Uri Caine Meets Prism

The mercurial voice of Uri Caine‘s pianism met the polished ensemble work of the Prism Saxophone Quartet last week at the WXPN World Cafe here in Philadelphia in a program presented by Live Connections.

It’s always a pleasure to hear a jazz musician work over a standard tune – knowing the underlying structures of a piece helps you grasp more clearly what the artist is doing. But for Uri, “standards” include the European classical canon. And so he started with the Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545. It was more of a fantasia on the materials of the piece rather than an embellishment of a straightforward circuit of the form, though at times a good bit of the structure could be traced beneath the busy textures. There were moments when pulses moving at different rates of speed gave a quasi-cubist perspective, looking at the same material from two angles simultaneously. The playful wit of bringing Mozartean gestures into contact with bits of stride or with bebop harmonies, with the resulting contrasting textures juxtaposed at lightning speed, required both pianistic and improvisational virtuosity.

Uri was more restrained when he played over two pieces by Jacob TV, whose work I had not previously encountered. Postnuclear Winterscenario No. 10 was restrained and remarkable pretty, given that title, while Pitch Black combined recordings of Chet Baker’s voice with Andriessen-esque minimalism. There were two short movements by Matthew Levy, harmonically sensitive and beautifully written for the quartet. The program closed with the premiere of a big suite by Uri for both he and Prism, The Book of Days. The seven movements had moods suggested by the particular time of day and day of the week. “Friday 5 pm” evoked rush hour, while “Sunday 11 am” was time for the players to take it to church. The writing was lively and imaginative but quite dense, and seven movements of that kind of density, combined with a harshly amplified piano, made for a listening experience that was a bit wearing. But there was superb playing and vivid compositional thinking throughout.

l to r: Uri Caine, Zachary Shemon, Robert Young, Matthew Levy, Taimur Sullivan

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Prism at the World Cafe

Dazzling musicianship tonight from the Prism Saxophone Quartet with guest performers Greg Osby and David Liebman. The program included newly commissioned works by the guests. Here’s the whole group:

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(L to R: Dave Liebman, Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Taimur Sullvan, Matt Levy, Greg Osby)

and Liebman in full flight:

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Prism plays Straight Up

In 2004 I was one of 23 composers invited to write short pieces for a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Prism Saxophone Quartet. I reached into my files and took the basic musical material from a chart I had written for my undergrad school’s jazz ensemble, enriched the harmony a bit, added some dissonant counterpoint and a little cadenza, and produced Straight Up. The title came from a frequent conversational interjection by a trumpet player I knew back then, roughly equivalent to “no kidding?”, or “are you talking to me straight?” – a  possible reaction to hearing the piece.

Prism has recorded those 23 pieces for Innova, and to celebrate the release of the CD, they will play them in concerts in Philly and NYC. The Philadelphia concert is at the World Cafe this Saturday, May 29 at 7; the New York edition is at The Stone, March 31 at 10.

The list of composers is nicely diverse with respect to style, age, and so forth – here’s the list:

Tim Berne
William Bolcom
Zack Browning
Robert Capanna
Donnacha Dennehy
Dennis DeSantis
Nick Didkovsky
Jason Eckardt
Roshanne Etezady
Reneé Favand-See
Perry Goldstein
Jennifer Higdon
Libby Larsen
Matthew Levy
Keith Moore
Greg Osby
Frank J. Oteri
James Primosch
Tim Ries
Adam Silverman
Ken Ueno
Gregory Wanamaker
Chen Yi

(Hey, I went to a lot of trouble to get all those links, so start clicking.)

Video on Innova here.

Prismatic Schedule

The sax quartet Prism has announced its performance schedule for the current season. I’m happy to say this includes a performance of my Straight Up, which I wrote for the group’s 20th anniversary a few years ago. My piece was one of a group of twenty-three short pieces written for the occasion, and all of them have been recorded for Innova. CD release concerts will take place at WXPN’s World Cafe here in Philly, and at The Stone in New York, May 28 and May 31, respectively. (I’m a Penn faculty member, but I can’t get my music heard on Penn’s quite commercial “non-commercial” radio station, despite that station’s supposed allegiance to “real musical variety” – at least my music can sneak into the station’s live performance space.) The Prism season also features a program of music by Greek composers, including Xenakis and Penn alum Stratis Minakakis; and a program of premieres, including music by David Rakowski, Lisa Bielawa, Perry Goldstein, Caro Haxo, and the quartet’s own Matthew Levy.