Backbeat Bar, Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Fusion & World, Small ensemble

Jonathan Besser @ Backbeat Bar

BesserThere is an inescapable charm surrounding any Besser performance and Wednesday’s Zestniks gig at the Backbeat bar was no exception. While his music has many strands feeding it and although it can be hard to categorise, it is never the less rooted in the Jewish musical traditions. Besser is somewhat of an icon in Arts circles and deservedly so. The arc of his work has a momentum that few could emulate. As it alights on various styles or genres it borrows their raiment, and seemingly without compromising what lies at the music’s heart; gathering what is necessary and no more. Over the years he has collaborated with leading conceptual artists, filmmakers, symphony orchestras, electronic adventurers and Jazz musicians. The Zestnics performance reflected much of this fascinating journey.Besser (2)

I am always drawn to performers who leaven their gigs with an appropriate portion of banter and Besser’s comments and asides were delightful. They were delivered with a deadpan expression and consequently were nicely understated. As with music, timing and delivery are everything.  Many of the tunes were from his ‘Gimel Suite’ and a quick investigation of the word leads you to a cornucopia of meanings. It is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a letter imbued with special qualities and it this case it is a footing or foundation for composition. This is an ancient to modern music and I suspect that those listening will have conjured their own associations. Because I have recently travelled through eastern Europe, I heard the warp and weft of Polish or Czech street music.   Besser (1)

The other ensemble members came from a variety of disciplines and this was fitting. Caro Manins on vocals with her deep knowledge of ancient Sephardic Ladino music; Nigel Gavin, an adventurous ‘World music’ musician who ignores artificial boundaries; John Bell, a Vibes player from the free to groove or ‘World’ end of town; Eamon Edmundson-Wells on bass, a versatile bass player and also frequently seen in avant-garde settings; Alistair Deverick on drums, navigating those exhilarating rhythms. Lastly were two from the expanded Black Quartet; Peau Halapua on violin and Sophie Buxton on viola – popular classical musicians and sometimes seen with Jazz or ‘World’ ensembles. Besser, of course, was on piano.

Some of the tunes were nostalgic or even mournful, some were brimming with joy – all were enjoyable.  The tunes never strayed too far from the notation, but there were some brief improvised sections which balanced things up nicely. I have posted the last number of the gig and while I am not sure of the title, I know that it brought the house down.

The gig took place on the 4th of July, 2018 at the Backbeat Bar, K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club.

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Beyond category, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music

Jonathan Besser & The Zestniks

Besser 099To the best of my knowledge, Jonathan Besser has not played at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) before. While he is best known as an important composer for The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, The New Zealand String Quartet and The Royal New Zealand Ballet, he is also a significant leader of small ensembles. Ensembles which venture far into the territory of experimental, electronic and improvised music. It is impossible to separate the man from his music. It is eclectic, original and often plaintive but generally with a sly twist of humour thrown in. In spite of his standing in the music world, Besser is modest. At the CJC he was happy to lead from the piano, which was in partial darkness and at the rear of the ensemble. His instructions were brief and staccato as if part of the unfolding suite. When he did pick up the microphone to speak to the audience he exuded an eccentric charm, bandstand asides peppered with self-effacing humour, garnished with sudden smiles.Besser 106

I first encountered Besser’s work in 2011 when Rattle released ‘Campursari’. This is an amazing album featuring some of my favourite musicians (Chris O’Connor, John Bell, Nigel Gavin, Jim Langabeer etc). It resonated immediately as it referenced a number of genres that interest me. Ambient improvised music, crossover World/Jazz. The album is intensely filmic, deeply evocative of vast exotic landscapes and since obtaining a copy I have played it often.Besser 103I met Besser briefly during Natalia Mann’s ‘Pacif.ist’ tour and later at the Auckland Art Gallery during the opening of Billy Apples ‘Sound Works’ exhibition. On that occasion, the Nathan Haines Quartet played Besser’s innovative compositions. I really hope that someone recorded that. It was extraordinary music, based upon prescribed letters of the alphabet. These were then allocated using the 12 tone scale as a formula to locate equivalent notes. The order of Billy Apple’s words dictating the order of notes.

The ‘Zestniks’ is a newer incarnation of the many Besser ensembles. The main focus of the CJC gig was the performance of ‘Gimel Music’, a suite composed by Besser and performed at the ‘Shir Madness Jewish Festival in Sydney in 2012’. Gimel is a Hebrew word associated with the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet (The Kabbalah, in particular, makes much of the mystical numeric and alphabetic association). 3/4 time, three chords, three inversions, three bars conjoined, the melody often running over the 3 bar lines, but never manifesting as waltz time. While not the complete story, embedded in the music were strong elements of Jewish music and to my ears, the distant echoes of Argentinian music.Besser 102The music was not Klezmer and later I asked Besser about his influences – were there strong Jewish influences? “I am a Jewish man and I used Jewish scales, but apart from that no. I draw upon many, sources”. It interested him that I heard Argentinian references. “I have done Tango projects in the past and that is possible”. It was partly the combination of instruments, the delicious overlay of melancholia and the accents – not so far from the music of master musician Dino Saluzzi.Besser 105The segments of music making up the suite seldom lasted longer than 4 minutes. The spaces between them brief. The mood seldom deviated from the wistful, evoking a sense of intangible longing – for something remembered – but just out of reach, a nostalgia as ancient as time itself. There were a few cheerful pieces as well, but I preferred the former. The Zestniks update themselves regularly, this time adding Caro Manins vocal lines, her wordless vocals followed the viola or clarinet in gentle unison. No one is better suited to this than Manins – she has worked with the likes of Norma Winstone after all.Besser 101

The septet personnel at the CJC were, Jonathan Besser (piano, leader), Asher Truppman-Lattie (clarinet), Iselta Allison (viola), Finn Scholes (vibes, trumpet), Eamon Edmundson (double bass), Yair Katz (drums), Caro Manins (voice). The combination of voices worked well, viola and clarinet giving strength to the melodic figures. The vibes cutting deep into our psyche – at times ringing clear, then softening as melody dissolved into subtle counterpoint, woven into the piano lines, the latter adding harmonic depth. The drum kit interested me as it was not the Jazz kit we normally see. Larger drums and fewer of them, ride cymbal and high hat, the beat suited to this ancient to modern music. There was once talk of Besser recording for John Zorn’s Tzardik label and the synergies are obvious. That said, his current home with Rattle Records is an excellent fit.

Jonathan Besser and The Zestniks played at the Albion Hotel for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 15th June 2016.