A Bigger Show - Kings Place, London
Fresh from celebrating his 80th birthday, Mike Westbrook brought his Uncommon Orchestra to Kings Place for the London premiere of A Bigger Show. Westbrook's new jazz-rock oratorio sets texts by his wife Kate, who also stars as a vocalist alongside Bolly Bottle and Martine Waltier, backed by a double rhythm section big band. Theatricality was in the air from the beginning as the band approached the platform from different corners of the hall to gradually establish a marching groove. But the jolly pump of Dave Holdsworth's sousaphone was quickly tempered by the dark surrealist libretto: "Bounce, drag, burn this murder of crows oh!/Cut, zap, trash for the Waxeywork Show". With this strange circus in full swing, Alan Wakeman took centre-stage with a blistering tenor sax solo. 'Juxtapositions' riffed on internet-age information overload, while alluding to 21st century anxiety with lines such as "Breaking newsflash reveals disasters yet-to-be". Guitarists Jesse Molins and Matthew North painted a grunge rock canvas, while Sam Massey delivered a moody Harmon-muted trumpet solo. There was fantastic full band writing and a raucous double drum kit duel between Coach York and Theo Goss during 'Scattered and Cold' which had the vocalists warning of corporate surveillance, "Google knows what you're watching on the internet", "Tesco knows what you had for your breakfast!" It was part acerbic satire and part big band party. The musical grandeur and biting irony evoked thoughts of Frank Zappa, especially in the sprawling symphonic textures of 'Propositions' and the nihilism of 'Gas, Dust, Stone'. Roz Harding shone on alto sax and Mark Bassey was a terrific lead trombone. Textually and conceptually A Bigger Show did sometimes sail too close to the waters of school music theatre, but it's hard not to be won over by something so ambitious, unapologetic and uncategorisable.
Jon Carvell - JAZZWISE
A Bigger Show - Hen & Chicken, Bristol
Mike Westbrook was in his early 20s when he first became a bandleader and his career over the subsequent 55 years has shown that he fully deserved the title. Like the great US bandleaders, he has continually gathered together powerful combinations of playing talent that have brought his often ambitious compositions to vigorous life. His biggest and most impressive achievements have been collaborations with lyricist and vocalist Kate Westbrook, usually highly stylised jazz oratorios, often with a political edge and always staged on a grand scale that defies the economic logic of jazz.
So at one level A Bigger Show came as no surprise: a 20-strong big band, three vocalists, a libretto full of conspicuous vocabulary (juxtaposition! miasma! resuscitation fairy!) and a commitment to ‘liberty, fraternity, equality and jokes’. Yes, all the Westbrooks’ trademark boxes ticked, and very well, too. But who-on-earth-else would even consider a project like this, let alone embark on it? And who else could have made it work so satisfyingly? Bristol’s jazz-loving community had packed out the Hen & Chicken in anticipation of all this and were not disappointed.
As ever there was some theatricality - the Uncommon Orchestra slowly assembled as the score required, ambling on throughout Gizzards All Gory until a massive sound had built up thanks to two drummers, five sax players, five horns, two guitars and the potentially tectonic combination of double bass, bass guitar and sousaphone. Kate Westbrook’s declamatory address had all the ‘roll up, roll up!’ of a circus ringmaster, promising ‘the show that never ends’. Two and a half hours later (including the interval) it did, in fact, end - but nobody was wishing it to happen any sooner.
As ever, this was superbly composed music that used the resources at Westbrook’s disposal to create ever-changing moods and textures - Juxtapositions, for instance, which began rockishly as a bass/guitar/drums riff supporting a Chet Baker-style muted trumpet solo before shimmering carpets of thick trombone harmony swept it up and away. Freedom’s Crown (dedicated to Bristol’s great planning guru Stephen J Hewitt) set up the brass, rhythm section and vocals in benign contradiction, the filmic swoop of the voices set against Roz Harding’s perversely squally alto saxophone. She was the discovery of the night - a powerful and distinctive player who blossomed across the evening, delivering terse slashes or tumultuous cascades with perfect judgement. Less surprising, but equally delightful, was the forthright tenor of Alan Wakeman, whose shapely solos also punctuated the evening.
The vocal team of Kate Westbrook, Martine Waltier and bass guitarist Billy Bottle (looking remarkably like the fourth Walker Brother - Zeppo? - circa 1967) were crucial, moving easily around the packed stage and delivering Kate’s Brechtian lyrics with crisp articulation, fine harmonies and theatrical flourishes. It all came together in the rocky final number Lovers Galore, a defiantly positive blast against the bleak universe and hollow cyberspace previously outlined, with soaring electric guitars and a rolling riff plus a final blistering alto solo from Roz Harding.
It was all both fresh and retrospective, a fitting statement of Mike Westbrook’s unique career to date and confirmation of his status as one of the greatest jazz composers this country has ever produced. This show deserves to be seen at the Barbican - and hopefully one day it will be - but that we could see this remarkable performance above a pub is also a fine tribute to promoter Ian Storrer and his three decades of commitment to bringing the country’s best jazz to Bristol.
Tony Benjamin - Bristol 24/7 http://tinyurl.com/q33qqnm
The great British composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook has always had a gift for bringing off large scale works that would collapse under their own weight in the hands of almost any other jazz creator – a talent that first came to full fruition with the epic Marching Song way back in 1969. The big projects have usually depended on grants and commissions, and he and partner Kate have toured extensively in trios and small groups, too. Those continue now the pair are settled in Dawlish in South Devon.
But Mike Westbrook, the tireless organiser, has also been in evidence in the West Country in the last few years, with occasional performances from a brand new big band. That ensemble is now reconfigured as the 22-piece Uncommon Orchestra, and are now performing a brand new, two hour suite, A Bigger Show, music by Mike, lyrics by Kate. And a spectacular show it is. Three vocalists –Kate Westbrook, Billy Bottle, who also plays electric bass, and Martine Waltier - bring real variety and depth to the songs.
Each one is a launch pad for long, punchy big band scores, rich in Westbrook M’s resourceful writing for massed horns. Add a string bass alongside the electric instrument, two electric guitars, who feature more strongly in the second half, and two drummers, and the result is, simply, epic.
Hard to believe this majestic ensemble is playing for 100-odd people crammed into the upstairs room of this capacious pub. It reminds me rather of seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra a few years in the Croft in Stokes Croft. Something of their spirit creeps into the room tonight, too, courtesy of Kate’s cosmic lyrics. The songs are carried over from a small group recording made in 2007, extensively re-worked for the large ensemble. Her words can tend too much to abstraction, but give the band lots to work with and it responds with much fine soloing. Fittingly, some of the best comes from longtime Westbrook cohorts. Dave Holdsworth (who appeared all those years ago on Marching Song) plays implausibly light-footed sousaphone, and plangent pocket trumpet. And Alan Wakeman contributes world class tenor and soprano saxophone.
But it is the band sound that stays in the ear after the gig. A roaring ensemble, orchestrated by a master of the art. They are touring the West country through the summer, and there’s a live recording on the way, set for Exeter at the end of the month. The double CD that will lead to is open for advance subscription on the band website – Surely a worthwhile investment in new work from one of English music’s most creative forces of the last half century!
- Listomania Bath http://tinyurl.com/pz6n9hv