Mike Westbrook Recordings
The Serpent Hit
text: Kate Westbrook
music: Mike Westbrook
Kate Westbrook (text & voice)
Andy Tweed (soprano & alto saxophones)
Chris Biscoe (alto saxophone)
Karen Street (tenor saxophone)
Chris Caldwell (baritone saxophone)
Simon Pearson (drums)
Mike Westbrook (music)
Recording directed, engineered and mixed by Jon Hiseman
at Temple Studios, Sutton, Surrey, UK.
Funded by Airshaft Trust.
Publisher: Metisse Music.
Westbrook Records WR001
After the Serpent’s bite there is no turning back. Kate Westbrook’s libretto recounts, with irony, humour and regret, the Fall of Humankind in a world hell-bent on its own destruction.
Mike Westbrook’s genre-crossing score combines Kate’s voice with the saxophones of Andy Tweed, Chris Biscoe, Karen Street and Chris Caldwell, and the drums of Simon Pearson.
"Although The Serpent Hit, described in its accompanying publicity as a ‘modern-day fable of the Fall of Humankind’, does indeed provide a tour d’horizon of contemporary ills - listed by librettist Kate Westbrook as the ‘wanton destruction’ of (in song order) innocent pleasure, art, the environment and planet Earth itself - it is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic work, infused as it is with the defiant jauntiness, even exuberance, that have characterised the many projects on which the Westbrooks have collaborated over the years, whether their subjects have been unequivocally grave (the reflections on a broken Europe in London Bridge) or apparently trivial (tips on trifle-making in English Soup).
Thus, the blinding of a merry-go-round horse by a stone (‘Threw’), the smashing of a pot by a glass (‘Lob’), the striking of a basking shark by a barb (‘Hurl’) or the annihilation of the planet by a bomb (‘Trigger’) are all addressed with the same seriousness as manifestations of human folly and destructiveness. Mike Westbrook’s music (originally commissioned for the Delta Saxophone Quartet, now adapted for performance by saxophonists Andy Tweed, Chris Biscoe, Karen Street, Chis Caldwell and drummer Simon Pearson) is carefully calibrated to accommodate Kate’s characteristically idiosyncratic but hard-hitting text, drawing on everything from the cabaret/music-hall tradition to punchy modern jazz in the process.
Beautifully illustrated by Kate’s cover painting and flawlessly and enthusiastically performed by a crack band, The Serpent Hit, despite its ostensibly grave subject matter, is - somewhat paradoxically - an inspiring and oddly uplifting listening experience. The Westbrooks have never been afraid to address the ‘big issues’ - their profound and deeply moving meditations on the Great War in the aforementioned London Bridge, for instance, should surely form part of any self-respecting forthcoming public commemorations of that earth-shattering conflict - and The Serpent Hit, infectiously lively and immediately accessible as it is, constitutes another considerable artistic triumph for them."
Chris Parker - London Jazz
"Nothing if not ambitious, The Serpent Hit finds the Westbrooks addressing the tiny matter of The Fall of Humankind. The six-song cycle meditates on man’s destruction of innocent pleasure, art, the environment and ultimately the planet. And in Westbrook World there is no God to redeem us. So not exactly a bundle of larfs. We are of course in familiar territory for the Westbrooks and Kate’s text draws deeply on William Blake’s visions of innocence crushed by experience: but the mental fight goes on, and in the splendid quintet that expresses Mike’s music there are intimations that small victories can be won.
Biscoe’s alto retains the delicious gift of being simultaneously free and lyrical, while Pearson briskly underwrites the tight ensemble writing. All that’s missing is Street’s absent accordion. But Mike’s writing is not about added colour: rather, the ritualistic repetition of riffs and figures matches the inescapable coiling of the Serpent around all that is good and graceful in the world. Indeed like Milton, Westbrook gives the best tunes to the Devil, with Kate’s sibilants subtly and supplely slinking through the text. Westbrook’s voice grows stronger precisely because of its frailty: declamatory and dramatic, soaked in Weill, steeped in latter day Holiday, she makes Marianne Faithfull sound like One Direction, but then you don’t do pretty with the world looking down the barrel of a gun."
Andy Robson - Jazzwise
"FALL and annihilation and it is the serpent in the Westbrook script, not Jesus, who sings out the challenge - "Let one who is without sin throw the first stone."
An antithesis in the form of jazz cabaret of song and poetry out loud, of ensemble and solo horns, of splattering drums.
This is The Serpent Hit. The wanton plunder of "innocent pleasure" as a merry-go-round is vandalised; the spoliation of the environment in a marine whirlpool full of barbs and shards; the devastation of the Earth itself with the trigger of the final bomb - such is the impact of this serpent's tale rising from Bible and myth, told by Mike Westbrook's music and Kate Westbrook's words with four saxophones and a drumset, and there is no paradise regained here, only some scintillating sounds and the human endgame.
