March 2019 Posts
Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
6 March 2019
The Uncommon Orchestra
Ronnie Scott’s, London
12 Feb 2019 by Francisco Macias
Mike Westbrook & members of The Uncommon Orchestra at Ronnie Scott's 12 February 2019. photo: Simon Annand
On the last 12th of February, we were lucky enough to attend a concert of one of the greatest, most important British jazz composers, Mike Westbrook, joined by The Uncommon Orchestra. We had already been to a couple of Westbrook gigs with different line-ups, but this was the first time we could watch him live with this wonderful jazz rock big band. Twenty-four musicians on the stage of one of the most iconic venues in London, the Ronnie Scott's, in the heart of Soho. On a table near the stage, in a rather high position and surrounded by some 300 people, we enjoyed two hours of unforgettable music. The band consisted of:
Mike Westbrook: musical direction and piano
Kate Westbrook, John Winfield, Martine Waltier and Billie Bottle: voices.
Bottle played electric bass and piano on several occasions, as well.
-Jesse Molins and Matt North: guitars
-Dominique Pifarely: violin
-Marcus Vergette: double bass
-Coach York: drums
-Pete Whyman, Alan Wakeman, Roz Harding, Sarah Dean and Ian
-Graham Russell, Stuart Brooks, Dick Pearce and Sam Massey: trumpets
-Dave Holdsworth: sousaphone and pocket trumpet
-Joe Carnell, Stewart Stunell, Ashley Nayler and Samuel Chamberlain-
The concert started with two magnificent pieces from the masterpiece that is 'A Bigger Show' (2016). The first was 'Gizzards All Gory', with the orchestra on top form, the vocalists singing together and a brilliant tenor sax solo by Alan Wakeman standing out. Without a break, 'Juxtapositions', one of the most beautiful melodies Westbrook has ever composed, performed by Martine Waltier and backed by the other singers. I found both the trumpet solo by Sam Massey and the soprano sax solo by Alan Wakeman to be excellent, and the same could be said about the orchestral arrangements, combined with intense electric-bass-guitar-and- drums moments. After that, Marcus Vergette's double bass and Dominique Pifarely's astounding violin took us to the world of William Blake through 'Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell', a true classic. As we were used to listen to it with Phil Minton's powerful voice, we were not sure it would come off well, but John Winfield's performance left us staggered. That way of singing, always accompanied by the violin and the whole orchestra in the background turned out to be one the best moments of the night. That was followed by a 2012 tune, 'Brazilian Love Songs', originally recorded by the trio consisting of Mike Westbrook, Kate Westbrook and Chris Biscoe, which in this concert could be heard on a different arrangement for the whole orchestra. Jazz-rock with a Latin flair,guitar and trombone rendering the original melody before Kate's vocal performance.
The next two pieces were a real trip to the past, taking us back to 1975, when Mike Westbrook released his magnificent album 'Citadel/Room 315'. Both in the lovely 'Tender Love' and in the spectacular 'Bebop De Rigueur', Roz Harding's alto sax stunned us all, combining melodic, touching passages and parts closer to free jazz. To finish the first set, the orchestra presented us with a tarantella that Westbrook and his band first played last November, on their return to Sicily to celebrate the release of the double album 'Catania', containing an unreleased performance from 1992 in that Italian city. An amusing yet very beautiful piece, where the great Peter Whyman stood out on the clarinet. Quite a show!
The second set started in a rather traditional fashion, with a cover of Duke Ellington's 'Tulip or Turnip', taking us back to the 1950's. Then we took a trip to the 20's with the wonderful 'Alabama Song', from the 'Mahagonny' opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Many musicians have covered this song (The Doors, David Bowie et al.) and understandably so, since it possesses a certain perverse, decadent flavour that is quite remarkable. As you might expect, the orchestra and singers emphasised that rather lunatic touch by acting out on stage. A special moment was Dave Holdsworth (who already played in the first few Westbrook albums in the late 60's, as well as in other British Jazz gems) putting down his sousaphone (a type of tuba) and taking a pocket trumpet to perform a brilliant solo. The next piece, named 'D.T.T.M.' is a composition dedicated to the memory of two old friends of Westbrook's, trombonist Danilo Terenzi and drummer Tony Marsh (a fantastic improviser whom I was lucky enough to see live a few years ago at the Vortex club in London, alongside Evan Parker, Louis Moholo and John Tchicai). A wonderful blues where the main performer was Dominique Pifarely on violin, strikingly expressive and moving.
