Granite is a song cycle about Dartmoor with text by Kate Westbrook and music by Mike Westbrook. This beautiful but forbidding moor, and its granite quarries, is not far from where the Westbrooks live in Devon. Kate Westbrook is also a painter and Dartmoor is a favourite subject. Granite was commissioned by a German fan, Frank Eichler, who spends his summers in South West England, and who loves the moors. It is therefore appropriate that the Westbrooks should conjure up this wild landscape in words and music for his special piece.
The English jazz cannon contains many pastoral depictions, but none like this. There are moments here of lyrical beauty, with sparkling piano, wistful saxophone and evocative text. The rest of the instrumentation is surprising rocky – the fittingly named Granite Band has a rock base and the sound too is literally rock-based. Producer Jay Auborn explains in the sleeve notes: “Echo and reverberation sounds were recorded live at Haytor Granite Quarry. Using… convolution processing, we were able to recreate the unique sound of the quarry back in the recording studio.”
Kate Westbrook has a track record for delving into many musical genres. Jazz, pop, rock ‘n roll, European cabaret and English music hall have all been influential, as have classical music including opera. She is well-known as a performer of contemporary music. Despite knowing of that huge range, this work took me by surprise. It is in essence a concept album, with an extraordinary soundscape. The jazz elements are mixed in with contemporary music and spoken sections. The Blues are definitely in there too, and it will certainly appeal to rock fans – indeed it was reviewed favourably in Prog magazine.
The Granite Band all come from Mike Westbrook’s The Uncommon Orchestra. There are two electric guitarists: jazzer Jesse Mollins and goth rocker Matthew North, both of whom also have their own projects. Mollins has a jazz trio, and North (who incidentally runs the fan club for The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown) plays rock. Billie Bottle, electric bass, is a Westbrook stalwart, who plays piano, guitar, bass guitar and sings in various other Westbrook ensembles. Bottle’s own project is a Canterbury Sound-ish neo-prog outfit Billie Bottle and The Multiple. Coach York is a jazz and rock drummer, who plays with Mollins and other jazz combos. Roz Harding, saxophone, is no stranger to electric guitar music – her own project is the trio Supermood, with guitarist Mike Outram and drummer Jim Bashford. She also plays with Billie Bottle and The Multiple. The rest of the Granite Band are Kate Westbrook, voice, with Mike Westbrook at the piano.
Highlights for me include the opening number Tracks Of Desire, dense ensemble playing, lunging guitars, swooping saxophone above, and below all rumbling drums, spare bass and heavy chords on the piano with Kate giving Marianne Faithfull a run for her money with a smokey deep vocal line. Over the 24 tracks, some of them very short, each musician is given the space to solo. There are different musical textures attained by unusual pairings like voice and saxophone, or spoken word and guitars, all enhanced with the strange atmospheric echoes captured in the quarry. These are very pleasing. There are tumultuous sections with all instruments blazing, contrasted with gentler moments of archetypal Westbrook piano and song.
The Granite lyrics are classic Kate Westbrook: by turns visual, visceral, and stirring. There are three linked sections, which describe the landscape at different seasons of the year. The Westbrooks are fascinated by birdsong, and Kate’s love of the curlew, “yearning bird” as she calls it here, and its lament-like song is a repeated motif in Granite. The lyrics give us vivid close-ups of “summer heather, spore bracken and gold gorse-thorn” but also pull out to long vistas across the moor, and then up to the stars. There is something very dark here. Kate Westbrook wrote recently: “Humour seems important, and yet the song lyrics I am writing at the moment are serious and about the environment, and death and there are few jokes.” The album finishes with the sound of Kate Westbrook, whistling poignantly in an echoing quarry, leaving the listener to ponder the unvoiced words of a popular Irving Berlin song: “Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance, Let's face the music and dance.”
This is an exciting and powerful recording full of surprises, which may well find a wider audience among rock and prog devotees.
Jane Mann - London Jazz News - October 2018