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MIKE WESTBROOK
THE UNCOMMON ORCHESTRA

A BIGGER SHOW
Reviews


Quote Fresh from celebrating his 80th birthday, Mike Westbrook brought his Uncommon Orchestra to Kings Place for the London premiere of A Bigger Show. Westbrook's new jazz-rock oratorio sets texts by his wife Kate, who also stars as a vocalist alongside Bolly Bottle and Martine Waltier, backed by a double rhythm section big band. Theatricality was in the air from the beginning as the band approached the platform from different corners of the hall to gradually establish a marching groove. But the jolly pump of Dave Holdsworth's sousaphone was quickly tempered by the dark surrealist libretto: "Bounce, drag, burn this murder of crows oh!/Cut, zap, trash for the Waxeywork Show". With this strange circus in full swing, Alan Wakeman took centre-stage with a blistering tenor sax solo. 'Juxtapositions' riffed on internet-age information overload, while alluding to 21st century anxiety with lines such as "Breaking newsflash reveals disasters yet-to-be". Guitarists Jesse Molins and Matthew North painted a grunge rock canvas, while Sam Massey delivered a moody Harmon-muted trumpet solo. There was fantastic full band writing and a raucous double drum kit duel between Coach York and Theo Goss during 'Scattered and Cold' which had the vocalists warning of corporate surveillance, "Google knows what you're watching on the internet", "Tesco knows what you had for your breakfast!" It was part acerbic satire and part big band party. The musical grandeur and biting irony evoked thoughts of Frank Zappa, especially in the sprawling symphonic textures of 'Propositions' and the nihilism of 'Gas, Dust, Stone'. Roz Harding shone on alto sax and Mark Bassey was a terrific lead trombone. Textually and conceptually A Bigger Show did sometimes sail too close to the waters of school music theatre, but it's hard not to be won over by something so ambitious, unapologetic and uncategorisable.
Jon Carvell - JAZZWISE
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Mike Westbrook has always worked well with big canvasses (witness, inter alia, his anti-war suite Marching Song and Glad Day - The Settings of William Blake) and it's clear he hasn't lost his touch. He remains adept at creating monumental, all-pervading ensembles while leaving ample breathing space for the voice of the individual. Recorded live in Exeter last year and released to mark Mike Westbrook's 80th birthday, A Bigger Show with lyrics by Kate Westbrook, is described as a jazz-rock oratorio, employing musicians from rock and classical music as well as jazz. The vocalists (Kate Westbrook, Martine Waltier, Billy Bottle) are crucial components texturally as well as in enunciating the message(s), complex meditations on the interaction between visceral humanity and virtual reality... I think. The multi generational personnel includes Dave Holdsworth making a considerable contribution on sousaphone and pocket trumpet.
Barry Witherden - BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE ***** review

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Quote WHAT a swell party it was. Possibly only Mike Westbrook could have created the epic circus-cum-fairground phantasmagoria of A Bigger Show. Jazz-rock oratorio is decent shorthand for what unfolds generously over two discs to celebrate the Devonian pianist-composer’s 80th birthday, although it doesn’t convey the sheer joyful mischief that Mrs Westbrook, Kate, and her two singing accomplices have while observing how the internet and loyalty cards spy on us, pairing up David Beckham and Boadica and enunciating “Constable MacLeod” with matronly relish. The Uncommon Orchestra is well-named. It’s twenty-one strong, with two rhythm sections, and Westbrook marshals it expertly, allowing horn players freedom to blow heroically, sending them off on a swinging parade that Sun Ra might have coveted, letting them loose on a hungrily riffing guitar blues, and restraining the ensemble beautifully on the prayerful, Gil Evans-like Freedom’s Crown. In short, it’s a grooving, adventurous blast and one that’s crying out for a visionary, and resourceful, festival director to restage hereabouts.
Rob Adams - HERALD Scotland
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Quote The UK composer's latest large-scale composition presents his 21 piece Uncommon Orchestra as a somewhat "Pythonesque" circus. The strong anthems, resonant Ellingtonia and bouts of collective mayhem are delivered with impressive musicianship. Alan Wakeman and Roz Harding on saxophones are top-notch and the jazz rock rhythms romp along. Kate Westbrook's somewhat Brechtian delivery of her self-penned lyrics adds a layer of eccentricity, set to Mike Westbrook's music.
Mike Hobart - THE FINANCIAL TIMES
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What a splendid rumpus. Mike Westbrook’s 22-piece Uncommon Orchestra rolls into town like a rumbustious if faintly sinister carnival (think Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes) to perform a “jazz-rock oratorio” about the state of humankind in the age of the internet. Marking both Westbrook’s 80th birthday and half a century as bandleader and composer, this live double CD delivers a vast tapestry of reeds, brass and electric guitars and double drums, not to mention fairground barkers, over
which Kate Westbrook gives characteristically authoritative voice.

