—Dindi Soutine, Where Y'at Magazine September 2001
Brian Prunka is one of the most intriguing jazz musicians in town. Prunka is an eclectic and adventurous composer who is equally comfortable playing jazz guitar with his quartet or oud in his group Mahfouz, which often has tinges of Middle-Eastern and Indian influences.
Prunka's group features violinist Matt Rhody, bassist Tommy Sciple, drummer Mark DiFlorio with Prunka on guitar and oud. In Praise of Shadows is a seamless flow of gorgeous jazz exotica that calls to mind the work of John Abercrombie, Charles Lloyd, Joe Pass, and the contemplative side of the music that often finds its way onto the E.C.M. label—slightly classical, intellectual, spiritual, expressive, dark, moody, cool, and ethereal. This music floats and has a soothing quality that puts one in a calm, dreamlike trance.
There are a few points where the music soars and other times when Prunka and Rhody reach piercing crescendos that gently remind the listener that this is definitely jazz, not New Age music. One of the most interesting aspects of In Praise of Shadows that is most satisfying is its refreshing sense of dailiness. The music is at once sparse enough to leave on as a beautiful, but unobtrusive background tapestry as well as resonating a transcendental sensibility that will replenish the senses during delicate times.
—Dave Madden, Splendid Ezine
A violin in jazz is as much an anomaly, if not a downright faux pas, as a piano in a marching band. Add an equally foreign instrument, like the oud, to a trio of drums, bass and guitar, and there's little or no chance that we'll hear anything palatable. So how is it that guitarist Brian Prunka and his ragtag ensemble have made something as pleasing as In Praise of Shadows—a graceful union of instruments, gorgeous harmonies and colors? Perhaps Prunka's success comes from the way in which the tunes are tailored to the instruments rather than vice versa. Unlike groups that force "exotic" instruments into uncomfortable realms, each of Prunka's players is allowed to be himself; the traditions of the violin meet those of the guitar, and so forth. The former plays the gestures to which it is accustomed—long drones, emotional and rubato phrasing, etc.—and the latter comps along with the occasional solos, while drums and bass keep it together. The result is a blend that meets somewhere between Hungary, Lebanon and New York.
Take Aztec, for example. It opens like a fairly standard jazz arrangement—a bass groove with cymbal accents. Then the violin arrives; it takes only a few bowings to transport us to a Gypsy village. Prunka complements this textural crazy-quilt with his Joe Pass-inspired mellow guitar tones. Agitprop sits aside a similarly vigorous stylistic Tilt-a-Whirl, layering string pizzicatos over a tight Chambers/Cobb-style rhythm section. Habanera's rhythm is clearly as spicy as the title would have believe, but the piece is rife with "trading eights" and Middle-Eastern melodies. In the wrong hands, it would be a misbegotten mess of musical gene-swapping, but Prunka and his crew make it sound as natural as the birds and the bees.
This is one of those cases where written descriptions won't do the music justice; you have to listen to understand the extent of Prunka's craftsmanship. The musicians' attention to detail, and their willingness to mix and match the sounds of different worlds and cultures, have created a unique and spirited album that you won't quickly forget.
—Natural Awakenings magazine, New Orleans, December 2002
NA: What is the message of In Praise of Shadows?
BP: The title comes from a book by the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. He discusses the rise of a modern Western aesthetic, which favors light, especially in architecture, and contrasts it with the traditional Japanese aesthetic, which depends on a careful balance of light and shadows. I would say the overall message is that the understanding and appreciation of opposites is important in art and life; without darkness light loses its meaning.
NA: What was your inspiration for this CD?
BP: I wanted to create music that was both simple and compelling, and explore the convergence of some musical areas I've been interested in: jazz, classical, eastern European, gypsy, Arabic, and pop music. The music was also inspired by the musicians whom I was fortunate enough to be writing for: Matt Rhody, the violinist, Mark DiFlorio, the drummer, and Tommy Sciple, the bassist.
—Geraldine Wyckoff, OffBeat Magazine October 2001
There are no determined boundaries in the music world; it's a universe of sharing. Transplanted New Orleanian Brian Prunka, a guitarist and oud (middle-eastern lute) player, takes advantage of the freedom on In Praise of Shadows often in unexpected ways. It's an album of all original compositions that contain a strong sense of discipline matched with jazz's self-determination.
The disc's opening cut immediately surprises with its dual nature of airiness and power. Prunka allows violinst Matt Rhody, a talented and inventive player, to make the tune's initial quietly passionate statement that is held steady by the metronome-like rhythm of Tommy Sciple's bass while urged on by the demanding drums of Mark DiFlorio. Prunka's guitar finally makes a gracefully tasteful entrance.
While the music here is certainly unfamiliar and moves through numerous genres and influences, it remains inviting and even compelling. Perhaps it's that Prunka, a technically proficient musician, reveals a lot of heart. This remains the constant whether he and his quartet move to middle-eastern influences and gypsy strains or return to these shores to investigate a myriad of jazz forms. It's there in the softness, even prettiness, of his performance on his tune "Rain" and the joyful play of "Habanera." Though with its solemn, dirge-like rhythm "Aria" reeks with melancholy, it is not without passion—though admittedly we welcome the relief of "Night." Serious yet stimulating, In Praise of Shadows piques the interest with its creativity while often beckoning the soul.