This unlikely turn of events ultimately led jazz guitarist Brian Prunka to switch gears, obsessively learn as much about Arabic music as he possibly can, and begin down two paths: a geographical path that would take him from New Orleans to Brooklyn, Ramallah, and beyond, and a musical path from jazz to Arabic music and back again.
These paths converge in Prunka’s Arabic music-meets -jazz project Nashaz, which features a coterie of New York musicians selected for their abilities to meld jazz and world musics, playing Prunka’s original compositions. The group’s eponymous debut CD, Nashaz, is due to be released September 17, 2013.
Arresting and compelling, Nashaz will immediately engage fans of Arabic music, jazz, and masterful oud playing. Prunka’s 1930s Nahat oud takes center stage, and moments like the declamatory opening phrases of the oud solo on “Hijaz Nashaz”; the mysterious melody of “City of Sand”; and the fiery solo on “Jurjina” reveal a depth of understanding of ornamentation and phrasing that prove Prunka as a serious contender on the instrument. As a composer, Prunka successfully blurs the lines between two sonic worlds, creating music that showcases the best of both, while striking out in stirring new directions.
At first, Nashaz was somewhat puzzled when the cab driver who was just taking him to the next jazz gig suggested that Prunka play the pear-shaped, lute-like oud because “it is the most beautiful instrument in the world”. But not long after this encounter, Prunka stumbled upon an oud album in a used record store and was instantly hooked. “It just resonated with me, connected in a way that I can’t quantify.” Prunka explains his lifelong attraction to Middle Eastern music: “it was simple things, at first”—a snippet of Arabic music in a film, a moment of exoticism in a Beatles tune. “Whenever anything like that happened, a little light would go on. When I finally heard the real thing, it was like ‘oh, so this is what I wanted to hear’.”
It wasn’t long before Prunka came to realize that the Arabic music he was enamored of had more in common with jazz than it seemed on the surface. “[There’s] a lot that is potentially in common in the two musics,” Prunka states. “Both prize improvisation and rhythm. There are these concepts in Arabic music of intertwining ecstasy and melancholy—it can’t be purely happy or sad. I think great jazz also often has that kind of intertwining, though it might not be described that way.”
Prunka became the next step in a loosely established tradition of fusing Arabic music and jazz, starting as early as 1958 when Thelonious Monk’s bassist, a New York native of Sudanese descent named Ahmed Abdul-Malik, put out Jazz Sahara, the first in a series of oud-meets-jazz records that he would release well into the 1960s with bands that combined die-hard jazzers like saxophonist Johnny Griffin with some of New York’s finest Arabic musicians. That first oud record that Prunka found was Rabih Abou-Khalil’s Al Jadida, which featured Sonny Fortune and other musicians who he knew from their jazz work. These collaborations thrilled Prunka and he took up the challenge of melding two very different approaches to musical creativity.
But first he needed an instrument. Prunka found himself searching high and low for an oud, no easy task in mid-1990s Big Easy. He eventually succeeded and began breaking out the oud at jazz gigs. “At first, the reaction was usually, ‘what the heck is that, it looks funny’. And then once the music happened, people were just drawn in. The oud tends to have that effect on people—it’s this kind of magnetism that’s led to collaborations with some really great musicians, people I might not have played with otherwise."
Eventually landing in Brooklyn, Prunka began to seek out like-minded musicians to play with, and older more experienced musicians to learn from. Much like early jazz tradition, knowledge of Arabic music is passed down aurally, and lessons consisted mostly of playing phrases over and over again for virtuosic teachers like Najib Shaheen and his brother, famed oud master/violinist Simon Shaheen. Over many years, their commentary gradually went from unprintable to “not bad” before finally a pleasantly surprised “that sounds good, actually.”
Learning this traditional way from masters gave Prunka insights and techniques that won him respect from the Arabic musical community, and gave him a sensitivity and understanding that sets him apart. “The nice thing is that in a detailed way, they connect with some of the things I’m doing. They know I know what I’m doing, that I’ve really learned the authentic music. After hearing me play, Arab listeners are usually surprised to find out that I don’t have middle-eastern roots,” concluding with mock confusion and surprise—“I guess Americans don’t usually show this kind of devotion to Arabic music.”
A composer as well as an instrumentalist, Prunka began writing for his new musical interest as he learned about it, and the compositions on Nashaz reflect his training in Arabic music while keeping one foot firmly planted in the jazz world. He tends to avoid the jam session-inspired ‘head-solo-head’ format of most small group jazz formats in favor of through-composed pieces that glean more from the Ellington/Mingus big band tradition than from hard bop-flavored combo jazz. “Composed and improvised sections tickle different parts of the brain,” Prunka muses. “It gives people a break, so they don’t get bored with either one. I try to write the music in such a way that the improvised sections become part of the composition.”
These compositional influences are evident throughout Nashaz. Khartoum, with its loping 6/8 rhythm, could be from North Africa—but there’s that Mingus style call and response in the middle, a technique also found in a kind of old Arabic song called muwashshah. The humorously titled “Qassabji's Nightmare” is reminiscent of Ellington’s longer suites, rapidly evolving through several different modulations in honor of Mohammad el-Qassabji, the beloved Egyptian oud player and composer who was fond of throwing in seemingly jazz-inspired chromatic lines into his songs. “I imagined Qassibji having a dream where he time travels to now, hearing this piece of music and being slightly bewildered and horrified by what he inspired,” Prunka jokes.
When a band mate humorously requested more contrast in the repertoire—a bit of upbeat major to balance the minor or modal feel of many pieces—Prunka composed “Ajam” in the major key-sounding maqam (Arab classical mode) of the same name. That said, he couldn’t resist throwing something a bit more stereotypically “Arabic” in: “I set myself the task of just doing C major, just the white notes and no accidentals. You can play this on the piano. Then later I decided I wanted a little contrast, so I added this sudden change to Hijaz, the maqam closest what you’d find in a stereotypical Hollywood, “Lawrence of Arabia,” score. We musicians joke about ’Hollywood Hijaz,’ because it’s the lazy musical shorthand for ’and now, Arabs!’ So I have us running around in major happy land but then you land right in the middle of Arabic music, in case you forgot,” Prunka explains with a smile. “Then we go back. The written melody parts are in Ajam, but the improvisational sections allow us to explore in ways that complement the composition but are not as closely tied to it.”
From the melting pot of the Big Easy to that of the Big Apple, from playing improvised American jazz to improvising over original Arabic inspired compositions… maybe it’s not such a strange trip after all. “All I can do is reflect my own cultural background and experience,” Prunka states. Nashaz reflects the best of both worlds and fans of jazz, Arabic music, and great instrumental playing and composing will find much to enjoy on this release, due out Sept 17.