X Marks the Square," composed by Miguel Zenon, is a somber but beautiful track, an uplifting solo done over a melancholic slow group rhythm.  Another Zenon work, "The Missing Piece," is an ebullient track, bouncy chords over a clave that plays intermittently.  It is wonderfully joyful.  "Name Day," by Tim Ries, a former Prism member, has a strong world music feel, French cafe meets rootsy eastern europe and Piazzola, hand clapping and strong, flowing rhythms that ease the listener through this musical sound scape.  The other standout is Steve Lehman's "15 Places at the Same Time," a five part piece that deconstructs the use of electronics by only using the saxophone.  They become less wind instruments and more tonal textures, arranged in patterns that overlap and develop into complex forms.   Done in alternate short and medium timed pieces, solo and group improvisations, "15 Places" is the most successful in achieving the album's goal of exploration and reinvention.  Dave Liebman's "Trajectory" has Liebman and Greg Osby joining the group in a work that emphasizes a slow and dreamy harmony, with brief outbursts of soloing.  The albums concludes with John Coltrane's "Dear Lord," arranged by Liebman.  Here the spiritual nature of the piece is very solemn and spare, mostly solos; the duets providing needed contrast in texture.  

Heritage/Evolution volume 1 is an exciting album that stimulates and flows.  With an all star supporting cast, the Prism Quartet has issued a fine sax only album that combines their classical roots with jazz improvisation.  A fine album.