PRISM Quartet: People's Emergency Center
PRISM Quartet: The Singing Gobi Desert
It's tempting to read greater significance into the fact that these two dramatically different Prism Quartet releases have been issued at the same time, a move that suggests the group's desire to call attention to the broad scope of the projects it tackles. Could any two releases be more different than one that couples the saxophone outfit with contemporary jazz musicians on the one hand and four Chinese classical composers on the other? That the results succeed as well as they do speaks to the talent and experience Timothy McAllister (soprano), Zachary Shemon (alto), Matthew Levy (tenor), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone) bring to the challenge. It's no exaggeration, by the way, to call the Prism Quartet one of the US's foremost chamber ensembles, given that the group has been active for nearly three decades, has commissioned over 150 pieces, and has issued more than sixty works on labels such as Albany, Innova, Koch, and Naxos.
Music from China: The Singing Gobi Desert is naturally the more through-composed of the two releases. Recorded in early 2012 in Pennsylvania, the album features long-form works by Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man, and Huang Ruo, all but one of whom were born in the 1970s. In arrangements that fully integrate the quartet's saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments, the album achieves a legitimate East-West fusion. The Prism Quartet is joined on the release by the Music From China ensemble (founded in 1984), which features the playing of Wang Guowei (erhu), Chen Yihan (pipa), Helen Yee (yangqin), Frank Cassara (percussion), and guest Hu Jianbing (sheng). On all four pieces, the merging of the saxophone with the sonorities of age-old Chinese instruments makes for an arresting and original sound; if on paper, the two might appear strange bedfellows, the results argue otherwise. It's important to emphasize that any presumed separation between East and West is further weakened by the fact that the composers involved grew up being influenced by both cultures and that all have strong Western ties: Sheng, for example, is a professor at the University of Michigan, while Liang and Man both hold positions at the University of California. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as Asian-American composers instead of Chinese.
Sheng's “The Singing Gobi Desert” takes its inspiration from the sands of the titular desert where winds, during dry conditions, can cause sand particles to rub against each other and produce an eerie musical effect. A feast for the ears in terms of tone colour, Sheng's folk-styled exploration is marked by the contrasts between the saxes and pipa and erhu but also reveals similarities shared by the saxes and the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ. An episodic design characterizes the twenty-minute setting as it evolves through agitated passages—the saxes racing helter-skelter against a backdrop accented by percussive strikes, for instance—and others more dream-like, the spotlight shifting rapidly from one instrument to another and the musicians intertwining their lines within the ever-unfolding material. The generally frenetic level of activity subsides during the piece's closing section, however, which is rendered memorable by the erhu's human-like cry and the stillness that sets in during the final moments.
Like Sheng's composition, Liang's “Messages of White” evokes a landscape in musical form but in this case snow. Certainly the tonal character of the material, so unlike Sheng's, is icy, its surfaces hard. As Liang's piece develops, the activity level slowly increases and the arrangement grows complex; tinged with foreboding, an ominous theme emerges that's oddly suggestive of Bernard Herrmann in tone until the intensity dissipates, returning us to the icy harmonics and barren terrain of the opening moments. Initiated by an erhu solo somewhat reminiscent of “The Moon Mirrored in the Pool,” Fang Man's “Dream of a Hundred Flowers” pairs the saxes with the erhu, sheng, pipa, and yangqin—instruments traditionally used in Chinese opera—in such a way that the two groupings interact like Peking Opera voices. Intense and dramatic exchanges occur throughout, sometimes involving all instruments and sometimes two only, such as the one between the soprano sax and erhu that, like an especially heated argument, encompasses a range of emotions.At album's end, Huang Ruo scales back the instrumental resources for “The Three Tenses” in featuring pipa and saxophone quartet only. Though that limits the range of Chinese sonorities, it does afford Prism Quartet a greater role, which isn't unwelcome given that to some degree its presence is overshadowed in the other three pieces by the Chinese musicians. Ruo's piece, by comparison, feels more as if Yihan is the guest and the quartet the host, and it's also distinguished by a somewhat jazzier feel than the other three, at least until its closing third where a drone-like array of querulous sax figures appears alongside the pipa's insistent, bird-like pluck.
