It's a fair certainty that Oil and Pencil on Cardboard ranks as one of the more unusual titles for a new jazz composition. It is also a pretty unusual piece, with the saxophones of Pete Whyman and Chris Biscoe scurrying across their range, snarling, screaming and swirling, with moments of lyrical calm thrown in.
In celebration of his 70th birthday in the stone and gold splendour of St Cyprian's, the piece proved that Mike Westbrook is still one of Britain 's most creative, experimental and daring jazz composers.
His suite Art Wolf is a setting of lyrics by his wife Kate that celebrates the work of the Swiss painter Caspar Wolf, an 18th-century landscape artist whose depictions of the rugged alpine landscape were dramatically rendered into chippy, rocky musical structures.
The composer's spartan piano conjured up the vastness of the chill mountain scenery in the opening to Pale Parasol, a reminder of Wolf's practice of including everyday objects in his pictures to create a sense of scale. Meanwhile Kate Westbrook's declamatory style, slipping from song to speech and from crisp English to German, teased out the metaphor of an artist whose very signature was a wolf, scratching a living from the inhospitable landscape.
Too much of this would be hard going, but Westbrook has learnt a trick or two in his long career, and the musical diet was leavened with some simply breathtaking soprano saxophone solos by Pete Whyman.
Sinuous and sinister, his sparkling sound made the most of the glorious acoustic of the church and between some dazzling torrents of notes added a romantic lyricism. Most Westbrook concerts also have an inbuilt sense of fun, and although we had to wait for the second half for his congeniality and good humour to emerge properly, his four-piece brass band swaggered its way through Oil Paint on Canvas. This had all the lilt and lift of his best big-band writing, the composer's bass horn setting up an ostinato against which the saxophones and Kate's baritone horn swaggered and swung. This joyous feeling returned in the encore, a Martinique song whose Caribbean warmth sent us happily out into the alpine cold of a London evening. ART WOLF concert at St Cyprian's, London 22/03/2006.
Alyn Shipton - The Times
Inspired by and in tribute to the 18th century Swiss painter Caspar Wolf, this beautiful record is about the loneliness and external exile that many artists seem to undergo. A parallel perhaps between the subject here and the creators of this music? As with Wolf's wonderful Alpine scenes, Mike's music speaks for itself. With less than a handful of instruments, sometimes just a piano and voice, Kate and Mike create huge canvasses of their own to compliment Wolf's landscapes. 'Art Wolf Sketches' builds into a towering peak lifted by the simplest but most direct of texts. 'Oil Paint On Canvas' follows the appropriately stately and elegiac 'Exile', its lightness of pace and mood strangely counter the lyric that focuses both on the the artists materials and the irony of landscape contained inside home or museum. The long 'Art Wolf Scavenges' returns to the earlier theme, musically and lyrically. With a dark and coruscating solo from Biscoe aided by Hiseman's percussion, it's as if Kate's lyrics have succeeded in in capturing the essence and terror of the creative process. 'Unsigned Panorama' and 'Sketching Party' are two lovely instrumentals and the closing 'Whose Wolf Art Thou?', with its wry lyric, is a powerful ending to an excellent album. Its music, and Art, that works as a series of miniatures or, if expanded for an orchestra, would work on a grander scale. Duncan Heining - Jazzwise August 2005
The decades-long association of Mike and Kate Westbrook goes ahead and
with this superb new record, a true gift actually, one that combines
classicality and experimentation in a perfect blend of good taste and
matured energy. It is a commissioned work inspired by the art of Swiss
painter Caspar Wolf (1735 - 1783), whose alpine painted landscapes are
reproduced in the accompanying booklet.
Kate's interpretation of her own lyrics in both English and German
her versatile singing, intense and seductive, fluctuating somewhere
intimist sighing and expressionistic cabaret exasperations. Mike,
alternately at piano and euphonium, expertly directs the music with
arrangements that make the band sound a lot greater than just a quartet.
Exemplary, often tremendous, are the two other contributing musicians -
particularly Chris Biscoe, with the Westbrooks since the early 80's -
John Hiseman is also featured on a couple of tracks. Libero Farnè [MUSICA JAZZ . August-September 2005]
A characteristically thought-provoking, multi-disciplinary Westbrook project, Art Wolf explores the role of the artist (specifically the eponymous eighteenth-century Alpine painter Caspar Wolf), the springs of creativity and the consequences of commitment to the artistic life. Mike Westbrook’s music, by turns lyrical, tender and fiercely passionate as it attempts, in Kate Westbrook’s words, ‘to touch Caspar Wolf, to celebrate his vision and skill, to understand a little his artist’s life with exile and hardship, [his] battles with himself and the world, as he searches for beauty and truth’, is perfectly judged both to accomplish this goal and as material on which his tight but imaginative band (himself on piano and euphonium, Kate on tenor horn, Pete Whyman on soprano and Chris Biscoe on tenor and soprano) can either stretch out in fierce, extended improvisation or negotiate his stately horn arrangements as required. Kate’s dramatic, emotive vocals are perfectly judged, complemented as they are by Biscoe’s abrasive and Whyman’s sinuous saxophones, and the whole, in which composed and improvised elements are skillfully blended, is at once wholly enjoyable for its straightforward jazz content and intellectually satisfying on a level achieved by few contemporary musicians. Chris Parker - Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s