Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bester Quartet – Krakoff (2013) ***1/2

Jaroslaw Bester - accordion
Jaroslaw Tyrala - violin
Oleg Dyyak - various instruments
Mikolaj Pospieszalski - bass


By Adam Baruch

Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust, Jewish Culture in Poland, which flourished for almost a millennium before being abruptly and mercilessly eradicated from the face of the earth, enjoys today a tremendous renewed Renaissance. Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Warsaw's Singer Festival and the New Jewish Music Festival are only the main events celebrating the Jewish Culture, which should have disappeared into thin air like the smoke from the chimneys of the crematoriums. However, a cautious examination of this phenomenon reveals several fundamental differences between the pre-Holocaust Polish Jewish Culture and its renewed manifestation.

Firstly Jewish Culture was created by Jews for Jews, rarely, if at all, escaping the closed Jewish environment almost completely separated from their Polish neighbors. Jewish music was performed during Jewish celebrations and Holidays, in Jewish shtetls, where gentiles (goyim) were seldom present. Even in the major towns, like Warsaw itself, Jews had their own entertainment centers, again rarely frequented by gentiles. Since there is no sizeable Jewish population in Poland, today's Jewish Culture is of course presented to the non-Jewish Poles, most of which were born after WWII, most of them with little or no knowledge whatsoever about Jews and their Culture. And yet for some inexplicable reason this Culture fascinates these audiences, a sort of nostalgia to something they know existed once but is no more.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly from the Artistic standpoint, the reborn Jewish Culture in Poland is in fact only slightly associated with the original Jewish Culture per se, often referring to the tradition as a source of inspiration rather that an attempt to revive it as it was. Even when the new culture uses the "old" terminology, like the idiom "Klezmer" for example, there is no direct similarity to what is considered or called Klezmer music today to what it was in the past. And yet a continuum was definitely achieved, which is wondrous indeed.

Bester Quartet is a classic example of the case at hand. Formed in 1997 by accordionist / composer Jaroslaw Bester, the ensemble was initially called The Cracow Klezmer Band and under that moniker released six albums on the highly respected Tzadik label owned by John Zorn. The quartet played ambitious original music, brilliantly performed by its virtuosi members, but quite honestly calling this music Klezmer or even Jewish was definitely farfetched. At some stage Bester probably realized that dichotomy and by 2012 changed the name of the ensemble to Bester Quartet (and also changed the bass player) and since released two more albums on Tzadik, the latest of which, called "The Golden Land" features music written entirely by Modechai Gebirtig and seems to be the closest to Jewish roots.

This, their ninth album, is a live recording at the National Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw, captures the band before "The Golden Land" album was released and features mostly music from their previous album "Metamorphoses", a couple of pieces from earlier albums and one sneak preview of a Gebirtig tune. The quartet includes Bester, violinist Jaroslaw Tyrala, multi-instrumentalist Oleg Dyyak and the new young bass player Mikolaj Pospieszalski. They all perform elegantly, spotlessly and obviously are highly spirited. Of course as a band they are perfectly together and they respect each other's space, allowing for extended improvised passages.

The music, which is always superbly melodic, is unfortunately somewhat unfocused stylistically. Although the arrangements try to present a "unified" musical coherence, the musical influences run freely between Gypsy folklore, Argentinean tango, Eastern-European melodic lines, Balkan rhythmic patters, in short "around the world in 70 minutes". Jewish? Not really. But of course, since there is no "Klezmer" anywhere on the cover, I have no problem with this. Overall this is music which can be enjoyed by connoisseurs all over the world and people who like to hear diversity and sophistication in the music they enjoy.

The music is beautifully recorded with superb sound quality, especially so in the case of a live recording. The album comes bundled with a DVD of the same concert, which has no additional musical content, but is a nice document of the event. This is the first album by the quartet released on a Polish label and kudos to For Tune for finally putting the record straight, which they do repeatedly time after time.

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