Kate's voice - a tone and projection like no other, sharp-edged and cutting, carping and sometimes tender, full of warning, always ambivalent.
Listen to the opener Who Threw That Stone? And the horns respond, Andy Tweed's soprano saxophone, Chris Caldwell's choric baritone saxophone, "was it he, or she, was it they?"
There is no answer beyond the jarring pronouns, until the serpent rips the words from Christ.
The second track Lob gives a mercantile answer to the question about the ruination of art as smashed glass is thrown at the Potter's wheel.
Who kills culture, and you think, is it the likes of Simon Cowell and his satraps? "Will the market go down or go high?/Dealer buys, gets the lot-/Let one who hates creation lob the first glass."
Simon Pearson's bouncing drums jump to begin Hurl and Chris Biscoe's springing alto blows an obbligato to Kate's story of the jagged shrapnel-like shards and stabbing fragments that bring death to the world's seas.
It is the leviathan of indifference and insensitivity that provokes the first barbs to be hurled in defiance of nature.
The next track is Pitch, an instrumental where the horns in ensemble replace the words before Biscoe's alto breaks out and Caldwell's baritone surges with deep indignant power.
Yet Tweed's soprano is almost birdlike and Pearson's drums throb and resonate before they fade into a menacing silence.
Trigger is about the exploding of the final bomb on this beloved "sacred Earth, holy world, dancing Earth," its fear and revulsion a constant theme of the Westbrooks' generation.
Caldwell blows another pumping chorus and Kate's voice sounds agonised, unleashed, shocked by her own repugnant words as the mock-epic morphs to the anti-epic.
A sonic desert spreads across the beginning of the suite's coda, called Strike, and the dying away of the world, where "planet Earth is dust/Tremble oh stars!"
Kate sings this while the other planets dance and Neptune goes "bebop" while only one "bourgeois fleshy couple" fly to a new world to delve another garden and repeat the events of another epic meeting with the serpent.
And as the horns prime up for the repeated Fall around Karen Sweet's sustaining tenor saxophone, the fruit is offered and taken.
There are few now-times artistic achievements and messaging that can be com-pared to the mythic audacity of The Serpent Hit.
There are prevailing reminders of Blake - with Ellington the Westbrooks' great inspiration - and Kurt Weill, with many moments when it is easier to think of Milton than any contemporary comparison -not the conventional reference points of jazz. But outrageous surprise was always a Westbrook trait, and that, mixed with brilliance, pours from this music."
Chris Searle - Morning Star
"Originally commissioned by the Delta Saxophone Quartet for voice and four saxophones The Serpent Hit features the text and voice of Kate Westbrook and music of Mike Westbrook joined by the quintet of alto saxophonist Chris Biscoe, baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell, tenor saxophonist Karen Street, soprano/alto saxophonist Andy Tweed, and drummer Simon Pearson. Radio 3’sJazz on 3 programme broadcast the work two years ago in a concert marking Westbrook's 75th birthday recorded at Kings Place, however this is a studio version recorded earlier this year produced by Colosseum’s Jon Hiseman. Each of the first three tracks is an absorbing meditation on the wanton destruction, respectively, of innocent pleasure in the opener ‘Throw’; art in ‘Lob’; and the environment in ‘Hurl’, Kate Westbrook’s text quoting John Masefield in one telling section. Following an instrumental ‘Pitch’, the destruction of the planet is then meditated upon in ‘Trigger’, with the coda ‘Strike’ culminating in these final lines: ‘Man from the apple bites a bit,/And, once again,/The Serpent Hit.” The record operates on several levels: as a scathing but lucid social critique featuring some of Kate Westbrook’s most cogent lyrics, delivered as an actor might recite, in a spirit more in sorrow than anger at the sentiments that need expressing. Sitting in a radical literary and artistic tradition hugely flavoured by William Blake, Bertolt Brecht, and even the late John Arden, as far as Mike Westbrook’s musical settings are concerned the band at least in the opening tracks operate like a chorus to Kate Westbrook’s emboldened narrative voice and charts a riotous course until a transition occurs on ‘Lob’. Mingusian, humane and characterful, a wake-up call to a society long gone feral The Serpent Hit is a new significant milestone of Mike Westbrook’s career. The harmonic underlay Westbrook weaves lends itself to its own plangently beseeching narrative throughout heard best on the instrumental ‘Pitch’ but underpinning most of the drama on the album so effectively. The Westbrooks never seem to fit into any contemporary style of jazz which is to their eternal credit as artists, even if their method may cause some bafflement or false expectations among listeners cut adrift from a pre-Internet world whose radical artistic and literary movements seem remote or even quaint. The Serpent Hit makes that lost history relevant like never before."
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