PRISM premieres shine light in rollicking concert

Mon Jun 10, 2024 at 1:51 pm
PRISM were joined by guest artists for a “Generate Music” program Sunday at Roulette. Photo: Ara Howrani 

The PRISM saxophone quartet has been commissioning and premiering new pieces for decades. Many of these new works come from performing musicians—including important contemporary jazz saxophonists—and are for groups larger than just PRISM. In other words, one of the streams of contemporary chamber music flows through PRISM in both the composing and the playing.

Their new project, Generate Music, expands this further. For this weekend’s inaugural performances—world premieres played Saturday night in Philadelphia and Sunday in New York at Roulette—PRISM expanded to a hendectet. 

The nine works on the program brought in seven other musicians, some of whom were also composers for the project; guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Reuben Rogers, clarinetist David Krakauer, violinist Diane Monroe, trumpeter Susan Watts, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and poet and vocalist Ursula Rucker joined soprano saxophonist Timothy McAllister, alto saxophonist Zachary Shemon, tenor saxophonist Matthew Levy, and baritone saxophonist Taimur Sullivan. 

Curated by PRISM and Helen Hayes, the City of Philadelphia’s former chief cultural officer, Generate Music was conceived to “explore the ties between Black and Jewish Americans.” Just as fundamental to the project, Levy mentioned from the stage that it was inspired by an exhibition he saw that recreated the notorious “Degenerate Music” exhibition the Nazis staged in 1938.

Musically, this meant a rollicking, rocking night from a terrific band. Not much of the music could easily fit into the classical tradition, even at its extended point in 2024, but plenty of beautiful, exciting, and fulfilling playing.

With the concept and the musicians involved, the overall style of the music was a stirring klezmer funk put together in the kind of elegant and sophisticated forms and arrangements that exemplify the greatness of American popular music and the fundamental contributions of black and Jewish musicians.

Composers like Moore and Watts brought these strands together into vital, seamless blend of multiple musical ideas. Moore’s Ironies had her and Krakauer ornamenting minor-key pentatonic phrases, PRISM answering with warm, luminous gospel cadences, and Rucker performing her own poetry and texts from Rumi. In Convergence, Watts interpolated “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into klezmer-flavored music, singing the “Black national anthem” in Yiddish. In Let us gather and all go together, Rucker directed an improvisation from the instrumentalists while she recited a wrenching poetic portrayal or a terrible tragedy from her own life.

Photo: Peter Gannushkin

The consistent quality was great musicianship and straightforward communication and sincerity, populist and intelligent, that often expressed both joy and unresolved conflicts. Sonically this had little to do with classical music but emotionally and intellectually it was exactly the kind of feeling one can get from the likes of Mahler, standard musical molds into which one pours the sounds of different groups until it bursts into something new.

This was especially propelled by solos from Krakaeur, a tremendously versatile musician, comfortable in multiple genres, and Gilmore, a stellar jazz and fusion guitarist. The clarinetist’s The Unknown Common Ancestor: Dedicated to the memory of Stan Levey, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie … and their days in Philadelphia was a showcase for both.

Myra Melford’s When No Way Stops Short of the Somehow, for ensemble with pre-recorded recitation by poet Erica Hunt, was one of the most abstract works, a quasi open-form score where the musicians filled in delicate spaces around the words. The other abstract piece, and main classical one, was not a gesture toward the tradition but an important work, untitled, from Tyshawn Sorey, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner (for his Adagio (for Wadada Leo Smith), a saxophone concerto written for McAllister). It’s quite a night when Sorey drives a band at the drums, where he has the power of Gene Krupa and the rhythmic genius of Tony Williams, and then conducts one of his own works. This one had his vintage qualities of a gentle pace and open space, a Morton Feldman-esque placement of discrete phases and harmonies, with no need to extend or resolve them. It was beautiful and questioning at once.

That great context for the project culminated at the end, the ensemble playing Fred Wesley’s Requiem for AJ, a flowing funk line with some unexpected turns that introduced and backed Rucker’s recitation of her fiery poem about the Mississippi Three and their murders in 1964. Wesley—who as a trombonist was a key member of James Brown’s band—and Krakauer previously formed the excellent klezmer/funk/Yiddish/hip-hop band Abraham Inc., showing that Generate Music has its own elder generation.

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