album produced by Fiachra Trench,
Executive Producer Declan Colgan originally released on Virgin Venture 1988,
Now reissued on BGO Records (BGO CD 788) Digitally remastered with new liner notes by Alyn Shipton
KATE WESTBROOK voice, tenor horn
MIKE WESTBROOK piano
ALEXANDRE MYRAT conductor
THE MIKE WESTBROOK ORCHESTRA
Chris Biscoe alto, soprano &
alto clarinet Graham Russell
Peter Whyman alto & soprano saxophones
clarinet Paul Nieman trombone,
Tony Marsh drums
Steve Cook bass guitar
LE SINFONIETTA DE PICARDIE leader
London Bridge Is Broken Down was commisioned by 'Le Temps du Jazz' (Festival International de Jazz d'Amiens) and premiered
at La Maison de la Culture, Amiens on 26 May 1987. It was performed again on September 22nd at the MUSICA 87 festival in Strasbourg. The album was recorded for Virgin/Venture, produced by Fiachra Trench, at Studio Pathe Marconi EMI, Paris 7th - 10th December 1987 and released in 1988.
In 1990 the piece was performed with the Docklands Sinfonietta conducted by Rupert Bond, in London on 9th November at St. Anne's Church, Limehouse in the Docklands Jazz Festival, and in Zurich on 10th November at the Zurich Jazz Festival.
The Westbrooks' subject matter is nothing less than Europe and its history of the last 100 or so years. With texts and music (as always) matched perfectly, what you have is a picture of the continent, its turbulent rivalries, its horrors and its violence but also a panorama of its grandeur, its glories and achievements. Although its subject is at times, like Owen's, 'War, and the pity of War', it is neither grim nor voyeuristic. Indeed, in preserving our sense of history and culture and, in its uniting of jazz, classical and even rock styles, it is positively enervating and elevating. The music is at times sad and elegiac but at times - 'Für Sie', for example - quite lovely. The playing by the Westbrook Orchestra, and by Brian Godding and Chris Biscoe in particular, amazes and the Sinfonietta releases wave upon wave of rich and unusual harmonies. Perhaps "Les Morts", with one of Kate's finest vocal performances, is its centre of focus but its ecstatic ending with the strange 12th century poem "Aucassin et Nicolette" and its humanistic and heretical theme is simply inspired. This record grows in stature by the year. Duncan Heining - Jazzwise - August 2008
This digitally remastered double reissues Mike Westbrook's great
musical journey through the insanity of 20th-century European
history. The section titles - London Bridge , Wenceslas Square,
Berlin Wall , Vienna and, above all, Picardie - resonate with that
So does the music, which, though rooted in the allegorical
particularity of the German, French and English texts used, also
resists facile suggestiveness; the general resides in the individual
and colours even the purely instrumental episodes.
And Westbrook's integration of his jazz nonet with the 22-piece Le
Sinfonietta de Picardie, of improv with scored, and his range and
control of orchestral colour, are breathtaking.
The music's sublime tumult is by turns mocking, ironic, sardonic,
satirical, gentle, romantic, melancholic, triumphant, superbly played
and very moving. And, in transcending both jazz and classical
influences, it's beyond category. Ray Comiskey - Irish Times - July 2008
Of all the things you might expect to find on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street - broken glass, blood stains, blue flashing lights - a brand new chord isn't the most obvious. But that's what Mike Westbrook turned up there in February 1983 and the 'Smith's Hotel chord' marks something of a cusp in his compositional work. The discovery led on directly to After Smith's Hotel, the real name of the Brittenesque (but not really) Young Person's Guide To The Jazz Orchestra presented at Aldeburgh later that year, and of course to On Duke's Birthday which for me marks the beginning of Westbrook's extended pomp.
London Bridge Is Broken Down, which evolved over the next three years, seems to me to represent a qualitative development in orchestral writing over the sum of previous Westbrook scores and charts from Marching Song, to Metropolis and Citadel Room 315 (both beautiful but larval works), to the ambitious shambles of The Cortege. Gestation of the piece owed a good deal to a performance of the Ellington homage in Amiens and a developing association not just with music promoters there but also with Le Sinfonietta de Picardie, which delivers Westbrook's arrangements with consummate grace.
What makes London Bridge... so special is that its parts cohere but according to no easy logic, either in the texts - from Goethe, Lassahn, Busch, Sassoon, the title street rhyme and the glowing 12th century Aucassin et Nicolette - or in the harmonic language, which is rich but fugitive. Westbrook is revealed as a master orchestrator, weaving together the bright and ambiguous threads of section-colour one found deployed so impressionistically in Metropolis and other earlier work, into a musical fabric whose figurations and abstractions depend entirely on one's angle of hearing. Key to this as well, is Kate Westbrook, whose 'dramatic' delivery - a term sometimes levelled pejoratively at her - conveys immense musical subtlety.
