Noam Lemish: Swinging in Shangri-La

When living in Bhutan, Noam Lemish was asked to compose a piece for the celebration of the king’s 30th birthday. Photo: George B. Wells

Noam Lemish had been in Bhutan for a few months when he discovered that his efforts to bring new musical currents to the Himalayan kingdom had won a powerful ally. Hired in 2009 to launch a music school in the capital, Thimphu, the Israeli-American jazz pianist dedicated some of his spare time to spinning discs at a radio station, focusing on jazz, Western classical and international music from beyond the borders of the long isolated Buddhist nation.

“One day I got a text message saying that the king really likes your show,” Lemish says, still sounding a little stunned. For a country that banned television until 1999, the tech-savvy communication caught him off guard. But Lemish was far more astonished when The Royal Office of Media commissioned him to compose a new piece for the celebration of King Wangchuck’s 30th birthday. Lemish performs the 30-minute suite, “The People’s King,” Saturday at the Jazzschool with his quartet featuring saxophonist Matthew Rothstein, bassist Jason Carr and drummer Alex Aspinall (along with a multimedia presentation on the music and culture of Bhutan).

Lemish recorded the original piece in Thimphu with an ensemble of Bhutanese musicians playing traditional instruments such as the dramnyen (lute), pchewang (two stringed bowed cello) and yangchen (zither). The piece also incorporates the Amitayus mantra of Limitless Life chanted by the young monks of the Dechen Phodrang Monastery. The monks won’t be on hand at the Jazzschool, and Lemish rearranged the piece for Western instruments, but “The People’s King” is still a singular East/West fusion.

“It continues to carry a different feel and sound,” Lemish says. “I have not touched the melodies themselves. They sound like they have been influenced by something that’s different from Western music, and they worked so well for a jazz group. It was conceived as a hybrid but it’s even more so now.”

Part of a wave of brilliant Israeli jazz musicians who have invigorated the US jazz scene over the past two decades, Lemish was born in California and grew up in Israel. He settled in the Bay Area in 2002 and pursued his passion for jazz at Sonoma State. A mainstay on the North Bay jazz scene for the past decade, he’s studied with visionaries such as George Marsh, Billy Hart, John Handy and James Newton, developing into a formidable composer and bandleader in his own right (he’s currently pursuing a PhD in performance and composition at the University of Toronto). In 2008 Lemish released an impressive debut CD focusing on his original tunes, “Yes And,” a duo collaboration with drummer George Marsh.

Lemish is part of a wave of brilliant Israeli jazz musicians who have invigorated the US jazz scene over the past two decades. Photo: George B. Wells

In 2009, he had recently finished his undergraduate degree and was working in the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music program, which brings live music and music education into public elementary schools around the city. Out of the blue, he got a call from a friend who happened to meet ethnomusicologist Janet Herman and photographer Jane Hancock at the Asian Art Museum’s Buddhist art exhibition, “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”

Just back from Bhutan, they were supporting the country’s efforts to preserve traditional culture by launching the Music of Bhutan Research Center, a non-profit organization based in Santa Cruz, and were looking for someone to teach at a recently founded music school in Thimphu.

At the time, all Lemish knew of Bhutan was that it was an Asian country “but I thought it was closer to Burma or Vietnam than in the Himalayas. But I was at an interesting place in my life. I had just released my first CD. I was between undergraduate and graduate school, and I had a good deal of flexibility. I figured this was an opportunity to do something I’d probably never get again.”

Within a few months, he had completed the intricate process of attaining a visa, as Bhutan strictly regulates who enters the country. As the only teacher at the school, he worked with about 70 students between the ages of five and 18, offering individual and group instruction. Like young people in developing nations around the world, Lemish found that Bhutanese teenagers are more interested in Western sounds than their own traditions. But his students performed widely in public, including appearances on television, efforts that drew the king’s attention.

In writing a piece in honor of the widely admired young king, who oversaw Bhutan’s transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, Lemish was determined to “give something out of my own musical world, but pay tribute to Bhutanese culture as well. You hear music everywhere around Thimphu — I lived about 200 feet from a bustling temple — and for two weeks I wrote down the melodies I was hearing every day when I woke up. I really wanted to honor the culture and one of the ways to make this work was that I sought permission to go and record these teenage monks from a monastery that the king supports.”

“For his birthday on Feb. 21 the recording was delivered to him. And then a month before I left last July we had a chance to perform excerpts for him at the school. I prepared a handwritten score and presented it to him in a very formal situation. He thanked me for the piece and said it was very beautiful.”

For more information about Lemish’s performance at Berkeley’s Jazzschool, visit their website.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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