Mike Westbrook Orchestra ‘Catania’ 2CD (Westbrook) 4/5

The English bandleader, composer and pianist has been pulling together the disparate influences of American jazz, Brechtian polemics and English radical poetry since the 1960s.

In London, in the 1960s Westbrook was writing his own music and formed a regular band. The music was becoming more experimental and inspired by the American New Wave. Whilst the American influence remained strong, Westbrook had a strong conviction to question the American orthodoxy and to work on developing an independent voice. Early in his career, he was writing anti-war pieces such as ‘Marching Song’.

The 1970s saw the opening up of opportunities in the theatre world, both in straight theatre and in Fringe or alternative theatre. His Brass Band was formed in 1973 and had the ability to play in any surroundings from the streets to shopping centres, schools, hospitals and factory canteens. The repertoire drew on influences from New Orleans music, folk songs and early music. By the late 1970s, the band moved into Jazz Cabaret. This music theatre approach, based in jazz, with improvisation all-important, as a vehicle for original songwriting, is a constant theme in the work of Westbrook and his wife, Kate. I can think of nothing else quite like this.

One source has it that this 2CD set is a document of a performance at an anti-mafia protest festival. However, a more plausible explanation is that the music was recorded at a three-day Mike Westbrook Music Festival in Catania.

It seems nothing less than a minor miracle that this music has ever seen an official release, having been culled from an incomplete recording from the sound desk mix, an audience member’s cassette recording and an almost forgotten set of reel-to-reel tapes. The music was restored and edited for CD release by the late Jon Hiseman in January 2018 and sadly, therefore, may have been one of the last projects that he worked on prior to his untimely death. The sound quality over the course of the 2 CDs, which together make up more than 150 minutes of music, is exemplary, and the ambient sounds of coughing and car horns simply add to the atmosphere of Sicilian street music.

The album is something of a career retrospective covering three decades of Westbrook’s compositions. With the inclusion of three pieces from the 1974 album Citadel/Room 315; ‘View from the Drawbridge’, ‘Love and Understanding’ and ‘Tender Love’. There are also highlights from Mama Chicago, Big Band Rossini and The Cortege. Westbrook’s love for the music of Duke Ellington is clear and the orchestra includes ‘Lush Life’ and ‘I.D.M.A.T.’ which is something of a de-construction of Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’.

The music offered here largely represents what Westbrook terms his European Song Book. The band of 24 musicians included old friends of the time, such as saxophonists Peter Whyman, Chris Biscoe and Alan Wakeman together with newcomers such as fellow saxophonist Alan Barnes and Anthony Kerr on vibraphone. Tuba and cello are added to the relatively conventional Big Band configuration.

With such a large and wide-ranging programme of music, it is impossible to comment on each piece and so I will limit myself to mentioning a few highlights. Cabaret meets schmaltz on the Brecht and Weill ‘Alabama Song’. Mike’s companion in life and in music, Kate Westbrook, offers her characteristic theatricality to this piece. Long-time Westbrook collaborator Phil Minton brings his totally unique vocal stylings to William Blake’s words on ‘Long John Brown’ and ‘I See Thy Form’. Apparently, Blake at one point lived just around the corner from Ronnie Scott’s famed London jazz club.

This heady combination is sometimes something of an acquired taste. At times I’m reminded of the more adventurous work of Charles Mingus. As I have said, Ellington is clearly a major influence and Westbrook may say that he is simply attempting to combine art and entertainment just as Ellington did.

It has been argued that Westbrook attempted a cultural revolution in broadening the terms of reference for jazz to construct a peculiarly English, polystylistic multi-media art, thus locating his work in the larger cultural field of English contemporary artistic expression, rather than simply seeking to situate it stylistically within a narrower history of jazz. I will leave you as a listener to consider if this is an accurate summary of Westbrook and his work. One thing is clear, the world of music would be far less colourful and exciting without Mike Westbrook.

Alan Musson

Read also:
Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra at the Blue Orange Theatre Birmingham December 17th 2017