London Bridge... has no fixed programme. The section titles hint at its provenances and inspirations. Its moods combine war and pastoral, its prevailing mood is pitched somewhere between beauty and dread, its anger at human folly is more chastened that righteous, and softened with sorrow. An essential contemporary work. Brian Morton - Jazz Review - August 2008
Reissued, digitally remastered, this 'Composition for Voice, Jazz Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra' is discussed in detail by its creators, Mike and Kate Westbrook, in an interview (no longer available) on the Vortex Website; suffice it to say here that, after twenty years, it still moves, exhilarates and provokes thought as profoundly as it did on its first appearance in a then divided, turbulent Europe, a continent whose internal quarrelling is now mercifully restricted mainly to spats about the fine details of abstruse EU treaties. From its first extraordinary, uniquely arresting, orchestral shrieks and sighs, through its haunting meditations on loss, division and compassion, to its closing irreverent celebration of the power of human love, London Bridge grips the listener like few other pieces. This power is attributable not only to the compositional skills of Mike Westbrook and the judicious selection of appropriate texts by Kate Westbrook, but also to the individual prowess of the jazz bandmembers: saxophonist/clarinettist Chris Biscoe (pungent and viscerally affecting throughout), Peter Whyman (eloquent and agile on all his reeds), Paul Nieman (equally adept at providing trombone and electronic commentaries), multi-textured guitarist Brian Godding, subtly sensitive but propulsive drummer Tony Marsh, unobtrusive but firm anchorman bassist Steve Cook, and brilliant trumpeter Graham Russell. The deployment of the 21-piece Sinfonietta de Picardie, too, is exemplary, and with Kate Westbrook characteristically dramatic – tender and touching one moment, abrasively brash and scornful the next, but always utterly appropriate – this is (to quote my 1988 self) 'a major work which operates on many levels, incorporating a stunning variety of textures and moods into a deeply satisfying dramatic whole'. Chris Parker - The Vortex - July 2008
Mike and Kate Westbrook Play Sad Songs For A Broken Europe
(Wire Magazine - 1988) :
Mike and Kate Westbrook are something of a phenomenon, given the contemporary musical and social climate. While large sections of both jazz and pop worlds are increasingly geared to the production and revival of sounds with an instantly accessible, danceable beat, to the superficial, the meretricious, the Westbrooks' last three Hat-ART recordings, all double albums, have been: a rich jazz-rock confection dedicated to Ellington (On Duke's Birthday); a challenging trio outing (Love For Sale) reinterpreting everything from 'In The Bleak Midwinter' to 'Buddy Can You Spare A Dime?' via Brecht/Weill; and the delightfully exuberant, occasionally intensely solemn jazz-orchestra settings of Rossini (Westbrook Rossini).
And while the English have apparently yet to acknowledge the fact that their membership of the EEC formalises their position as part of Europe, the Westbrooks perform a great deal more frequently in France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Scandinavia than in the UK - Kate singing in French, German, Greek and Italian.
Their new work, 'London Bridge Is Broken Down' is perhaps their most ambitious project to date, involving a 22-piece chamber orchestra, Le Sinfonietta from Amiens, and a nine-piece jazz ensemble. It is a dense, haunting contemplation of irony, ambiguity, courage and love, inspired by, and structured around what the Westbrooks refer to as a 'personal map of Europe'. It moves from a setting of the children's rhyme 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' through musical meditations on Wenceslas Square in Prague and the Berlin Wall (involving texts by German poets Lassahn, Goethe and Busch), a 'Viennese Waltz' and a lyrical interlude 'Fur Sie', to a section entitled 'Picardie', sparked off by thoughts about British involvement there during the First World War.
About this 'personal map', Mike explains: It's not like a comprehensive map of Europe, but just odd places here and there. We tried the titling to suggest the idea of the icons of contemporary Europe - Wenceslas Square, the Berlin Wall, Picardie - and in the end we thought of 'London Bridge', which was both the starting point of our journey and the bridge to Europe.'
