Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra at the Blue Orange Theatre

Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra at the Blue Orange Theatre Birmingham December 17th 2017.

Words and Photos: Garry Corbett

Even before the music started the show began. As the musicians took to the stage librettist singer Kate Westbrook could be seen working the front row of the audience asking in a concerned voice “have you seen my little dog Lucky?”. Sensing that this was part of the show when asked I responded with “I thought I saw him scurry beneath a chair”. There was no obvious break in Mrs Westbrook’s deadpan delivery. Lucky the little dog didn’t get another mention until the very last number of the evening but from the entry of the musicians of the Uncommon Orchestra it seemed obvious that this was not to be your average jazz gig.

Tonight’s ambitious seven-part extended composition marks the latest in a long line of collaborations between Mike and Kate Westbrook, he providing the music and she the text. Taking a broad sweep from the 19th. Century fairground to the end of life as we know it via the impact of the world wide web, A Bigger Show is painted across a huge canvas. This requires a large brush, in the form of an ensemble of 19 performers (the album recording features 22) including three voices (one playing bass guitar), five saxophonists, two trumpet players, sousaphone/pocket trumpet, three trombones, double bass, two guitarists, one drummer plus the composer himself at the piano.
The stage of the jewel-like Blue Orange Theatre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter would not have had room for that second drummer from the recording had he turned up with is kit. A colourful ensemble full of character with ages ranging from 18 to 80 took us on a trip which had elements of Vaudeville, space rock ambience, marching band rhythms and at times put me in mind of Mingus, Gil Evans and Frank Zappa without being anything other than pure Westbrook.

Our Mistress of Ceremonies welcomed us to “The show that never ends, the show that lures us on and on” in the opener, Gizzards All Gory which introduced an imaginary cast of characters including Madam Waxwork and painted a word picture of that 19th. Century fairground show. Alan Wakeman was featured on the first of a number of blistering solos with the band riffing behind like a behemoth. Blown out of our seats we were off on an adventure. Juxtapositions followed broadening the cast of characters to include Jack the Ripper, David Beckham, Chairman Mao and Tracey Emin. Not your usual jazz subjects! Transforming that fairground into the World-Wide-Web it warns us of “Disasters yet to be”. Marcus Vergette’s lovely bass sound opened the number followed by a beautiful Sam Massey trumpet solo and further pyrotechnics from Alan Wakeman, this time on soprano sax.
Freedom’s Crown followed. A slow ballad it showed off the harmonies of the three voices, Kate Westbrook, Martine Walter and Billy Bottle perfectly. The lyric is an acrostic of the name of the songs dedicatee Stephen J Hewitt. The voices give over to the first of a couple of beautifully constructed alto saxophone solos from Roz Harding, a name new to me but one definitely to watch. In the ensemble playing with Dave Holdsworth’s sousaphone underpinning the bass end and voices meshing together above the alto there’s was something of the classic British Jazz ensemble sound here with a Gil Evans-like elegance. At around ten minutes this was probably the shortest piece of the evening but for me one of the highlights.
Scattered and Cold gives us the “inevitable self-destruction of the seductive Internet”, think of the implications of that. The three voices begin softly repeating the song’s title like a Mantra before Billy Bottle takes up the story, her singing and body language adding a theatrical flourish to be passed on to a three line whip of saxophones that take the riff and run with it giving us something to move to in our seats while booting the number on to a thundering drum solo from Coach York. Back to the song which transforms into a rap about the all-seeing eye of Twitter, ASDA, Tesco, Google, Twoddle monitoring our every move. As the number winds down it takes on a darker edge lyrically with Dave Holdsworth grumbling behind the voices like a trumpeting demonic elephant on sousaphone. Scattered and Cold indeed.

Part Two of the evening’s entertainment opened with Propositions and an extended baritone solo over a stately funeral theme. We are told that “Humankind is no longer earthbound”. It seems that following some apocalyptic post Internet shenanigans earth is somehow scattered and all knowledge with it. I loved the ensemble textures here. We are treated to a duo performance by Roz Harding on alto saxophone and Dave Holdsworth shifting from sousaphone to the pocket trumpet, quite a contrast of scale. Again there’s that lovely blending of the three human voices with the full strength of the orchestra. Propositions is a suite in itself at over thirty minutes durations. It also features the only true piano interlude featuring the composer himself who allows us to hear his unique sound at the keyboard. Something not heard enough in this extended work but very much worth checking out on his 2016 recording Paris which sees him performing solo at the grand piano. If you haven’t heard it it is well worth checking out. Propositions vied with Freedom’s Crown for orchestral performance on the evening with some truly beautiful work by all concerned with a notable solo from Alan Wakeman once more on tenor saxophone and Jon Scott on fluegelhorn bringing the number to a quiet end.
Gas, Dust, Stone creates a metaphysical scenario of Mind adrift in endless space. I did say earlier that this is a work painted across a huge canvas. The repetition of the title as chorus really got into the head after the first few times. Some fine rock guitar elements in the mix here too from Jesse Molins and Matthew North, the latter providing some shimmering spacey-ness throughout the evening and adding to the visual character of the multi-coloured ensemble.
Lovers Galore provided the finale and reminded us that for all of the undertone of weighty subject matter and ponderous philosophical implications this was after all just a show and entertainment. We went full circle back to the jokiness of the Show That Never Ends.

The pity is that the opportunity to experience a work on this scale live are very rare. As such this was a triumph for all concerned and a real tribute to the promoters and musicians who Mike Westbrook thanked at the end of this tremendously adventurous and entertaining evening of music which sounded superb in the Blue Orange Theatre thanks to the work of the often unsung sound engineer Peter Maxwell Dixon.

Mainly it is a tribute to the Westbrooks, Mike and Kate out of whose heads, heart and hands the music came.

My contender for ‘Gig of the Year’.

Astral Travelling Since 1993