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, and 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. "Agritpop" sits aside a similarly vigorous stylistic Tilt-a-Whirl, layering string pizzicatos over a tight Cambers/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.