Even a glance at the bio on pianist Robert Prester’s website makes it abundantly clear that he is as equally at home with classical music as he is with jazz. He’s perhaps most comfortable when marrying the two in his own compositions. Dogtown, his latest album, although focused directly on his work in jazz (especially Latin jazz), makes the point.
In his nine original pieces, plus a variation on the John Coltrane classic, “Giant Steps,” he is not shy about highlighting his classical influences both in his composition and his playing. Bob Seymour’s liner notes point to “a nod to Schumann’s ‘Soldier’s March’” in Prester’s “Toy Soldiers,” as well as his dynamic piano solo in “Realm of Possibility,” as just two examples of Prester’s classical training at work. But perhaps, as he indicates, it is most felt in the “seamless blend of composed and improvised elements.”
Prester, whose playing and two original compositions were a highpoint on Phill Fest’s album Projecto B.F.C., has put together a set that showcases his unique creative voice with some beautiful sounds. Whether he’s working with his basic trio—bassist Nicky Orta and drummer Etienne Fuentes, Jr.—as on “The Prophecy,” an illuminating exploration of pianistic ideas, or his expanded ensemble—including Dave Schander on hand drums and percussion, Jonathan Sigel on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Terezinha Valois contributing a bit of vocalise—as in the exotic flamenco rhythms of “Noches de Sevilla,” his voice is front and center.
Not to minimize the work of the ensemble, but it is the piano that is the meat and potatoes on this album. Certainly there are moments for almost everyone else, but it is Prester’s stage, and he makes the most of it. From “Vincenzo’s Blues” which opens the album, and the darkly, almost minimalist title track, to the swinging “Sewing Circle,” it is either Prester the pianist or Prester the composer who is on display. Indeed, more often than not, it is both. There is a short Prester time-out with a “Percussion Interlude.” “Bite Size Steps,” which closes the set with its samba take on Coltrane, offers (at least partially) another voice, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
That said, it is clear that this is a fine group of musicians who have bought into Prester’s vision and are quite willing to help in the creation of an album that soars above the sum of its parts.