Besides the quirky, offbeat title of their debut album Quenara – inscrutably described in their witty liners as the “Quenaranese word for Quenara” – perhaps the first thing listeners will notice about the debut album by the duo of multi-talented pianist/composer Robert Prester and dramatic, multi-octave vocalist Adriana Samargia is the surreal set list.
In what other musical universe besides theirs could a soaring, scat and ivory improv-filled spin through Howard Jones’ mid-80s hit “Things Can Only Get Better” feel logical besides equally compelling, cleverly arranged, unpredictable and solo spiked versions of jazz standards like “You Go To My Head,” “Stolen Moments,” “Lover Man,” “Body and Soul” and “Sophisticated Lady”?
But don’t get the idea that this fashionable duo is just about re-imagining the greats. Prester originals like the soaring, show-tuney (that’s a compliment) “Altar Ego,” the heartbreaking “Can’t Get Over You” and the whimsical “Love Games” stack up well with the classics to create a sonic world that’s often too unique to limit to mere adjective-filled descriptions. The passionate title track that wraps the set is something of a gentle equivalent to “Xanadu,” with “Quenara” being a mythical place where “the mood’s always right,” “the time’s always right” and there is plenty of “strange music” to fill one’s curiosity.
The aforementioned liners are actually a fluffy self-generated Q&A whose answers reassure us that, though the duo is very serious about their fascinating craft, they have a spirited chemistry that’s rooted in great fun and surprises. Since they’re likely to be new on everyone’s jazz radar, it should be noted that once upon a time, Prester composed the soundtrack for the CityKids Foundation show, appearing with Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington, Jr.
He later played with the Honolulu Symphony (among countless other gigs in various cities he’s resided in) and recorded four jazz albums. Samargia started her career as a Bulgarian folk singer, earned a “Best Jazz Vocal Soloist” student award from Downbeat and founded and has directed The Parson Brown Singers for over 20 years. Quenara marks a splendid new beginning for these two artists, and it will be interesting to hear where their imaginations take them and us in the future.