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Take Five With Brian Prunka


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Meet Brian Prunka:

Prior to moving to Brooklyn in 2003, Brian was living and performing in New Orleans, where he spent his formative years honing his musical skills while being immersed in the jazz community. Although his background was in jazz, rock and blues, Brian has always found himself drawn to a wide range of music without regard to boundaries. In the late '90s, fate introduced him to the oud, and he had an instant and profound connection with the storied instrument. A chance conversation led him to begin studying with the renowned virtuoso Simon Shaheen and ultimately became involved in the Arabic music community as well. Over the years, he has sought to find ways to bring together the essential characteristics of the different styles music he loves through his improvisational style and his diverse compositions.

Equally proficient guitar and oud, Brian composes and performs jazz and Middle-Eastern influenced music with his own projects, like the Near East River Ensemble. He also performs with musicians like Michael Bates, and Simon Shaheen. Currently, he performs with Nashaz, The New York Arabic Orchestra, Simon Shaheen, and others.

He has performed throughout the U.S. and internationally with Simon Shaheen, Michael Bates, Ravish Momin, the New York Arabic Orchestra, The Vancouver International Orchestra, Zikrayat, The Near East River Ensemble, and others. In addition to national and international events, he has performed in New York at The Stone, Tonic, the Knitting Factory, the River to River Festival, Symphony Space, Alwan for the Arts, Trinity Church, CBGBs, among others.


Guitar, oud, and buzuq

Teachers and/or influences?

Teachers: Steve Masakowski, Simon Shaheen, Bassam Saba, Dave Douglas, and Ed Petersen.

Influences: Simon Shaheen, Anouar Brahem, Thelonious Monk, Rabih Abou-Khalil, John Coltrane,Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Shepik, Lee Konitz, Riad al-Sounbati, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, and Abdel Gadir Salim.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I took my first guitar lesson and I felt like I was being let in on a mysterious secret, which was the magic of how music is created.

Your sound and approach to music:

I'm a bit schizophrenic, going from playing straight-ahead and modern jazz, to playing traditional Arabic and Ottoman music, and everything in between. Ultimately, my approach is to find a way to bring out the music in my head, which covers a lot of territory. I've never been too concerned about the supposed boundaries of different styles and genres; anything that seems honest and organic is fair game.

That said, there are certain things that tend to come up whether I'm playing standards, modern jazz, Americana, Middle-Eastern music, or a mix of these. My music tends to be tinged with darkness or melancholy. I tend to focus on writing memorable song-like melodies.

Your teaching approach:

I tailor my approach to the student and the circumstances. Some students are looking to develop professional-level performing skills. I treat these students differently than those who are just looking to play for their own enjoyment. I try to find things that the student connects with and use that to build rapport and lead them to develop the skills they need. For a professional-leaning student, I give extra focus on practical matters regarding reading, advanced technical development, as well as ear training.

Your dream band:

I have a few dream bands! One would be Brian Blade, Ben Street, Mark Turner, and Kenny Wheeler. But my current band, Nashaz, is pretty close to a dream band! I couldn't really ask for better musicians than Kenny Warren, George Mel, Apostolos Sideris, Nathan Herrera, and Vin Scialla.

It really depends on the music, and there are so many great musicians who can all bring their own unique sensibility. I've been lucky to work with some great musicians and hopefully I get to work with a lot more.

Some other people I'd really like to play with are Lee Konitz, Eyvind Kang, Dave Douglas, and Ted Brown.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

I was supposed to play with Simon Shaheen in Minnesota during February. He went ahead in order to teach a workshop and the rest of the band was supposed to join him later. I got a call the day before and he said that a huge snowstorm was supposed hit the area the next evening. So he changed our flights so we could get there before it hit.

You probably see where this is going.

We had a connection in Detroit, so the whole band flew out there. After landing, we were informed that because of the storm, most of the planes haven't been able to get land from the West and that there was no plane able to take us to our destination. This was the case for thousands of other stranded passengers. Fortunately, we were able to get a hotel room. While it was disappointing to miss the gig, we ended up drinking and playing cards instead, so it wasn't too bad.

Another time, we were in Haifa, and the promoter was tasked with taking us to lunch. He asked if we liked "Oriental" food. At first I was confused, because that made me think of Chinese food. Why would we get Chinese food in Haifa? But he took us to a tiny little Arab restaurant and told the owner to feed us. He asked if we wanted menus or if he should just bring out food, so of course we said to bring out food. He brought plate after plate of amazing Arabic food until we told him to stop. It was one of the best meals of my life.

Favorite venue:

Tonic and the Knitting Factory were both great venues that treated us well. Unfortunately, they are both gone.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

Nashaz, because it is my newest recording and everyone should buy it! I'm very proud of what we've accomplished, which is to create a unique approach to bringing jazz and traditional Arabic music together.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

Thelonious Monk, The Best of the Blue Note Years (Blue Note, 1991).

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I think that's for other people to decide. Hopefully, my vision of jazz being a musical approach that can welcome influences from any style will bring an audience to both jazz and Eastern music. I try to write tunes that give a meaningful expression of what it means to be human. I hope that that shines through regardless of the other details.

Did you know...

The first album I bought was by the Stray Cats. I still like Brian Setzer.

CDs you are listening to now:

Riad al Sounbati , Ya Habibi (Jasmine Music);

Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfa, Jazz Samba Encore! (Verve);
Sly and the Family Stone, A Whole New Thing (Epic);

Anouar Brahem, Thimar (ECM);

Ahmed Fouad Hassan, Dance of the Hareem (Cairophone).

Desert Island picks:

John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, Ellington and Coltrane (Impluse!)
Bill Frisell, The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch)

Kenny Wheeler, Angel Song (ECM)

Enrico Pieranunzi, Racconti Mediterranei (Egea)

Oum Kulthum, Enta Omri (Voice For Music).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

The music is great and there are so many really creative musicians making beautiful music. But there is less and less support for live music and jazz really is a live art form. It needs that spontaneity and unpredictability, as well as the near-telepathic connections that come from playing with people in order to achieve its potential. In addition, it is really about interacting with the audience, an aspect that is too often missing.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

I think that one way or another, the live music has to make a comeback. The club owners need to realize that they have to cultivate a community and not just offer a product, and the musicians need to make sure that the audience feels included in the event. Of course this is still happening in some places, but it is too few and far between.

What is in the near future?

I'm in the process of releasing a new CD with my band Nashaz, and we have some gigs lined up around that: Sept 17 at Drom, Oct 6 we're doing an in-store at the Downtown Music Gallery, and Nov. 9 we are at Alwan for the Arts. These are all in Manhattan, but I'm also working on some East Coast tour dates for the fall and winter.

What's your greatest fear when you perform?

Usually it is some kind of technical or equipment failure. I usually try to be prepared for gigs so that I know I can deliver a certain level of performance, but if there is a malfunction it can really throw things off. Of course, sometimes I'll be afraid that I'll blank on a piece that I memorized or that I'll flub a difficult passage! I think that happens with everyone. But I try to anticipate these issues and address them in the practice room.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

"Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)" from Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Porgy And Bess (Columbia, 1958).

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?

This changes all the time. My favorite thing to do is to compose in the shower!

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Probably bluegrass musician.

If we're ruling out musicians, probably something creative involving computers— programming of some kind, or graphic design. But I can't imagine not being a musician.

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