In contrast to Music from China: The Singing Gobi Desert, People's Emergency Center presents the work of a single composer, namely the quartet's tenor saxist and guiding force Matthew Levy. Not too much should be made of that fact, however, as the four compositions on the Music from China recording achieve a homogeneity characteristic of one dedicated to the work of a single composer. If anything, Levy extends the compositional circle of the double-disc set by mixing a variety of genres and styles into the twelve pieces. That being said, the participation of esteemed jazz players, many of them multiple DownBeat Award winners and members of acclaimed ensembles—soprano saxophonist and one-time member of the Prism Quartet (1993–2001) Tim Ries, alto saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Bill Stewart, percussionist François Zayas, and sitarist Richard Belcastro—ensures that the dominant character of the project will be jazz-flavoured. (It's important to note that not all eight guests appear on all nine of the pieces on which they're featured, with a given piece augmenting the quartet with anywhere from three to five of them.)
It's telling that the opening sounds of the first piece, the three-part suite Under the Sun, aren't by the Prism Quartet but by Moran and Zayas, with the quartet here and elsewhere generous in the degree to which guests are granted the spotlight. In the opening part, the saxophonists assume a serpentine presence, with their Philip Glass-like patterns woven into the background fabric over which the solos appear. That Moran is the focal point of this setting is rendered even more clear when the second part, “Lonely Pairs,” gives itself over entirely to the pianist for a brooding rumination, before “Judgment” brings Belcastro into the fold for a six-minute exploration characterized first by introspection and then joyful exuberance.
Been There, which takes its name from a documentary film Levy scored about the People's Emergency Center in his Philadelphia hometown, opens with a jazzy first movement that derives its Latin-funk kick from the splendid Anderson-Stewart rhythm section and features a scalding solo by Monder and a Shorter-esque turn by Ries. Halfway through, “People's Emergency Center” takes an abrupt left turn and shifts into funk mode, with the baritone sax's honk acting as a pumping bass line. Movement two, “Gymnopedie,” obviously draws from Satie for inspiration in both title and mood, with Levy fashioning the piece as a heartfelt ballad scored for tenor sax, guitar, baritone sax, and drums.
Though Serial Mood naturally invokes Schoenberg-ian serialism in its title, it less adheres to a strict twelve-tone structure than an open-ended jazz feel due to the presence of Stewart, Anderson, and especially Monder, Mahanthappa, and Ries, who elevate the two-part setting with freewheeling solos. The second part especially, “Refraction,” embraces a jazz feel in its swinging groove and big band-styled arrangement, though mention must be made of the supple sax textures the quartet generates as a backing for Monder. It's hard not to think of Duke Ellington during the stirring ballad “Brown Eyes,” especially when Ries emotes so wistfully against a delicate backdrop provided by Stewart, Anderson, and Monder (Ries and Monder, as it turns out, performed the piece at Levy's wedding), and it's likewise difficult not to think of Sonny Rollins when the joyous calypso-styled swing of “Mr. Bobs and Lori Ann” arrives.
To counterbalance the pieces featuring guests, People's Emergency Center includes three settings scored for the Prism Quartet alone, the first of which, “Lyric,” exudes somewhat of a mysterioso quality in its subtle handling of texture and exploration of harmonics and tuning. Composed in memory of Levy's mother, “Lyric” moves through a number of moods during its fifteen-minute journey, with the saxes at times suggesting the coiling movements undertaken by bassoon, oboe, clarinet, and sax within a neo-classical Stravinsky composition. Elsewhere, Levy's adventurous side gets a workout on what's essentially a tape collage, “Beneath,” the creation of which involved him gathering a library of sounds from each ensemble member and then assembling them into a chilly ambient-styled meditation. Levy was wise to position “Above” last, however, given that it's so much easier to warm up to an account of its lyrical and tender mood.
Ultimately, if there's a criticism that might be levied against these high-quality recordings, it's that, as wonderful as they are, the Prism Quartet sometimes feels too much relegated to the background, as if they're the guests on the recording, though that is rectified on the Levy set to some degree by including pieces performed by the quartet alone. Such ego-less self-effacement is commendable, but a slight adjustment to the balance between the quartet and its collaborators wouldn't have been unwelcome.