Kate immediately sounds a warning note: 'It's a sort of odyssey, a sort of diary, but it has to be very selective, because otherwise it becomes too programmatic. The 'Wenceslas Square' section, for example, revolves around the complexity of the East-West thing, also expressed in 'Berlin Wall'; it's never clear-cut and simple and the ambiguities are very present to us, because we play in both the East and the West. So, again in the 'Berlin Wall' section, we wanted to do a love song in German because we felt we had to inject a note of optimism and ordinary human endeavour into a section concerned with what is basically an area of conflict.'
Certainly the various moods conjured up by the music are subtle, elusive, complex in addition to containing what Kate describes as 'some of the darkest moments Mike has ever created', it is at times rambunctious, even rowdy - though even these apparently ingenious moments are heavily ironic. A good example is Siegfried Sassoon's acid 'Blighters', an indictment of home-front war-hysteria-as-spectator-sport, and the opening text of 'Picardie', set to a music-hall tune. The poems central image, that of a tank lurching down the stalls to a ragtime shimmy, freezes the grinning and cackling of the war's 'audience':
'And there'd be no more jokes in music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume'
just as the tune is subverted, 'stood on its head a few times', as Kate puts it.
The same subtlety informs the treatment of the concluding text of 'Picardie', 'Aucassin Et Nicolette'. This is a 12th century prose piece whose anonymous writer expresses an irreverent unwillingness to go to Heaven because of the boring company he'll find there, choosing instead to go to Hell, as long as his beloved Nicolette can accompany him. It provides, in Kate's words, 'a great ride out, a great relief, a paean to life and joy and love, after a piece about places which are fundamentally trouble-torn.
London Bridge as a whole is shot through with such ambiguities, ironies, paradoxes: the bridge itself is made sound by having a baby built into its base; the bird in 'Ein Vogel', trapped on a lime twig, sings gaily as black tomcat creeps inexorably towards it; in 'Traurig Aber Falsch', evil people sing, laugh and make others laugh, pills taste like chocolates, politicians kiss babies, 'facts are not bare, truth is not naked'. Mike sees a parallel here with improvisation itself, which takes 'a simple idea and, as you get deeper into it, complexities are revealed.
The music as a whole, he says, 'just became more and more complex as the piece evolved. It made tremendous demands on the musicians, but all these people with different backgrounds and skills eventually gelled, and the whole thing is much richer as a result.'
The piece is certainly an intriguing mix of composition and improvisation, and as such reflects Mike's increasing commitment to expanding the jazz idiom.
'I feel as Mingus must have done, that I want to blur the distinction between what's improvised and what's written, even to the extent of having an ensemble passage written which could be improvised. It's not satisfying if the only really complex moments occur when people are improvising. For instance, in a typical mainstream jazz performance, you get people playing a simple riff - a blues, perhaps - and then it goes off into very complicated solos. Bebop resolved that by having complicated themes and then very complicated solos - though sometimes, admittedly, you get very complicated bebop themes followed by very simple solos! But I wanted to integrate the two, composition and improvisation, more fully, and so there are passages where the Sinfonietta and the jazz band are playing together: our brass, their clarinet and woodwinds all mixed up - passages where it's just one music. These passages are very special.'
Which leads us on to the somewhat chequered history of jazz/string collaborations. Mike cites Nat King Cole's 'Lush Life' as a favourite, but otherwise sees little of value in many previous attempts at collaboration.
'A lot of third stream stuff wound up with neither the virtues of classical music nor those of jazz. The Parker things used strings just as prettiness behind the solos. But I've always wanted to write for strings: they're the most natural way of putting music together, the crowning glory, if you like.'
Kate again sounds a necessary warning note: 'London Bridge started, spiritually, from jazz roots, but it's basically just music. I think we've got some way to go before there's an understanding in the musical world of this thing greater than any category: Music.'
Mike warms to this theme: 'In Europe bands like the Vienna Art Orchestra are taking apart the whole classical/jazz thing and creating an entirely new repertoire - that's the sort of milieu in which we've moved with our theatre and dance work and our use of texts. No one else does that, as far as I know. Very little music exists which brings classical and jazz musicians together on an equal footing - that's why our work is so important.'
This collaboration between Alexandre Myrat's Sinfonietta and the Westbrook Orchestra, which features Chris Biscoe and Peter Whyman on saxophones, Paul Nieman on trombone, Brian Godding on guitar, Steve Cook on bass, Tony Marsh on drums and Graham Russell on trumpet, is to be recorded in Paris in early December for Virgin's new Venture label. Both Mike and Kate are very enthusiastic about the unequivocal nature of the company's commitment: no reservations from them about length, inaccessibility - just wholehearted enthusiasm. Having heard the piece live in Strasbourg and on tape from Amiens, I find it impossible not to share this feeling - it's a major work which operates on many levels, incorporating a stunning variety of textures and moods into a deeply satisfying dramatic whole. Chris Parker - Wire Magazine - October 1988
Reviews of the original 1988 release:
Perhaps one should not be surprised that Mike Westbrook's latest work succeeds best when it sounds least like conventional jazz: this remarkable British composer has spent the last 20 years carefully broadening his scope through involvements with poetry, theatre and dance, developing and refining a voice that has allowed his music to become truly sui generis.
