PRISM Quartet

Heritage/Evolution, Volume 3

Perhaps the most well-rounded — and most in-tune — saxophone quartet ever, PRISM turns 40 this year, with more than 300 commissioned works in its ever-expanding oeuvre. Those distinguishing qualities come into play prominently on the group’s latest, Heritage/Evolution, Volume 3. With Tim McAllister on soprano sax, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor and Taimur Sullivan on bari, PRISM Quartet is a model of open-mindedness and artistic refinement. The saxophonists play with virtuoso precision and exhibit a level of interpretive judgment that comes with classical training and deep connections to jazz. Embracing a reverent, chamber music vibe, the ensemble coaxes the subtle, sophisticated beauty out of highly nuanced works featuring guest artists Tim Ries (tenor sax, soprano sax, flute), Miguel Zenón (alto sax), Terell Stafford (trumpet) and Melissa Aldana (tenor sax). Like previous Heritage/Evolution installments, this is a program of serious material that’s a true delight to hear, a colorful spectrum of compositions penned by Aldana, Levy, Stafford and Steven Sondheim. Heritage/Evolution Volume 1 (2015) included contributions by guest instrumentalists Steve Lehman, Dave Liebman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Greg Osby, Ries and Zenón. For Volume 2 (2021), Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano and Chris Potter came onboard. PRISM makes art-music to suit any instrumental configuration or stylistic context, and the group clearly isn’t afraid to take on a challenge. In the coming weeks, PRISM Quartet will present its most ambitious project to date: Generate Music, a new body of work exploring the ties between Black and Jewish Americans. The project aims to form a musical narrative by including panel discussions, radio broadcasts and world premiere performances of eight new commissioned works by Yotam Haber, David Krakauer, Myra Melford, Diane Monroe, Ursula Rucker, Tyshawn Sorey, Susan Watts and Fred Wesley, who will use PRISM Quartet as the core of a larger ensemble with an overarching goal of exploring cross-cultural exchange. Generate Music concerts will take place June 8 in Philadelphia and June 9 in Brooklyn, with panel discussions happening May 28 and May 30 in Philadelphia. The project will conclude with a radio broadcast on WWFM and an album release on XAS Records in 2025. For more information on Generate Music, CLICK HERE.

Jeanfrançois Prins

Blue Note Mode

How much of post-1965 jazz history has been a search for that perfect sweet spot between its popular- and art-music foci? Well, with Blue Note Mode, Belgian guitarist Jeanfrançois Prins seems to have found it. If the title doesn’t tell you that (not coincidentally, the album was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio), his bandmembers — hornmen Jeremy Pelt and Jaleel Shaw, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer E.J. Strickland — should.

Indeed, there’s a certain lenticular-image nature to Blue Note Mode. Examined from one angle, it’s a hard-bop record: full of swing and the blues, hot, wailing horns (“Blue Note Mode,” “Move or Be Moved”) and the liquid clarity of Prins’ guitar tone (“Diana,” “’Round Midnight”). Approached from another angle, though, it’s an exploratory, post-bop album with unconventional forms and shifting time-feels (“H and C’s Dance”), unsettling harmonies (“Blues Sea”) and standards refit with hip-hoppish rhythms (“Daahoud”). Never, though, does that dichotomy feel forced, or bipolar. It’s all a beautifully cohesive tapestry.

And it clearly inspires all involved. Trumpeter Pelt, in particular, is on a tear; every time he takes the solo spotlight, he blazes across it. Prins’ “Move Or Be Moved” is a brilliant example: Out of Shaw’s propulsive alto line, Pelt takes off like he’s been stung by a bee, with each consecutive phrase a new fanfare. Prins routinely follows Pelt in the solo sequences, and whether by the latter’s inspiration or his own spark, he always seems to make par. On the title track, the trumpeter ends his solo with a touch of coolant, which Prins immediately discards in order to scorch up the joint.

Importantly, though, Prins can generate serious electricity without the horns, and does so on six of the album’s 12 tracks. He and Grissett lay down a scintillating double-solo marathon on the guitarist’s “I’m Movin’ On” and “Ornette-Lee” (ironic that the latter, named for two of Prins’ favorite saxophonists, has no horns). The leader then surprises with a sweet crooning vocal on the closing “Too Late Now.” It’s a beautiful moment that renders pop-or-art identities irrelevant.

Matt Wilson’s Good Trouble

Good Trouble

Good Trouble finds Matt Wilson as boisterous and hard-swinging as ever. Resourceful, too: This critic had never heard a contrafact of “Feed The Fire,” Geri Allen’s signature tune, before Wilson’s playful album opener “Fireplace.” The drummer brings his affability as well to Ornette Coleman’s “Feet Music,” spurring his bandmates — alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Jeff Lederer, pianist/vocalist Dawn Clements and bassist Ben Allison — into a downright boogie. Add in a sly, slinky performance of Lederer’s “Albert’s Alley,” and who can resist?

But it’s not all fun and games for Wilson’s new quintet. Good Trouble (both band and album named from the words of the late Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis) has a very serious message about community service. It can manifest as deeply moving, like the gorgeous ode to Lewis “Walk With The Wind” (with some wonderful saxophone interplay between altoist Tia Fuller and tenorist Jeff Lederer), or as a strident call to action, like “RGB,” a tribute to everyone’s favorite Supreme Court justice (again with great sax work, but also a rousing piano solo from Dawn Clements). At its best, it does both at once, like the gospel-cum-calypso closer “Community Spirit.”

