“Eastern Preludes Collection” – Christopher Norton

Featured publications are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Christopher Norton is very deservedly one of the most famous and beloved educational composers alive today. Perhaps best known for his ground-breaking and million-selling ‘Microjazz’ series, which is one of the most widely used educational series ever, he has added many other outstanding collections to his list of publications.

His piano “Preludes” series is a particular favourite, with previous collections including ‘Jazz Preludes’, ‘Rock Preludes’, ‘Latin Preludes’ and ‘Country Preludes’.

To these, Christopher recently added ‘Eastern Preludes Collection’, the subject of this review…

The concept behind this publication is as simple as it is innovative. As stated on the back cover:

“Embark on a voyage of discovery with this captivating collection of 14 new Eastern Preludes inspired by traditional music from the world’s largest continent. Explore the rich musical landscap e of the East as each Prelude weaves together native themes from countries including China, India, Japan, Korea and Thailand with Christopher Norton’s characteristically innovative popular music styles. Ideal for intermediate to advanced-level keyboard players, these pieces are perfect for the concert platform, as well as providing excellent teaching material.”

Given the “East meets West” ethos of the Pianodao site, and my general interest in Asian culture, this immediately aroused my curiosity. Would the fusion of Christopher’s jazz and popular piano styles with Asian traditional music be genuinely inspired, or simply kitsch?

When it arrived I unpacked the book with a little trepidation…

The overall package

‘Eastern Preludes Collection’ has a vivid and appealing cover featuring photos of various Asian tourist attractions, while inside the book has a clean presentation with well spaced notation.

Each piece has a mini map of Asia highlighting the country of origin for the indigenous melody that serves to inspire Christopher’s arrangement. Thirteen countries are featured, with China appearing twice. Taiwan has a separate entry, while Korea is included as a single country.

At the back of the book there is a much larger map of Asia, tantalisingly revealing a number of major countries that weren’t musically represented this time around (scope for a sequel?). Always keen to expand my knowledge of world geography I must confess that I found this all compellingly interesting, and suspect many others will too!

Inside the front cover, a plastic wallet contains a full CD recording of the 14 pieces superbly performed and recorded by ace session pianist Iain Farrington (whose useful ‘Grade by Grade’ books from Boosey & Hawkes I have previously reviewed here).

I have actually listened to this recording more than a dozen times simply for pleasure – which I can’t say of any other CD that I have previously found included in an educational publication!

Christopher Norton has now published the recordings on his SoundCloud page too:

This really gives an indication not only of how good the recording is, but of the quality of the music itself, and of just how enjoyable, varied and fresh these pieces are.

The 14 pieces

So what of the music? Well, when it comes to that fusion of Eastern and Western culture and styles, Christopher proves to be expert.

He is perhaps at his most adventurous here in ‘Chan Mali Chan’, a setting of a traditional Singaporean melody, with variations in Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jazz and (gasp!) Habanera styles. Elsewhere the pieces mostly stay a little closer to the mood of the original tunes, so that ‘Sakura’ (‘Cherry blossom’, Japan) sounds traditional and dreamy, while the Chinese pieces don’t lose sight of their pentatonic roots.

Playing through the pieces I was struck that there isn’t a weak link here – every piece deserves to be learnt, played and performed, and taken together these 14 compositions represent a brilliant addition to the more advanced pianist’s repertoire. And I have a high expectation that many of my students at around ABRSM Grade 6-8 level will be equally enthusiastic. Above all, they are beautifully and idiomatically written for the instrument, and are sure to delight audiences as much as players.

At a time when there seems to be new piano books appearing every week, Christopher Norton proves again with ‘Eastern Preludes Collection’ why it is that he is so widely regarded as one of the world’s leading educational composers. The quality and variety here is simply outstanding.

Christopher’s consistent mastery of different musical styles and genres not only sets the bar, but raises it again for original piano music in accessible contemporary styles. This may be his best collection yet – it is certainly one of his most unique and indispensable.

Ultimately all these pieces are easy on the ear, revealing their Asian colours while fundamentally following the jazz, Latin and popular styles between which Christopher has always moved with easy and assured accomplishment.

Genuinely innovative, and genuinely brilliant! If you buy one collection of early advanced piano music this year, make it Christopher Norton’s Eastern Preludes Collection. I am sure you won’t regret it!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.