London Bridge Is Broken Down takes the form of a two and a quarter hour travelogue: London, Prague, Berlin, Vienna and Picardy are the locations illustrated by the combination of Kate Westbrook's voice, a jazz octet and the strings of Sinfonietta de Picardie.
Sometimes in major works like this, Westbrook makes his intentions plain: the context of Marching Song or The Cortege, for example, is unambiguous. On other occasions he prefers to let us tease our own meaning from a tissue of clues. This new piece, which begins with a grim rewrite of the children's song and ends with the cynical wit of a medieval French ballad, falls firmly into the latter category.
As with The Cortege, Kate Westbrook has selected the texts which her husband has set to music: fewer texts this time, which means fewer clues, and much more music. But the strength of the Westbrooks conception is such that despite the lack of an explicit theme, we are left in little doubt that here is a lament for the endless folly to which man is heir, pierced by the knowledge of his curious resistance and half buried instinct for good.
That all sounds pretty vague, but there is nothing imprecise about Kate Westbrook's caustic voice, as all-seeing and unsparing as a witch, a tricoteuse or a whore's maid. her reading of Rene Arcos's 'Les Morts', its tragic lines hissed and spat against chilling martial beats, brilliantly casts her as the mother of all men ever slaughtered on the battlefield, from the Trojan plain to the Fao peninsula.
Mike Westbrook exploits the orchestral resources to the full, blending idioms without strain and making full use of individual string and woodwind soloists. He is brilliantly served by his improvisors, notably the saxophonists Chris Biscoe and Peter Whyman. Biscoe's baritone is gloriously eloquent in 'Fur Sie' and extended instrumental ballad from the Vienna sequence.
With this immensely powerful work, Westbrook restates his claim to international pre-eminence among the heirs of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. We must be grateful that there are patrons - in this case, the city of Amiens and its jazz festival - who, unlike the slumbering British arts establishment, recognise his genius and are prepared to commission such an ambitious project. Richard Williams - The Times - August 1988
Mike Westbrook is the most important composer of
large-scale compositions working in British Jazz, and would be included in any list of significant European composers in that field; indeed, his standing on the continent is probably higher than in his own country, a fate shared by several of his contemporaries who chose more idiosyncratic routes into jazz than the mainstream could comfortably encompass. This release provides evidence of that pan-European reach in his work.
London Bridge Is Broken Down is a direct descendant of his most successful large-scale work to date, The Cortege, recorded in 1982, and said to be scheduled for future release through Charly, (in fact The Cortege was re-released by ENJA in 1993 & 2011- see here), which utilised voice (Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton) and a 17-piece jazz orchestra in re-creating the rhythm of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, from the slow procession through the solemn funeral service to the exuberant wake. It followed a succession of lengthy works, dating from the mid-60's, the best of which was Metropolis.
London Bridge is very reminiscent of The Cortege in its structures and even themes, but is by no means simply a replication of the ground covered in the earlier work. It expands various dimensions of its forebear: the instrumentation now encompasses a chamber orchestra as well as a (smaller) jazz one, and the cycle celebrated by the work is now a full life span, rather than a funeral. As with The Cortege, the texts draw on European poets, but they are used more sparingly, and are all sung by Kate Westbrook.
That thematic cycle begins with their adaptation of the children's song 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' with its celebration of birth as a binding, unifying force, and culminates in the sombre, brooding meditation on death throughout the closing Picardie section, although the work is not ultimately allowed to end on a pessimistic note. In between times, Westbrook pays homage to three European cities, Prague, Berlin and Vienna.
The music covers an immense range, as you would expect from this most varied of composers, from near-19th century romanticism to contemporary improvisation. The jazz orchestra carries most weight in the final balance, and enjoys the more adventurous writing, with the Sinfonietta adding tonal colouring and textural variation for the most part. Westbrook's well established soloists never let him down, with Chris Biscoe contributing some beautiful baritone saxophone in addition to his alto and soprano, which compliment Peter Whyman's sympathetic efforts on the same horns. The splendid Paul Nieman is a distinctive performer on trombone, while guitarist Brian Godding gets less exposure here than on The Cortege.
