Mike Westbrook featuring John Surman ‘Love and Understanding: Citadel / Room 315 Sweden ’74’ LP/CD (My Only Desire) 5/5

Prior to the RCA album of 1975, which gathered to the studio the finest of home-grown talents in Henry Lowther, Kenny Wheeler and Chris Laurence, this live concert from Folkets Hus (community centre) Södertälje, Sweden in March of 1974 had already been witnessed in the flesh by, quite possibly, the creme of the Swedish progressive music fraternity. A programme commissioned by Sweden’s Sveriges Radio under the watchful protection of producer, jazz trumpeter and composer, Bosse Broberg, who was head of Sveriges Radio’s jazz programming between 1966 and 1990. With only Mike Westbrook and John Surman travelling to Sweden, it was then possible to tap in to the huge wealth of talent available, while keeping at least travel cost from the UK down considerably no doubt.

Composed and arranged by Mike Westbrook, this live, never before released, ‘Citadel/Room 315’ we have before us, was to indeed pool bright musicians under the umbrella ‘The Swedish Radio Jazz Group’, with an incredible history; Arne ‘Dompan’ Domnérus (alto saxophone, clarinet) had played beside Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones, with a staggering 25 albums under his wing, including Jazz at the Pawnshop, which has graced my own CD collection for a considerable time; Egil Johansen (drums), Bengt Hallberg (piano), Rune Gustafsson (guitar), Georg Riedel (bass), Lennart Åberg (tenor and soprano saxophone, flute) and Claes Rosendahl (tenor saxophone, flute) all of Radiojazzgruppen fame from as far back as 1967, had shared stages with jazz greats Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Gil Evans, Thad Jones and George Russell; Erik “Tönna” Nilsson (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) featured on ‘Cubano Be, Cubano Bop’ as part of George Russell’s New York Band back in 1977, the same band that in 1978 featured Americo Bellotto (trumpet), Bertil Lövgren (trumpet, flugel horn), Jan Allan (trumpet, alto horn), Håkan Nyquist (trumpet, flugel horn, French horn), Lars Olofsson (trombone) and Sven Larsson (bass trombone, tuba), with none other than Sabu Martinez, Stanton Davis and Terumasa Hino present while Stockholm resident, Stefan Brolund (bass guitar) had had a stint with Lee Schipper in 1973 beside Ted Curson no less, and Jan Bandel (drums, vibraphone, percussion) was gaining much ground in 1970 as part of several Swedish progressive music groups. It was Stefan Brolund who just two years previous had recorded a live album in Sweden with Gabor Szabo.

It wouldn’t be the first live recording our ears had been granted access; The Mike Westbrook Concert Band had firmly held that door ajar for several years, even before the 1972 ‘Live’ album for Cadillac records, there had been a seven and a half hours long piece at the Guildford Festival back in 1971. He was very much at home in this setting surrounded by, and writing for, large groups of musicians, and indeed some of the top British exponents in Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, John Warren and Mike Page too.

Compositions and sequence during the concert were to be replicated on the Phonogram Studios/RCA album with a dramatically scored ‘Overture’ and swinging ‘Finale’ sandwiching nine longer pieces. The studio album, adorned with the brutalist concrete architecture of Leeds College of Music, has an uncanny resemblance to Södertälje’s own Tingsrätt building and where the similarities to the two releases end. ‘Construction’ hurdle steps prog/experimental jazz against the springboard of Bitches Brew where we are reminded that this was at a time when Herbie Hancock was working on ‘Thrust’ and ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ was just around the Headhunters corner – it was at a time of exciting new sounds, it was a creative time under construction, and Westbrook is on the cusp delivering, sometimes funky, always boundary-breaking, sounds that is lead during this truly impressive segment by Surman and Rune Gustafsson – both flourishing throughout the 8min number. Oh to have been at this concert…

Allowing a little respite, ‘Pistache’, from Buckinghamshire born Westbrook is the next movement, where we hear Bengt Hallberg on piano supported by the diversity of the orchestra amidst trombone emphasis, as we move in to ‘View from the Drawbridge’ with the mighty bass clarinet lighting the path ahead. A melancholy soundscape from the orchestra draws us in to each and every beautiful note as it gathers pace and flourishes into one of the stand-out numbers and indeed, the Westbrook writing that we have all grown to admire. The title track, ‘Love and Understanding’, then joins the larger than life party with our friend the bass clarinet. This piece drops back into the funky pace giving some of the classics of the time a real run for their money – a distant cousin at best to the studio version – with horn-led chase scene soundtrack written all over it and where drummer Egil Johansen is more than noteworthy.

‘Tender Love’ bridges the halfway mark where Surman’s Soprano takes centre stage. There’s further beauty here as the song rivets the listener’s attention. I’m reminded at how listening to Stan Tracey’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ first made me feel. A deep musical moment that will see repeated plays. Coincidentally, back in 1968 when Tracey was touring said album, Westbrook was performing live for the first time ‘Marching Song’ at the Camden Festival. It was at that very festival in the autumn of 1974 that Westbrook’s 18-piece band first showcased Citadel / Room 315 on our own shores and where Surman’s solo performance was so good the audience’s applause almost ground the concert to a halt.

‘Bebop de Rigueur’ is a far freer part to this suite with Surman on bass clarinet alongside electric bassist Georg Riedel elevating the jazzier elements prior to ‘Pastorale’ taking shape. The longest of the eleven songs. ‘Pastorale’ allows trumpeter Bertil Lövgren and tenorist Lennart Åberg to express themselves. This is very much the go-to part of the recording with all the elements that make this special combined. ‘Sleepwalker Awaking in Sunlight’ is the perfect compliment with what sounds like the entire orchestra vying for attention only to be impressed further by the ‘Outgoing Song’ as Surman takes up the baritone saxophone and reminds us all of how darn good his playing is.

Westbrook had been part of at least eleven album releases prior to this concert and countless live performances, while Surman (baritone and soprano saxes, bass clarinet) had maybe notched up a few more than that – some weight indeed to carry into this project. One might be forgiven for thinking this concert would have allowed Westbrook to iron out any creases he thought necessary in preparing and executing the studio album on his return to England – not so. The interaction between leader and musicians is miles apart on the two recordings, finding, as I have, the studio album to be better balanced as studio control would clearly allow, and whilst many musicians are indeed involved in both, the studio recording a little crisper, but the flair and energy that flows from this, never before released, live in Sweden concert has spontaneity and freshness in bucketloads, and therefore, in my opinion, a far richer and enjoyable listening experience.

It would be 1977 before Swedish jazz, in the aftermath of the glory days of say the Nalen dance hall, would reap a little money via organisations like STIM (Phono Suecia) and Rikskonserter (Caprice records) and open the famed Fasching club at a buoyant period when venues like Engelen, Stampen, Kurbits, Bullerbyn, Mosebacke and Atlantic featured regular jazz. One might be forgiven for thinking Mike Westbrook had jump-started that in 1973. Gratitude therefore to London label, My Only Desire Records under the baton of Jon Griffiths, for releasing this recording. High praise on their third release and compliments to the wonderful sleeve notes by The Wire writer Daniel Spicer and for Caspar Sutton-Jones’ remastering work at Gearbox Records, which from the original analogue tapes have given us a treasured thing indeed and a must for any record collection.

Steve Williams