'Gas, Dust, Stone', from the album 'A Bigger Show', was another great moment. With Westbrook playing the piano, it was Billie Bottle who brilliantly took charge of the vocal parts, constantly supported by a playful guitar and violin. During the spectacular instrumental section, Bottle was creating beautiful, catchy lines on the electric bass while different solos followed: trombone, then guitar, interrupted by a great orchestral melody, and finally an alto saxophone solo that continued even after the four singers went back to the vocal part.
The orchestra then returned to its more 'classical' side with 'Something To Live For', a 1930's Billy Strayhorn piece, with Alan Wakeman as the lead man, and 'Graffiti', originally released on that wonderful triple album from 1982, 'The Cortège', where Pete Whyman on alto sax and Dick Pearce on trumpet stood out.
The final part of the evening consisted of a beautiful rendition of 'Golden Slumbers' by The Beatles, which reminded us of Westbrook's tribute album 'Off Abbey Road' (1990); a short cover of 'The Toper's Rant', a pretty piece, perfect for an ending that can be heard in full on 'The Cortege' (1982); an enjoyable version of Rossini's 'William Tell Overture', reminiscent of another tribute album, 'Rossini' (1987); and the wonderful and moving 'I See Thy Form', such a Westbrook classic, present in many of his albums as a celebration of William Blake's figure. A hymn sung by John Winfield, with an orchestral 'crescendo' that lead to a really emotional finale.
After the concert, we had the chance to chat with Kate and Mike Westbrook, and they were as nice and considerate as always. A true privilege!
Text. Francisco Macias
Translation: Juanfran Andrade
For other reviews see:
14 March 2019
Carving the Blues in Granite
by Chris Searle
The GRANITE band at Ashburton, Devon - photo: Matthew North
I first heard Kate Westbrook back in 1973, when she played tenor horn in her husband Mike’s brass band at the E1 Festival in Stepney, east London. Since those days she’s become an outstanding jazz vocalist and now in her 80th year she’s delivered the album Granite, perhaps her most singular achievement.
Westbrook spent much of her childhood and schooling near Dartmoor and vividly remembers the curlew’s song but now there are only a few nesting pairs on that vast moor: “In Granite, I try to show the nobility of human endeavour and the paradoxical destruction of our planet.”
She found the spirit of the quarry worker — “flesh become stone,” she explains — in the rock and her album evokes the abandoned quarry at Haytor and its past international links. “It bears traces of human labour, the vestiges of stone tracks where a horse-drawn cart carried granite loads to the river, then the cargo travelled by boat to the sea and out across the world.”
Thus her words and voice travel, joining with the song of the Blues which, Kate asserts, is “lifelong and universal. The Blues has no place for vanity. It is plugged into the eternal.”
As part of the recording, engineers Jay Auburn and Callum Godfroy carried a large speaker up to the quarry and played a swooping signal covering its complete sonic range and echo. Then Mike took her texts and added his “wonderful” themes and orchestration.
“His piano is a unique and rich voice that I have loved so profoundly through our 45 years of collaboration,” Kate says. “His music makes the seven-piece band sound intimate at times and massively orchestral at others.
“The violence of the climate and industrial action upon the landscape is conjured by the soundscape, as are the infinitesimally small noises of snowfall, bud-burst and wind-drift.”
It was important that all of the musicians of her Granite Band are south-west based and know Dartmoor. “It gives an added piquancy to our interpretations,” she says.
She pays tribute to the interaction and different interpretative approaches of guitarists Jesse Molins and Matthew North, while saxophonist Roz Harding is “a very gifted player, the brilliant drummer Coach York has a generous understanding of the music and texts and Billie Bottle on electric bass is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist.”
Kate’s empathy with the quarry worker, “cutting, carting granite by day,” is profound as he/she searches for “the song I love across the moor/Across the granite Tor/ pray come the song I hold dear” to find “youth/ wisdom and the voice to carve out the Blues.”
Her own lifetime of singing reflects this eternal quest as if it were to find the song of her life too in all the clubs, cabarets and theatres of the world. A special life, as is Granite. Fusing labour and art, nature and beauty, the song and human will and aspiration, it holds a visceral warning and message to the future from the past and the present.
As Kate blew her horn in the summer of 1973 in Stepney, who knew then what struggles and menaces the next half century would bring and how she would express and illuminate them.
Chris Searle - Morning Star
The GRANITE CD is available from Westbrook Records