Berry’s long, thudding then mercurial solo and Thompson’s wailing violin introduce the key opening lines of The Human Abstract: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor,” then straight on to The Fields and Blake’s clearest vision of a socialist Jerusalem in the very heart of London’s rare green spaces: “Mutual shall build Jerusalem / Both heart in heart and hand in hand.”
settings of the Poetry of William Blake by Mike Westbrook
texts arranged by Adrian Mitchell and Kate Westbrook
Reviews of Glad Day - Live
The parish church of St Giles-in-the-Fields turned out to be the perfect place for last night’s performance of Glad Day, Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s poetry. Situated close to the modern junction of Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, and known as the Poets’ Church, the present building was completed in 1733 on the site where first a monastery and chapel and then earlier churches had ministered to lepers (St Giles is their patron saint) since the 12th century. The first victims of the Great Plague of 1665 were buried in its garden.
Blake was born in nearby Soho and in his time the church stood next to the warren of dwellings known as the Rookery, London’s most notorious haunt of thieves and prostitutes, immortalised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane drawings and Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. It’s a gentler place now, although had Blake, Hogarth and Dickens been living today they might have been interested to leave the church, turn left down Denmark Street, cross Charing Cross Road and witness the sights of 21st century Soho on a Saturday night.
The concert was in aid of the Simon Community, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its work with London’s homeless population. In the church’s soft yellow light Westbrook was joined by two solo singers — his wife, Kate Westbrook, and Phil Minton — and the 30-voice Queldryk Choral Ensemble, conducted by Paul Ayres, plus the violinist Billy Thompson, the accordionist Karen Street and the double bassist Steve Berry.
They began, appropriately enough, with the searing images of “London”, sung by Kate, before Minton delivered “Let the Slave” and Mike Westbrook himself recited “The Price of Experience” above a lulling choral vamp: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun / And in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn. / It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted, / To speak of the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer…”
“Holy Thursday”, “The Tyger and the Lamb” and “Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell” were among the texts, most of them arranged by the late Adrian Mitchell and the others by Kate Westbrook. The audience remained silent between the individual pieces, reluctant to disturb the mood, but the dramatic conclusion of “The Poison Tree”, on which tango rhythms propelled Kate’s bitter vocal and Thompson’s dazzling fiddle solo, provoked spontaneous cheering.
The musicians were given plenty of space for unaccompanied solos, each one relevant to Westbrook’s overall structure while ensuring a constant variety of texture. They all shone, with Berry’s dark-toned bass outstanding throughout, and particularly when he launched “The Human Abstract” with an improvisation located somewhere between Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, which is not a bad place to be. But nothing was more quietly electrifying than the transition from Minton’s open-hearted vocal to Thompson’s spirit-possessed violin which led from “The Fields” to the concluding “I See Thy Form”.
Westbrook has been working on this material for many years, and it is among his several masterpieces. Like his fellow pianist/composer Keith Tippett and his old associate John Surman, he came out of the jazz ferment of the 1960s and found his way to a music in which he can employ everything he has learnt while making profound use of his indigenous heritage. For his admirers who couldn’t make it to last night’s concert, there’s a new DVD and CD, called Glad Day Live, of a performance by the same singers and musicians, filmed at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel five years ago. Highly recommended, of course.
Richard Williams - thebluemoment.com
Initially composed for Adrian Mitchell’s National Theatre production, Tyger, many of the songs in this programme of William Blake poems set to Mike Westbrook’s music date back to 1971. Material has been added over subsequent years for performances by the composer’s Brass Band, for a 1980 Impetus recording, Bright as Fire, an Enja album, Glad Day in 1997, and – most recently – a DVD and CD, Glad Day Live (Westbrook Records), documenting a 2008 performance utilising the forces (two singers, jazz quartet, large choir) deployed on this occasion, a concert presented by the Simon Community, a charity for the homeless.
The songs have also been sung (usually by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton, the performers here, at St Giles-in-the-Fields) with various local children’s choirs, initially in Blackheath in 1996, but also – using the instrumentation of this concert, accordion, violin, piano, bass – to mark the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth in 2007 at the Foundling Museum as part of the St Pancras Festival of Contemporary Music. This history is worth tracing in such detail because it shows how important the Blake settings have been in Mike and Kate Westbrook’s careers to date; indeed, they neatly encapsulate many of the Westbrooks’ most dearly held artistic beliefs: above all in the power of literary texts to move and inspire, but also in the importance of allowing notions of social justice, consequent upon engagement with historical, political (and spiritual) complexity, to inform their music.
