Saxophonist and Prism Quartet founder Matthew Levy has spent his career getting other composers played; now the spotlight's on him in a new CD, and what a brilliance it reveals.
Call the Prism Saxophone Quartet contemporary-classical, call them avant-jazz, even call them omnivorous, but whatever you call them, they've been setting the gold standard for three decades. 2014 is in fact their 30th anniversary, and in that time, while centered in Philadelphia, they've been everywhere, stretching styles while inhabiting classical, jazz, world, and rock idioms.
Prism has commissioned more than 150 works, but in People's Emergency Center (Innova) they turn the entire two-disc set over to Matthew Levy.
People's Emergency Center is the first movement of Been There, and is also the name of a shelter helping women and children in West Philadelphia. It and the second movement, Gymnopedie (the word Erik Satie coined for his most famous piece), are culled from Levy's music for a documentary about the shelter. The Prism four (Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Zachary Shemon, and Levy), bass, drums, guitar, and former Prism member Tim Ries on soprano saxophone all create magic with swirling precision.
Levy's voice is at once vernacular and otherworldly, steeped in jazz but living in—as Henry Cowell would have it—the whole world of music. Serial Mood seems to ponder that post-Schoenberg world of harmony, and in doing so reveals a tasty secret known to Dizzy Gillespie, Gunther Schuller, and a few other hep cats: If you play 12-tone music with a hard, swinging beat, it sounds for all the world like be-bop.
That's one of the unexpected treats that Levy offers. Another is the overarching spirit of generosity—to the listener and to each player. All the music of his I've heard exhibits this. Whether it's rhythmically striking, sonically challenging, or a charming tune, it is genial music offered warmly to a real world filled with real people who want something good to hear. An excellent example is Brown Eyes, which here employs the whole band, but which Levy first had played in public in a smaller version. The occasion of the premiere? His wedding.
[Been There and Brown Eyes were featured on Now Is the Time, May 10, 2014.]
I don’t recall hearing much about Hank Mobley, until he recorded a certain record album in 1963. But, this was my fault for not listening closely enough to Philly’s all-jazz radio station that prevailed at the time. The station must have played Mobley often, because he was a hot jazz commodity about that time.
With the 2014 release of Kin (←→), Pat Metheny adds one more notch—another restlessly searching album that marks the zone between all jazz, all rock and all-world music—to his belt of aesthetic enterprises filled with zeal and innovation.
For a jazz pianist, New York-based Helen Sung certainly fits into the “deserves to be better known” category. For those who do know and appreciate her art, Sung’s club gigs are adventurous, disarming, and always have an unexpected surprise or two. It was at one of these small club dates where I caught her during a late set in the summer of 2013 with much of the same band that accompany her on Anthem For A New Day, her glossy and rewarding debut record for Concord Jazz.
A Manhattan backdrop substitutes for prairie land and open sky on Jazz Country, the big-hearted hybrid album from singer Amy Cervini that’s as endearing and tender as a vocal recording can be in 2014. She smartly transcends genre boundaries or anything else that gets in the way of the purity of a song. The spare musical accompaniment by guitarist Jesse Lewis and bassist Matt Aranoff frame Cervini’s renditions of these classic American songs simply and earnestly, underscoring her candor and crystalline delivery.