BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2011 Jonathan Besser: Campursari (Rattle)

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Jonathan Besser: Shine
BEST OF ELSEWHERE 2011 Jonathan Besser: Campursari (Rattle)

Since coming to New Zealand more than 30 years ago, the pianist-composer Jonathan Besser has enjoyed a highly successful and diverse career, first with violinist Chris Prosser in the Besser and Prosser duo, with electronic artist Ross Harris in Free Radicals, then his own ensemble and latterly with the small group Bravura.

His works have been performed by the NZSO, the New Zealand String Quartet, the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and the Wellington Symphonia. By my count he has almost 20 albums released and other work has appeared on numerous soundtracks.

This current album is something of a departure in that it was prompted by a long fascination with Javanese gamelan, that Indonesian ensemble music which can be so beautifully lulling (especially if the gamelan instruments, which are struck, are made of bamboo rather than metal).

The lyrical and gently oceanic waves of gamelan -- in situ they can often seem endless and provide a discreet highlight when visiting Indonesia -- have long seduced Western composers, but here Besser adapts the gamelan sound (played by Miranda Adams) into a tasteful melange with vibraphone (perhaps the gamelan's closest but still rather distant cousin, played by John Bell), flutes (Jim Langabeer), soprano sax (Andrew Pask), accordion (Tatiana Lanchtchikova) and other sympathetic acoustic instruments. The result can often be gently ambient sounds.

Soft drums (Chris O'Connor) and bass (Peter Scott) anchor and ground the music which might otherwise take flight, especially when Nigel Gavin's electric guitar enters Fripp-like on the vaguely Chinese sounding melodies of Forever, Unrequited.

This is often weightless, stateless music of considerable, subtle charm if not always memorable. But as anyone who has been to Bali and drifted off to the calming sound of a gamelan will attest, this is music which sometimes isn't meant to stick, just take you somewhere else.

That said, there are some lovely and unforgettable pieces here.

The Mourning Tree has a beautiful, plaintive quality more akin to a jazz ballad or the theme to a romantically melancholy movie, the melodic lines of Longing for the Near Horizon weave and entwine, and Shine opens with widescreen guitars which simultaneously evoke the warm Pacific and Brian Eno's spectral lunar landscapes on his Apollo album. It may not owe much to Javanese gamelan but it is just gorgeous.

The album is also bookended by two 12 minute pieces where the low and resonant gong of the gamelan is prominent and the judiciously spare vibraphone echoes its tone. These are pieces to let wash over you, immerse yourself in and emerge relaxed and somehow even cleansed. Lovely.

Like the sound of this? Then check out this. And this.


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