It also helps explain why Glad Day, particularly its opening two songs, ‘London Song’ (‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street …’) and ‘Let the Slave’ (‘Let the slave, grinding at the mill, run out into the field’), is quite so affecting: by the time the latter culminates in Mike Westbrook’s powerfully spirited but beautifully modulated recitation of ‘The Price of Experience’ (‘What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children …’), the audience has been irresistibly elevated to a profoundly civilised plane by the perfect marriage of melody and lyric, infused with passion and delivered with utter conviction.
Such passion and conviction, indeed, imbued the whole of this performance. From the righteous indignation of ‘Holy Thursday’ (‘Is this a holy thing to see/In a rich and fruitful land,/Babes reduc’d to misery,/Fed with cold and usurous hand?’) to the visionary eloquence of ‘I See Thy Form’ (‘O lovely mild Jerusalem/Winged with six wings/In the opacious bosom of the sleeper’), Mike Westbrook’s settings (Kate Westbrook responsible for arranging the texts for ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Human Abstract’, Adrian Mitchell – to whose memory this concert was dedicated – for the rest), richly deserved the rapt attention and the subsequent standing ovation they received from a capacity audience.
Impeccably played by Karen Street (accordion), Billy Thompson (violin), Steve Berry (bass) and Mike Westbrook himself (piano), and with the Queldryk Choral Ensemble directed by Paul Ayres providing stirring vocal support, Glad Day is as moving as it is musically satisfying, and its ostensibly simple (‘Can it be a song of joy/And so many children poor?’) yet uniquely powerful message (‘the hapless soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down palace walls’) is as relevant today as ever it was.
Chris Parker - LondonJazz News
Reviews of the Glad Day - Live DVD/CD
Every time Mike Westbrook records Glad Day - his much-loved settings of William Blake for two solo voices, choir and ensemble the instrumentation becomes smaller as the vision grows grander. True enough, those who value Westbrook as foremost a 'jazz composer' - many say Britain's greatest - might regret the jettisoning of big-band splendour that fuelled his original grand design in 1980. A 1997 remake stripped the scoring back to three saxophones and rhythm section, and this new version, recorded live in 2008, reduces further: violin, accordion, acoustic bass and Westbrook's piano now carry the weight of material once propped up by an Ellingtonian-size big band.
But, as Blake said, fire will find its form, and this Glad Day represents the perfect convergence of content and form. Violin, accordion and bass put you in mind of Kurt Weill or of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, and this playful fantasy of an imaginary folk group is a powerful one - a troupe of minstrels from Blake's own time who have somehow managed to sneak back through a time portal to the modern age.
Vocalists Phil Minton and Kate Westbrook (Mike's wife) have been with the project in all of its various incarnations, and through their onstage personae Blake's poetic imagery is reborn. Minton owns one of the most astonishing vocal instruments around. In 'The Fields' his quivering, resonant bel canto injects the music with extatic exhilaration, a little danger even. On 'Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell' he lets rip with his trademark improvised, abstract yodelling vocalisations: an unshakable force of nature. Kate Westbrook has a jazz singer's impulse for tonal inflection and rhythmic elasticity combined with the deportment of a great actress.
'London Song' begins with a representation of chaos: vocal whispers and muffled cries from the London College of Music's Chamber Choir which meander urgently towards an anchoring tonality. Westbrook's choral writing is stylistically apposite, pitching up somewhere between formal hymnody and hot gospel - 'I see thy form' subtly acknowledges 'Jerusalem' while 'The Tyger and the Lamb' is kept merrily on the boil over Steve Berry's brawny, swingy bass vamp. Billy Thompson's extended violin solos are a joy throughout. Westbrook's jazz roots are clear; and Blake's images burn as bright as fire.
Philip Clark - Gramophone
Emerge from Toynbee Hall on Commercial Street, London E1, the venue where the works on this album were performed and recorded, and you walk into the streets of William Blake's real life and imagination.
You see, feel and hear the same places that Blake knew, loved hated and dreamed of being transformed into an earthly paradise and revolutionary Jerusalem.
It is still Blake's city, cut through by the streets where he listened to every sound: "In every cry of every man / In every infant's cry of fear, / In every voice in every ban / The mind-forg'd manacles I hear."
Mike Westbrook's notes in this live version of his homage to Blake, Glad Day, (first waxed in 1997 with a seven piece brass band and singers Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton) hold Blake's insurgent spirit, his love for humanity and his understanding of its oppression, and with his tunes and musical brain, Westbrook brings Blake's words into union with the life-force of the blues.
For if Blake had been born in the US South he would have hollered the blues and breathed the breath of jazz.
Read Holy Thursday again, know the injustice that it describes and feel its truth: "Is that trembling cry a song? / Can it be a song of joy? / And so many children poor / It is a land of poverty!"
Or in the Con-Dem land in which we live: "Is this a holy thing to see / In a rich and fruitful land, / Babes reduced to misery / Fed with a cold and usurous hand?"
