When many think of the saxophone, images of curly-haired, smooth jazz players and viral video sensations often come to mind. People don’t necessarily expect to go to a saxophone recital and hear breathtaking artistry and innovation in classical music. The PRISM quartet, however, has been defying these stereotypes for years and continues to push them more and more.
Founded 33 years ago in Ann Arbor, the PRISM quartet certainly has had their string of accomplishments. From playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with esteemed minimalist composer John Adams, to commissioning works from legendary jazz artists like Chris Potter and even being featured on the major motion picture “Two Plus One,” the quartet has certainly made their way out into the world. Despite all of these accomplishments, however, founding member Matt Levy said returning to Ann Arbor is “very personal.” He said his performance on Monday was like “coming home and playing for friends.”
On first impression, the venue didn’t really seem to fit the ensemble. The church was huge, and the performance space felt very separated from the audience. However, once I heard the quartet's sound echo throughout the hall, every concern I had about the space vanished instantly. PRISM filled the space with warm rich textures that immersed the listeners fully. They seemed to tell the story of these pieces with lush soundscapes, taking the listeners to places like the streets of Miami and the forests of northern Michigan.
Before almost every piece, a member of the quartet would come out, and warmly thank the audience for coming and give them some background information on the next piece. Not only did this further the audience’s immersion into the music, but it also continued to allow the space to feel more intimate.
One of the most apparent things about the group is how well they actually play together. The chemistry between these four players seems machine-like: Every decision regarding every note they played seemed to be chosen with the group in mind. Not only is the group technically impressive, but the artistic musical decisions they made together and the way they were executed was something very special. There were multiple times when I would catch myself smiling from ear to ear, watching in amazement as the quartet arrived at the climax of some musical moment.
In addition to presenting groundbreaking music and commissioning young, talented composers, one of the things PRISM is dedicated to is preserving “a legacy for new music through ambitious recording projects,” and we had the opportunity to see one of those pieces in action. The third piece in the program, ‘Surfaces and Essences’ by Christopher Biggs, was a world premiere, and it was also the premiere of a new saxophone technique. Inside the bell of PRISM member Zach Shemon’s Alto Saxophone was an instrument called a thunder maker. This instrument made a large, deep sounding rumble, and when combined with deep tones of the low end of the saxophone, filled the room with an incredible noise unlike anything I’d ever heard.
One of the things PRISM has been recently famous for is their initiative to not only take on ambitious projects, but to commission new music for the saxophone. Upon their foundation, Levy says that they “saw the limitations of the medium [saxophone quartet repertoire]” and sought to change that. This notion is blatantly obvious in their program, with five of the six pieces being written between 2014 and 2017, and one piece, an arrangement of John Adams’ “Fearful Symmetries,” from 1988. This felt really special, as it brought a sense of freshness and even uniqueness to the program, especially considering one of the pieces was a world premiere.
In addition to commissioning new music, the quartet prides itself in commissioning new music from composers around the state of Michigan. Composers from U of M, MSU and WMU were all in attendance and even provided the audience with small anecdotes about the pieces.
A new initiative for PRISM has been to work with some of the most prominent jazz saxophonists today. For their latest performance in Ann Arbor, they asked Andrew Bishop, Associate Professor and Chair of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation, to join them on the tenor saxophone and accompany Matthew Levy’s more recent compositions “Forbidden Drive.” Bishop commented on their recent collaboration, saying that after playing with them he feels like he needs to “go home and practice.”
“Playing with them, from a virtuosic standpoint, is really incredible,” he said. “It blows me away.”
Seeing this collaboration between saxophones from two entirely separate mediums is something truly unique. And while one may expect these two contrasting styles of players to clash, their distinct differences become less distinct as they blend these styles into one cohesive sound.
“This is the saxophone. It’s something to celebrate. It’s all part of our shared heritage,” Bishop said.
Every once in awhile, a performance will cause you to take a step back and reflect. With their return to Ann Arbor, PRISM Quartet succeeded in not only capturing the crowd, but nurturing them with musical stories filled with life.