6 April 2011 — Morning Star
[I’ve snuck an excellent video in to this tribute to Mike Westbrook. WB.]
Mike Westbrook is nothing less than a British jazz genius, an utter original and virtuoso of the big band as well as much smaller groups.
I remember in the early ’70s, when Westbrook was living in east London, he brought his small marching band – very close to a Salvation Army formation – to the E1 Festival on Bigland Green in Stepney, as well as to demonstrations for causes from Troops Out to the imprisoned Shrewsbury building workers.
I started to wonder then whose influence drove forward his huge musical brain and imagination. I should have known, and On Duke’s Birthday reveals it completely.
Westbrook was born in High Wycombe in 1936 but grew up in Torquay, combining painting and an extra-curricular love of music at Plymouth Art School after National Service – partially served in Germany – and a dose of accountancy.
In 1962 he moved to London and before long he was sharing house band status at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho with South African Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath.
A series of powerful big band albums on the Deram label – including what I believe to be his greatest, the anti-war suite Marching Song of 1969 – anticipated his music for Adrian Mitchell’s play about Blake, Tyger in 1971, which itself preceded albums such as The Westbrook Blake – Bright As Fire and his 1999 suite to Blake, Glad Day.
On Duke’s Birthday is a fusion of Ellington, Blake and Westbrook, and a very considerable achievement indeed. Westbrook’s solo piano sketching at the outset of the opening track, Checking In At Hotel Le Prieure, has a nervous, valedictory air, but builds up through Tony Marsh’s unleashed drums and Chris Biscoe’s haunting baritone to a state of relentless activity and a sense of preparation for a large-scale orchestral performance.
The entry of Dominique Pifarely’s sprightly violin and Brian Godding’s twanging guitar shatters the tension and the ensemble takes off.
There are two versions of the title theme, both grounded in an aura of sonic sadness and tribute – Ellington had died in 1974, a full decade before this 1984 recording.
Georgie Burns’s mournful cello is at the heart of On Duke’s Birthday 1, and the complex of trombonist Danilo Terenzi’s slides suggest something of the incomprehensible networks of musical brain-power that throbbed in Ellington’s head all through his long jazz life.
It’s fascinating to prelude the 21 engrossing minutes of Westbrook’s E Stratford Too-Doo, recorded in Le Grand Theatre of Amiens in May 1984 by the three-and-a-half minutes of Bubber Miley’s muted mystery and contradictory jauntiness of East St Louis Toodle-oo, recorded in a New York studio in December 1927 by the Ellington Orchestra. East St Louis and Stratford, London E15 are oceans and continents apart yet miraculously fused in music.
There is birdsong at the beginning of Westbrook’s movement, even along the mudbanks of the ferociously urban river Lea, and the ambience of a worrying peace expressed by the quickening force of Pifarely’s violin and Biscoe’s rampant baritone horn. You wonder what Harry Carney, Ellington’s pioneering baritonist on the 1927 waxing, would have made of it all.
Then Marsh’s drums come in a-pounding, Biscoe’s horns find their mark and suddenly, in the way of Ellington, the mood is metamorphosed and the sound is citified.
In 1986 Westbrook recorded Westbrook-Rossini, a suite founded on the music of another hugely popular composer, Italian opera man Gioacchino Rossini.
With a seven-piece band of unusual instrumentation including sopranino saxophone, two tubas and a piccolo, Westbrook’s arrangements of extracts from William Tell, The Thieving Magpie, The Barber Of Seville and Otello resonate with powerful ensemble passages and some stinging solos from altoist Peter Whyman, sopraninoist Lindsay Cooper, trombonist Paul Nieman and Westbrook himself, like Ellington an often under-rated pianist.
Tell was a people’s rebel hero of Switzerland, and the five versions of the William Tell Overture were commissioned by the Festival du Theatre Contemporain in Lausanne.
Westbrook gives Rossini’s music a true insurgent mood and, when the final explosive theme of the Tell Overture arrives, those notes which exploded in my boyhood head as the theme of the Lone Ranger and Tonto during the post-war years of the Saturday morning pictures at the Romford Odeon made me realise again how deeply music stays in the blood and how jazz stirs and transforms it into now-times.
Hear Cooper’s sopranino brilliance all the way through the album, or Nieman’s dextrous slides conversing with Andy Grappy’s thundering tuba, or Westbrook’s musing notes on L’amorose E Sincero Lindoro from the Barber Of Seville.
Jazz at the opera and opera at the heartsblood of jazz — Westbrook manages it with aplomb, syncretic artistry and not a small dose of the blues.