Blake in the land of Wonga and X-Factor, where the gulf between rich and poor widens every day, where learning about the world is not circumscribed by curiosity, compassion and a human urge for betterment, but by school and examination league tables and the worst culture of obedience and copy-catting.
Adrian Mitchell wrote of Blake that he was "Unfashionable but politically dangerous. Frankly opposed to all kings, warriors and priests, he was tried for sedition in 1804 and was lucky to escape with his life."
For this performance Minton and Kate are with Westbrook and his piano. Karen Street plays accordion, Billy Thompson violin and Steve Berry bass with the London College of Music Choir, conducted by Paul Ayres. The arrangements are by Mitchell and Kate.
On London Song the humming choir and Westbrook's almost doodling piano subside to a haunting duet between Street and Berry, all a prelude to Kate's icily lucid vocal truly running "in blood down palace walls."
Thompson's violin cries out in outrageous beauty as Minton sings of the freed slave, "his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open... for empire is no more."
Kate and Minton's voices turn to tenderness and Street's accordion sways through Lullaby.
Pain and empathy rise through Westbrook’s solo piano through the long introduction to Holy Thursday before Kate’s vocal of cool anger and Street’s singing and airy keys take us directly into Blake’s world of 2014.
Blake’s contrasts are harmonised in The Tyger and the Lamb firstly by Berry’s pulsating, delving bass and then by a host of women’s voices and the power of Street’s astonishing accordion.
She is there too at the outset of A Poison Tree, spectral, menacing and full of portent before Kate’s own ominous vocal and Thompson’s grim, dancing solo.
The blues are in Whitechapel and all through Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell, Minton’s growling voice and Westbrook’s aching piano tell the story of the Devil’s spoliation of love before Thompson’s bow adds its shimmering tailpiece.
It makes me remember the Westbrooks, Minton, the great trombonist Paul Rutherford and the Brass Band playing at the E1 Festival on Bigland Green, Stepney E1 in 1975.
Blake would have loved it and would have joined in too, with children singing, dancing and writing poems.
Long live his vision, insights and the beautiful sounds of the Westbrooks - all interlaced, all of a piece, all one.
Chris Searle - Morning Star
A wiser man than I called Westbrook's setting of Blake's poems as one of Brit jazz's greatest works. Originally developed as 'Tyger', Adrian Mitchell's musical about Blake, it in turn morphed into 'Glad Day' a TV musical drama. Created in pre-Thatcher, pre-crash days, it seemed a celebratory work of hope. Innocence even. But experience now re-casts it as a warning and heartfelt cry of passion. Blake's outcries against enslavement, child exploitation, spiritual and economic oppression demand an audience now more than ever. Which all adds to the poignancy of a CD of a live recording paired with a DVD of the performance. The performance's unremitting intensity is beautifully caught by directors Mike Dibb and Jon Hiseman, mixing tight close ups with occasional wide shots of the choir. The black backdrop, with the band all in black but picked out by bright spotlights, sounds austere but it points up the battle between light and dark so central to these songs. The choir's youth, in angelic contrast to the band's embodied experience, is fantastic: like a theatre chorus they guide our emotion as they witness with awe Thompson's ecstatic anger on 'Let The Slave' or Street's lyric melancholy on 'Holy Thursday'. In a world that puts a price on everything, this music, this vision remains priceless.
Andy Robson - JazzWise
That innovative and many-faceted British composer and musician Mike Westbrook - someone who shouldn't be shoehorned into the limitation of being seen as just a jazzman - has been setting the poems of William Blake to music for nearly 50 years.
Some of these settings were originally commissioned by the National Theatre for the 1971 production of Adrian Mitchell's Tyger and the Blake settings, sung by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton, were an integral part of the repertoire of the Mike Westbrook Brass Band from its formation in 1973. Bright As Fire, a programme entirely devoted to Blake's poetry, was first performed in 1980 and toured widely since throughout Britain, Europe, New York and Australia.
This truly marvellous revisiting of 10 of Blake's verses was recorded by a small band consisting of four musicians and two vocalists, with a wonderful choral part conducted by Paul Ayres.
Westbrook has always supplemented his own musical brilliance with remarkable musicians, and this recording is no exception, from the gypsy violin of Billy Thompson to the accordion of Karen Street, who sounds like a bal-musette on acid.
Former trumpeter turned vocalist Phil Minton and Westbrook's wife Kate, who've worked with him for the past half-century, are on top form here. But the most powerful track is Westbrook's recitation of The Price Of Experience as the choir echoes Minton's earlier declaration that "everything that lives is holy."
Most of the DVD tracks are duplicated on the CD where the mix, to my battered ears, sounded clearer than the video versions, although two of the CD tracks are of entirely different performances.
Karl Dallas - Morning Star