There’s also a strain of sweetness to Good Trouble, thanks in large part to Clements’ vocals. She animates the fond ballad “Be That As It May” with a wistful, sinuous delivery. Add joy to that delivery and you have the heartbreaking-in-spite-of-itself rendition of John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders” that glides gracefully over Wilson’s tu-way pocky-way beat and Ben Allison’s knowing bass line.

Even at its most earnest, though, Good Trouble can’t help but default to Wilson’s sense of fun and humor. “RBG” ends with a vocal chant from the band, urging the listener to “honor her plea/serve your community.” Yet it concludes with gales of laughter as Fuller gleefully shouts, “Matt, you’re so in it!” You will be, too.

Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few

The Almighty
(Duality Suite)

Isaiah Collier is a multi-instrumentalist blazing out of Chicago. About to turn 26, Collier’s ascension into the upper-echelon jazz world is happening now. His 2021 release, Cosmic Transitions (Division 81), received a 5-star review in DownBeat. He was named Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist in last year’s DownBeat Critics Poll. Live shows with his band The Chosen Few, and other incarnations, simply astound. He grew up taking the best from the wide span of music available in Chicago, developing his skills through the Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts as well as taking in the wisdom of members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He went on to study at the Brubeck Institute. He learned well and is now an artist in full bloom as evidenced on his latest recording, The Almighty (Division 81). There is so much to take in with this record. There’s a deep sense of the spirituality and fire of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders as evidenced on tunes like “Compassion” (featuring AACM legend Ari Brown, a mentor) and “Duality Suite (I. +, II. -, III. Divine Masculine, IV. Divine Feminine).” “Compassion” offers a calling of the spirits for the proceedings. It’s just lovely. “Duality Suite” fires off 23 minutes of hold-on-tight, high-tension energy that gives way to soulful contemplation. This single tune offers a full spectrum of the fantastic artistry Collier and company deliver. It’s exhilarating. “Love” is a beautiful medium-tempo tune that speaks to the subject in a complex, churning musical movement with beautiful vocals by vocalist Dee Alexander. “Perspective (Peace And Love)” offers another beautiful message with the repeated refrain of “peace and love” by Collier. The album culminates into another extended, and beautifully complex, composition, “The Almighty.” In addition to the members of his amazing group the Chosen Few — Michael Shekwoaga Ode on drums, Julian Davis Reid on piano and Jeremiah Hunt on bass — Collier adds a group he calls The Celestials consisting of strings, a horn section and an expanded rhythm section to reach shamanistic heights, calling out to The Almighty. It’s thrilling, reflective, spellbinding music that never loses its sense of groove. There’s no way listeners cannot feel the magnetism of Collier’s generous, glowing spirit.

Three Story Sandbox

Artful Dodgers
(Tall Grass)

Three Story Sandbox reprises the inventive free improvisation heard on its 2016 self-titled debut with the new release Artful Dodgers, an inviting collection of spontaneously recorded tracks featuring ensemble members Jack Mouse (drums and assorted percussion), Janice Borla (wordless alto vocals) and Scott Robinson (tenor saxophone, slide saxophone and more) — with the addition of genre-bending violin virtuoso Mark Feldman, a special guest with a powerful presence. The musical proceedings are propelled by the ongoing interplay of these four seasoned players, who are presented in a variety of duet and trio configurations, as well as a full quartet. All four members of this incarnation of Three Story Sandbox come across as highly intuitive compositional soloists whose instincts lead them through moments of glorious group unity, curious musings and spirited exchanges of individual expression. The stated goal of Artful Dodgers, named after one of Charles Dickens’ slipperiest characters, was to make completely improvised music that embraces an organized interplay of sounds but comes across as if the players were reading actual notes on a page. It succeeds in this sleight-of-hand feat, thanks to the group members’ ability to achieve near-instant cohesion (seemingly out of thin air) and conjure specific moods, times and places that provide meaningful context and give each piece its distinct character. The suite-like reality-check “Tears For Ukraine” serves as a centerpiece for the album, as the musical imagery traverses a war-torn terrain of impending doom, despair, death and destruction in its heart-wrenching search for deeper meaning amid the ongoing hostilities brought upon the sovereign European nation by Russian military aggression. Other notable tracks include the opening tenor-drums duet “Twin Rivers,” the lyrically smeary Feldman-Robinson duet “Slip ’n’ Slide,” the delightfully snappy and slightly bluesy Borla-Mouse duet “Brush Dance,” the full-throttled “Artful Dodgers” with the whole quartet and the dreamy “Kamakura” with its ancient Asian soundscape of Japanese percussion, bamboo flute and haunting vocals. It all adds up to an enlightening, amusing, highly enjoyable listen filled with moments of intense anticipation leading to ever-so-rewarding resolutions. Three Story Sandbox’s brand of free-jazz eschews the unstructured, blind fury that’s frequently associated with the genre, in favor of engaging storytelling, unadulterated backyard fun and an abundance of colorful sound collages so vivid and finely textured they could constitute a supremely hip modern art installation unto themselves.

On Sale Now
May 2024
Stefon Harris
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