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19 A Special Brew
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February 2019 Posts
Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
21 February 2019
The Uncommon Orchestra
Ronnie Scott’s, London
12 Feb 2019 by Martin King
Mike Westbrook & The Uncommon Orchestra at Ronnie Scott's 12 February 2019
photo: Simon Annand
Last year saw the release of five new Westbrook albums. Two of these - THE LAST NIGHT AT THE OLD PLACE (Cadillac SGCC0016) and CATANIA (Westbrook Records WR004) - were previously unreleased live recordings capturing significant stages in the music’s evolution. CATANIA is a 2-CD set by the stellar Mike Westbrook Orchestra featuring highlights from a 3-day Westbrook music festival in 1992 presenting a broad cross section of Kate and Mike’s music. The OLD PLACE CD was recorded in the packed Gerrard Street club (Ronnie Scott’s original premises) in 1968. It’s a hearty blast capturing the sense of adventure and high-energy atmosphere of the early Mike Westbrook Concert Band era, that springboard for Mike’s subsequent musical development.
The first feat of the evening was to somehow squeeze the 24 musicians onto the club’s small stage. I lost count of the musical treats that followed but just got swept along with the ever-changing sonorities and the infectious vibe.
Fast forward some 50 years and Westbrook is again playing to a full house at Ronnie’s, this time in its current Frith Street establishment. Fresh from a tour of Sicily and mainland Italy to mark the release of the CATANIA album, the Uncommon Orchestra brought their aptly titled PURE GOLD programme to London last week. As Mike said in his closing remarks, it was good to be able to repay his debt of gratitude to Scott, who gave Mike his first break by offering a residency at the Old Place.
The performance opened with two pieces from A BIGGER SHOW, followed by Long John Brown & Little Mary Bell. While the repertoire was retrospective the creative spirit and in-your-face presence of the Uncommon Orchestra ensured that this was no mere exercise in nostalgia. Everyone, on the bandstand and off it, was clearly having the time of their lives.
Highlights were too numerous to list (or even recall but mention must be made of the ‘choir’ - four very distinct singers (Kate Westbrook, John Winfield, Martine Walter and Billie Bottle) who nevertheless blended beautifully together. Billie also added some choice keyboard fills and bass guitar passages at key moments. Then there was Marcus Vergette and Coach York on bass and drums holding it all together and driving the band, nowhere more effectively than in the Latin groove of Brazilian Love Songs.
Several players in the Uncommon Orchestra were also in the 1992 Orchestra One such is Dominique Pifarely who exploits the full range of the violin from shimmering bel canto lines to more abrasive scrapings and playful pizzicato punctuations. His atmospheric contributions, whether in a solo role (DTTM) or in providing accompanying figures when the main action was elsewhere, were highly virtuosic but always at the service of the bigger picture.
Often the music evolved organically. At other moments abrupt changes in tonal texture (Alabamasong) had us literally gasping in wonder. Solos were consistently original and arresting, and ranged from Matthew North’s blues-drenched heavy rock guitar (The Toper’s Rant) to Pete Whyman’s Sicilian gypsy-flavoured clarinet (Lu Me Sceccu). Roz Harding’s alto soared in Bebop de Rigueur Alan Wakeman’s serpentine soprano curled around the Juxtapositions chords and his tenor take on Something to Live For was a model in ballad playing.
Dave Holdsworth, on trumpet, pocket trumpet and sousaphone, is a veteran from the 1968 Concert Band featured on the LAST NIGHT album. Always an assertive player, his solos bristle with propulsive melodic invention.
The evening’s final sequence of Golden Slumbers, The Toper’s Rant and the Gallop from the William Tell Overture, topped with a sublime encore of I See Thy Form made Soho seem a better place when we left the Club.
This was truly Pure Gold - and it was shining bright as fire! Everyone - both onstage and off - enjoyed it, and felt privileged to experience this uplifting music. And Mike, in his characteristic self-effacing way, was thrilled by the way the Orchestra brought his music to life. A resounding success. - five stars! Congratulations and heartfelt thanks to all concerned.
It’s been my good fortune to have attended many Westbrook gigs over five decades but I don’t believe I have ever experienced such a concentration of great music in one evening. Kate and Mike have built up a vast, wide-ranging body of work over the years and PURE GOLD showcases this brilliantly. The evening is a high-wire act with an abundance of riches, one gem following another, then another. Great material, original soloists, and super-tight ensembles (the final sax choruses of Bebop de Rigueur, for instance) and moments of sheer abandon (Alabamasong again) add up to what could be the best Westbrook band yet. And - as most visitors to this website will already know - the bar has long been set pretty high.
It’s been an epic journey from Mike’s 1960s residency at the Old Place but there’s no loss of that spirit of joyful exploration that characterised those old bands. But added to that there is now the benefit of experience, the honing of a language and the building of a rich and varied repertoire, and the development of a band that can really do it justice.
The Uncommon Orchestra Live at Ronnie Scott’s would make an excellent double CD set to stand proudly with the rest. Worth waiting for!
For other reviews see: