Guitarist Michael Bester pulls tension in debut album, Now Not Yet

Bluesy and jazzy guitar moods of Cape Town-based guitarist and composer, Michael Bester, delight the discriminating ears in his debut album released late 2019.

This guitarist, songwriter, composer, arranger and musical director, as well as proud new Dad and frisbee enthusiast, has made Cape Town his home where he cultivates his growing creative bents. After completing Jazz Studies at Cape Town’s UCT School of Music in mid 2000s, Bester took time off to travel and perform in UK, China, and the USA. One hears in the album with its zingy title, “Now, Not Yet”, various influences from these past times as well as a mix-and-match of emotions and separation from family to pursue wider sonic exposures. He calls it ‘tension’.

Michael Bester, guitar; Stephen de Souza bass; live album launch 27 Feb 2020

Hard work pays off. Thanks to winning the 2008 SAMRO Overseas Scholarship for Instrumentalists, Bester could study in New York and perform as a session guitarist. Before that, and now, Bester has recorded and performed with several other bands, like Mango Groove, and with various individual artists at musical festivals, such as with Lira and Loyiso Bala. In 2013 he won a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Award) for Best Film Soundtrack for ‘Semi-Soet’, along with co-composer Andrew Baird.

Creative leanings found a turning point: After completing his Masters Degree in Contemporary Music Performance and Production at the Berklee satellite campus in Valencia, Spain, in 2017, Bester has concentrated on writing and performing on home soil. That year in Valencia changed his game:

This year in Spain had a profound impact on my artistic identity and my
composition process and much of the inspiration for the writing of the
music on the album is thanks to that experience.

The album presents very listenable pieces with mixed ballads, bebop, improvisational chord runs, and contemporary blues. Yet, as the title hints, there is a tension in his compositions that depicts how things are and how they could be, if we could just grasp those things that we are constantly striving to possess or achieve. One hears how Bester might be tempted to swing into a grungy twang and loud rock with his electric guitar, as he has in others’ albums, like in Blake Hellaby’s latest #Not Jazz, but he harnesses that.

I feel that the compositions on the album represent where I am at in my own growth and development. I am equally inspired both by very simple and very complex music, and can find great beauty in both. My goal is to write music that is beautiful and accessible on the surface, but complex underneath.

Talented band musicians on the album are: Zeke le Grange (saxophone), another SAMRO awardee Kingsley Buitendag (piano), the ever steady Stephen de Souza (upright and electric bass), and the beat man himself, Lumanyano “Unity” Mzi on drums. The opening song, “Twenty Four”, gives all musicians a chance to dissect and be heard, followed by two slow thoughtful ballads: the self-explanatory ‘’Until I see you again’’, and ‘’Born Again’’ with lots of guitar conversation in single notes and clear, clean runs from le Grange’s sax. Tempos change as more blues make statements in ‘’R-Train Blues’’, a memory of a bad trip on New York City’s R-Train, with de Souza’s boppish acoustic bass plunk plunks up the scales. ‘’Influence’’ carries Buitendag’s repetitious piano with haunting undercurrents of mood and blues while Bester’s bluesy twanging guitar tells another story. Again, that tension. Breaking up melancholic chords, Bester introduces another mood, slowly and carefully, in ‘’A Different View’’, which bordered on monotony, in high contrast to the punky, almost rock, of the previous song. But this did not distract from the important finales in ‘’Family Matters’’ where the mood picks up with le Grange’s talkative sax, and the bass and drum bebop nicely, keeping pace.

Bester ends his album with ‘’The Way Forward’’, a piece with mood and time changes, in keeping with the album’s title, perhaps, signalling what tension will ride the waves as we continue our search for meaning. All instruments go on high alert with a surprise ending.

This album should go far in alerting us to what stories may come from this talented guitarist in South Africa’s contemporary jazz. It is available for purchase on https://michaelbester.bandcamp.com/
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Bester features in Luna Paige’s Iluminar production of ‘Her Blues’, a wonderful musical stage story of early African American blues…with a female twist. It was a sold out and popular offering during the 2019 Woordfees festival in Stellenbosch, and in high demand currently for its originality in portraying African American women jazz artists of those early 1900s smoky blues houses.

Her Blues Trio plays on Friday, 28 February 2020 at Stellenbosch’s Drostdy Theatre and in other venues during March, and features vocalist Luna Paige, Simon Orange & Michael Bester on guitar. Tickets at Computicket. http://www.iluminarproductions.co.za/all-events/

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