The opening Gizzards All Glory sees her apparently channelling Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull alongside Alan Wakeman’s baying tenor sax, while Juxtapositions warns of “disasters yet to be”, as soprano sax wheedles over a Greek chorus of brass. The cosmic meditations of Gas, Dust, Stone take the form of a sultry slow blues with howling guitars and eruptive brass, while Lovers Galore is dark and brassily funky. Shows don’t come much bigger.
Jim Gilchrist - THE SCOTSMAN **** review

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The great English jazz composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook turns 80 next month — on March 21, to be exact. His long career is studded with extended works of great ambition and achievement: Marching Song, Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315, The Westbrook Blake, The Cortège (his masterpiece, for my money), On Duke’s Birthday, London Bridge Is Broken Down, Mama Chicago, and others. What began in the late 1960s as a distinctively Westbrookian conception of jazz — with undertones of the approach Ellington and Mingus took to blending composition and improvisation — was broadened by an engagement with street theatre and brass bands, and by a collaboration with his wife, the singer and librettist Kate Westbrook, on pieces that reflected the influence of Berlin theatre song and British music hall.

And now there’s another magnum opus to celebrate. A Bigger Show is a piece in eight sections, lasting almost two hours, performed by Westbrook’s latest large ensemble, the Uncommon Orchestra, a 21-piece unit based around his home in Devon. Due to its size, it doesn’t often show its face. But last summer a recording of the piece was made at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre, and the results — produced by Jon Hiseman — are out now on a 2CD set.

The suite was inspired by the old St Bartholomew’s Day fair, which took place in Smithfield, in the City of London, continuously between the 12th and 19th centuries until it was closed down in 1855 on the grounds of excessive rowdiness and debauchery. Back in 1975 Westbrook’s Brass Band took part in a production of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, and the idea grew into its present incarnation.

Once again the Westbrooks’ vision of modern life finds powerful expression in a work featuring rousing and often turbulent ensemble work with instrumental solos of real substance from such familiar figures as Alan Wakeman on soprano and tenor saxophones and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet and Sousaphone, and newer names like the altoist Roz Harding, the trumpeter Sam Massey and the tenorist Gary Bayley. As has been the case with Mike Westbrook since the beginning of his career, the improvisations emerge from the arrangements in an organic and dramatically satisfying way — the work of composer who has paid close (but never imitative) attention to the lessons handed out by Ellington, Mingus and Gil Evans.

The tone is variously raucous and tender, celebratory and scathing. Kate Westbrook’s lyrics, sung by herself, Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, are etched in acid (particularly in a song satirising the social media). Human nature and human behaviour, they suggest, are little altered since the days of Blake and Hogarth: in an era when the gap between affluence and poverty is widening rapidly, only the superficial symptoms of excess and deprivation differ.

All this is achieved with a courage, a vigour and a generosity of spirit always characteristic of Mike Westbrook’s work. A Bigger Show is ambitious, thoughtprovoking, and exhilarating; when it ends, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey. Perhaps one day his extended pieces will be acclaimed as belonging among the most acutely relevant cultural artefacts of our time. Until then, here’s a new one to treasure.
Richard Williams - THE BLUE MOMENT

