OK, not James Brown Funky Christmas cool. But he’s a hell of a lot better than John Tesh, to whom Bestor is often compared because of his sleepy compositions and renderings of both new and familiar Christmas tunes. His reputation precedes him—sometimes inaccurately, he says.
Although holiday cheer was in the air, Bestor—with long black hair, pierced ear and little Bohemian scarf—was almost too cool for Christmas during our coffee shop interview.
“Right now, I’m probably the least Christmas-y guy you know ... until after Thanksgiving. Then, I can start getting into it,” Bestor says. Perhaps that’s because he’s been busy preparing since summer for the 22nd annual Kurt Bestor Christmas, which is performed throughout Utah and in Salt Lake City at Abravanel Hall Dec. 16-18.
This year’s performance will feature his famous standards like “A Children’s Prayer,” guest Jason Castro of American Idol fame and a few surprises. Despite the concerts’ long run, he hesitates calling it a “tradition” because that sounds too conventional—too “been there, done that”—for him. When it began, hardly anyone else was doing elaborate Christmas concerts in Utah, except for the “Mega-nacle”—the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whose holiday shows draw 80,000 annually—Bestor says.
However, less about performing Christmas songs, it began as Bestor’s outlet to do something musically unconventional for the time. “Here’s the God’s honest truth: I didn’t want to do New Age-y music, even though I get slammed [as that] all the time,” Bestor says. “I wanted to do instrumental stuff that had interesting melodies, counter-melodies—a little jazz, a little classical, just a hybrid.”
He’s matured since those fledgling days, and he’s still trying to push boundaries. Just hours before our interview, he finalized a Cuban number—a style he’s never tried before—for the Christmas show. That’s how it stays fresh, how he keeps doing it year after year. Last year, it was “God Rest the Jazzy Gentlemen,” a Dizzy Gillespie-esque tune that alternates between jazzy 5/8 and 7/8 time signatures. It left the audience thinking, “Where’s that sweet, fluffy stuff we came for?” Bestor jokes.
“Even when I write something mellow, I try to put in some counter-melodies, something different,” Bestor says. “Maybe the audience doesn’t understand it, but we do. It keeps it interesting and doesn’t make people think, ‘That sounds like I’m about to get a back rub.’ ” Self-deprecating humor aside, his body language belies him when he says he doesn’t resent the boxes he’s put in.
“What you hear on my CDs is not where I am today. I want to write stuff that’s edgy, with dissonance, with unique instrumentation,” Bestor says. Currently, he’s working on an “acid classical” album. Also known as classical pop, the style diverges from tradition by incorporating loops and de-tuned pianos. “It’s kind of like classical music that’s been grunged up a bit,” says Bestor. “I feel musically edified. What’s difficult is bringing the audience with me. If they don’t come, I guess I’ll find a new audience.”
A for-hire composer to pay the bills, his assignments have varied widely, from creating a techno-dance commercial piece for a European exercise equipment company to studying the dynamic tunes of Cirque du Soleil for a ballroom dance client. Sometimes these odd genre strains manifest in his Christmas compositions, which often take tangential turns from standard arrangements—one minute Irish-jig flares, the next “O Holy Night” on flugelhorn. This year, he’s excited about “Deck the Halls in Blues,” a Christmas rag, a la Dr. John’s style. “There’s some funk in my music, but people probably wouldn’t dance in the front row or anything,” he laughs.
Bestor hopes Santa will bring an iPhone 4 this year, but for now, we shuffled his iPhone 3’s “Top 25 Most Played” and were pleasantly surprised by the absence of gaudy Christmas tunes. Further digging found seasonal “Song For a Winter’s Night” and Mediaeval Baebes’ “Gaudete.”
“There’s not a lot of Christmas music I don’t know, but I don’t listen to other people’s stuff because I have to write all my own, and it’s all original.”
Kurt Bestor talks about his iPod picks
||Chaka Khan, “One For the Time,” Funk This
I’ve been a huge fan since the ’70s. I grew up listening to funk, not rock & roll—Sly & The Family Stone, not the Beatles. I saw [Khan] perform in Orem at an Equality Utah event at Bruce Bastian’s house about four years ago. I still can’t believe I saw her then. She’s got this great voice—a real legend, man.
||Lisbeth Scott, “Crucial,” Heart of Innocence
[Scott] is the voice on The Passion of the Christ. She’s part of a crop of earthy, cool-sounding ladies. I especially like her original stuff for its intelligent lyrics, which is hard to find. That’s a prerequisite for my music—it’s got to have irony to it. Too often these days it’s just dumbed down. Like, “Could you stop to think of an alternative word?”
||Joss Stone, “Tell Me ’Bout It,” Introducing Joss Stone
I’ve been listening to [Stone] since she was 14. I think she’s original. Where she gets into trouble is when they try to package her into the mainstream. She has incredible soul, which is rare for a white English girl. This is leaning again toward my funky side.
||The Bird & The Bee, “Fucking Boyfriend,” The Bird & The Bee
Oh, I like this one; it’s chill, kind of a ’60s vibe. I played trumpet on a DJ Kaskade tune. When I was in the studio, the producer played this album and I’ve been hooked since. You’ve got to listen to the chorus, it’s the hookiest thing. I have to be careful who I play it for because some people would be offended.
||The London Symphony Orchestra, “Nimrod (Adagio)”
The World of Elgar
This is an incredibly moving piece. If I could get anywhere close to making something like this in my lifetime, I’d feel accomplished. It’s just beautiful, that’s all I can say really.