London Bridge is Westbrook's most ambitious project, a further extension of the structural and compositional principles which have informed his work for the past quarter century. Its two-and-a-quarter hour length militates against regular listening to the entire work, but individual sections stand up admirably on their own, notably 'London Bridge' itself, and 'Wenceslas Square', a purely instrumental work which illustrates the composer's continual plasticity of form. His love for subverting expectations is equally evident in the Vienna section, where the punchy brass riffs on 'Viennese Waltz' mock the romanticism of its title; having done so, Westbrook then takes up that strand of musical heritage in the elegiac 'Fur Sie'. Kenny Mathieson - Wire Magazine - October 1988
London Bridge Is Broken Down is the latest epic of high art from Mike & Kate Westbrook, composed by Mike for his Jazz Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra Le Sinfonietta de Picardie and voice, of course that being Kate's.
London Bridge Is Broken Down
click on image for large view
The text was selected from a variety of European poets and is sung in German, French and English. It is also a four record box set (CD information here) with booklet, accommodating one hundred and forty minutes of music, with a prestigious presentation it so dearly deserved. Kudos to Virgin's new jazz label, Venture, for doing it right. The enormity of London Bridge prevents a play by play style review of its musical events, born and inspired by contrasting images of European history, London Bridge to Picardie, via Prague, Berlin and Vienna.
Much of Westbrook's pedigree is represented here, including serene solo piano, turbulent interplay between complex score for ensemble and soloist, evolution from solemnity to the unveiling of daring crescendos. This is a fraction of the range of compositional wit that gives no pedestrian quarter. What is new for Westy is the inclusion of chamber orchestra into his palette. The awkward trap of appropriating classical colours for integration with jazz is avoided, the result being a creation beyond the limits by which these genres are generally contained. Aesthetically this will lay to rest the memory of 'Third Stream Jazz' and the frequent failures of the 'Symphonic Rock'. Ironically Mike's diffuse vision for London Bridge has considered the fervour of rock and come up with the goods in the visceral guitar playing of Brian Godding.
Likewise the performance demands elicited from the jazz orchestra have delivered solos of extraordinary construction from reedmen Peter Whyman and Chris Biscoe. There is much remarkable impassioned singing from Kate, particularly during 'Berlin Wall'.
London Bridge Is Broken Down
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I suspect that future chronicles of jazz history will regard London Bridge with the reverence that esteems Gershwin, Ellington and more recently Anthony Davis's marriage of European and American form. There's an easy temptation to proclaim this work as Westbrook's masterpiece, yet it is simply another chapter in a long series of sublime program music. Bill Smith - Coda Magazine
The new Westbrook collaboration was sponsored in France and first performed in Amiens last year. The studio recording of London Bridge Is Broken Down lasts over two hours and is played by the 22-piece Sinfonietta de Picardie and a jazz nonet.
As such, it is easily the most ambitious project yet tackled by Mike Westbrook who, even before he and his wife Kate launched their remarkable series of music-dramas, has always thought big.
Songs in French, English and German link London Bridge to the Westbrooks' Cortege, written in 1979, while dark-toned, scudding passages heard most notably in the Wenceslas Square section were developed in On Duke's Birthday.
A more fruitful comparison takes us back to Marching Song, not all that dissimilar in terms of programming: during the 20 years that separate it from London Bridge, Westbrook has not just hugely expanded his orchestral palette but made his sprawling canvasses grip on record as they do in performance.
The opening section is built around the poem, London Bridge Is Broken Down, and sung by Kate Westbrook, and includes snatches of the familiar refrain towards the end. This leads to Wenceslas Square, Berlin Wall, Vienna and Picardy.
London Bridge Is Broken Down recording sessions - Alexandre Myrat with Mike and Kate Westbrook
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Many of the songs relate in some sense to death and/or war, from the lilting waltz, 'Ein Vogel', and the elegiac 'Les Morts' ('the dead are all on the same side') to the ironic music-hall parody of Siegfried Sassoon's 'Blighters' and the rollicking finale built around 'Aucussin et Nicolette', which Kate puts over with a venomous panache - it should go down a treat in France, while with luck someone here might pronounce it blasphemous.
Settings are beautifully conceived and the piece brims with motifs anticipated or received - no wonder the Westbrooks are lining up an opera. Sample any of the songs or the most un-Strauss like 'Viennese Waltz' or, for a reminder of how Westbrook's bands used to sound, the yearning ballad 'Fur sie'.
A towering achievement. Ronald Atkins - The Guardian - September 1988