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Quote Mike Westbrook who will be 80 later this month (March 21st 2016), was justly hailed as a game-changer in British orchestral jazz in the 1960s, and still joins up jazz, cabaret, brass band and circus music, rock and opera with an infectious openness and no little skill. His West Country-based Uncommon Orchestra’s two-CD A Bigger Show is a typically Westbrookian stew of slamming guitar-powered riffs, lustrous brass harmonies recalling Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, a mix of rather stagey fairground-barker badinage and Kate Westbrook’s socio-political libretto, and anthemically roaring climaxes. His fine saxophonist Alan Wakeman and trumpeter Sam Massey fuse lyricism, abstraction and Miles Davis-like pungency on the gripping Juxtapositions, while the Mingus feel is compelling on the slow blues Freedom’s Crown. The half-hour Propositions deploys the 21-piece band’s broad tapestry of humming electronics, vocal harmonies and blearily majestic swing. The rock hooks, and a few of the lyrics, are a bit on the nose but the live show party atmosphere is palpable and the idiomatic sweep is inviting for Westbrook faithfuls and the newly curious alike.
John Fordham - THE GUARDIAN
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It shouldn't be allowed. At an age when they should be revelling in their freedom passes, the Westbrooks refuse to compromise with the Furies and instead, like all great artists, they grasp life and dare to reflect it back to us in all its tainted glory. A Bigger Show is a sprawling big band project featuring three very different vocalists and a roaring chorus of brass.

Building on the premise that life is a circus, with the Internet offereing all the treats and tricks of the fairground, the Westbrooks, as they have done for for decades, have brought together voices from the local community, long time pals (Holdsworth first offered his services to Mike W. in the 1960's), theatre, cabaret and Mingus-scaled arrangements to enchant, thrill, scare, baffle and boggle us. As a live recording, you'd expect longuers, but the whole drives on, mixing ascerbic intellect with, particularly in the second half, unfettered emotions, notably on the blues-soaked dynamics of 'Gas, Dust, Stone'. Less a recording than a pledge to life, love and the future. The show must go on, bigger, better, forever.
Andy Robson - JAZZWISE

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For the last few years, pianist-composer Mike Westbrook has been leading a very fine big band down in Devon but this is the first time they have made it on to CD. In fact, this is an expanded ensemble with three vocalists, two bass players, two guitarists and two drummers. The clue is in the title, this truly is A Bigger Show with the emphasis on the word "show." Some people have never got what the Westbrooks have been up to these four or so decades. They create jazz entertainments, themed and structured performances that owe something to circus, something to vaudeville, something to theatre and a whole lot to jazz. Westbrook's inspiration lies in the concerts that the Ellington band would perform in the thirties featuring everything from Duke's suites to r&b, pop and comedy songs. The "art" lay more in the "how" rather than in the "what" of the music, in the juxtapositions between different performance elements. A Bigger Show builds upon the earlier Westbrook entertainment, The Waxeywork Show with new songs and additional lyrics to those from "Waxeywork." Sadly, the chances of a DVD to accompany the CD are slim because this feels like something to be seen as well as heard. To call some of these musicians "semi-pros" does less than grant them due recognition. Take Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet and sousaphone. Despite gracing many British jazz records over the years, music has never been his first career. Then there's trumpeter Mike Brewer and listen to his fluegelhorn solo on the long "Propositions." I suspect many a young jazzer would feel a twinge of envy on hearing him here. The key with this band is commitment and the joy of the making music. A Bigger Show offers nearly two hours of music, from the "roll up, roll up" fanfare of "Gizzards All Gory" through the march-like "Juxtapositions," which explores the strange of world of the wax work show, to the circus of the imagination that is "Lovers Galore." The latter features some excellent guitarwork and bone-shaking trombone from Andy Dore. I'm guessing 'Tricky' Sam Nanton will be smiling up in heaven when he hears that sound. But then the playing throughout is first-rate. Alto saxophonist Roz Harding always impresses but damn near surpasses her own high standards on the lovely waltz "Freedom's Crown," as she plays both within and against the prevailing orchestral accompaniment, rhythmically and harmonically. Harding features again on "Propositions" along with all the other members of the sax section. The number is a slow-build constructed around a series of five sax solos, Mike Brewer's fluegelhorn spot and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet. Everyone acquits themselves extraordinarily well but special credit to Gary Bayley on tenor for his playing here and in his duet with the great Alan Wakeman on the big band swing-into-bebop of "Scattered and Cold." But for my money the best track here is the long blues "Gas, Dust, Stone" where the voices of Kate Westbrook, Billy Bottle and Martine Walter really come into their own. It also features some first-rate work from the rhythm section, some perfectly tight and greasy riffing from the horns and some great guitar from Jesse Molins and Matthew North. It's all great music, great entertainment and great fun. Ain't that what it's all about? Just don't tell the jazz police.
Duncan Heining - ALL ABOUT JAZZ

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‘A Bigger Show-Live’ is released on ASC Records.

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