Composer Mike Westbrook was 80 in 2016. In the spring he celebrated this milestone with the release of the album A Bigger Show with his 22-piece Uncommon Orchestra (asccd 162-163). Now in complete contrast, he is releasing his first solo piano recording in almost 40 years. Mike Westbrook PARIS was recorded by Jon Hiseman over two nights in July 2016 , presented by Hélène Aziza at her art gallery and music venue, 19 rue Paul Fort near Porte d’Orleans. In an hour-long set, Mike Westbrook improvises on themes from his own musical history, from his 1970s composition Citadel/Room 315 through to A Bigger Show and his recent Paintbox Jane. There are references to his Ellington tribute On Duke’s Birthday, to London Bridge is Broken Down, to his music theatre piece The Ass, and to his Beatles project Off Abbey Road. The sequence contains songs written in collaboration with his wife, the artist, vocalist and librettist Kate Westbrook, along with popular songs, Jazz Classics and Blues.
Throughout the hour I loved the sense of a man playing these pieces for the thousandth time but still searching for new angles, new shapes, and new combinations of notes with which to deepen his investigation of their wordless essence. There was not a wasted note, not a superfluous gesture, not the tiniest hint of display for its own sake. The result was unforgettable. Richard Williams - The Blue Moment
A New Westbrook Album on ASC Records
On Saturday November 19th Mike Westbrook gave a solo performance in the 2016 London Jazz Festival at Kings Place, London. The concert was followed by a conversation with the musician and music journalist Philip Clark.
From Reviews of the album and the London Jazz Festival performance.
The playing throughout was lovely, spare, with characteristic moments of dissonance, threaded with wisps of the melodies to come, and always with the possibility that the music could go in any direction. A brilliant afternoon. Jane Mann - London Jazz
CD Reviews Westbrook’s style is an engaging mixture of warmth and dissonance, spiced by a touch of honky-tonk. With its constantly changing moods and familiar melodies cunningly revealed, an hour’s music seems to pass in half the time. Dave Gelly The Observer * * * *
Westbrook’s sparse, harmonically rich and firmly rhythmic approach grips throughout, undulating thoughtfully through lush chords, warm ripples and gently discordant fragments to create a set of exquisite miniatures. Mike Hobart - Financial Times * * * *
Westbrook's playing is intimate, restrained, reflective, introspective and deceptively simple, moulding 20 disparate sources into a beautiful and beguiling whole. Barry Witherden - BBC Music Magazine * * * *
An hour of solo piano that is fresh, rich and improvised, yet references a myriad of the master’s many previous musical lives. Westbrook nests together his loves, heroes and inspirations, the man and his music, the music and the man, as one. Andy Robson - Jazzwise/Gramophone * * * *
The music unfolds with such grace and elegance that the listener becomes one with its natural flow. You will need to look far indeed to find a more lovely jazz record this year. Duncan Heining - All About Jazz * * * * *
Programme Note Mike Westbrook
The Front Page opens with piano versions of two tracks from A Bigger Show, performed and recorded by our 22-piece Uncommon Orchestra (ASC Records). Kate wrote a lyric in sonnet form as a memorial to Stephen Hewitt. Sonnet for Stephen was recorded in a limited edition for Stephen’s family and friends. In setting Kate’s words, to find an equivalent of the sonnet form, I created a cycle that began as a simple blues but then opened out into an increasingly complex sequence of keys and chord changes before winding up where it started in the key of C. For the Orchestra version, sung by Kate with Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, Kate adapted the lyrics and re-titled the song as Freedom’s Crown.
Originally written for the Village Band’s Waxeywork Show (on Jazzprint), Kate’s text for Propositions conjures up a vision of the Universe and the boundless possibilities, for good and ill, of the Web. In A Bigger Show the song becomes the starting point for a 30-minute movement, elements of which I have used in this improvisation. In particular I’ve used an equivalent to the raw sound of horns pitch-bending notes against the chords.
Touring with Off Abbey Road, our version of the Beatles’ classic album, gave me the opportunity to dig into their music. Improvising an introduction to Because became for me a search for meaning. I found I could reach out, harmonically, while never losing sight of the structure and the simple major and minor chords of the original. The Triumphant Entry is from our theatre piece, based on the D.H.Lawrence poem The Ass (recorded on Jazzprint ). It refers to Christ’s entry to Jerusalem. Its concluding whole-tone chord seques naturally into the opening chord of Billy Strayhorn’s ballad A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing, his paean to the natural world.
I often enjoy playing the piano in a crowded room where people are talking. Though almost no one is paying any attention to the music, it nevertheless affects the general atmosphere. This must have been what Satie had in mind, with his ‘furniture music’. In movies, whether in Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, or during the Wild West saloon shoot-out, there’s always a jangling piano accompaniment. The title Bar Room Piano for this section gives me the opportunity to play through some favourite tunes, Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady and Solitude, and Kate’s Gaudy Bar from our show Paintbox Jane.
Love Stories begins with my setting of Goethe’s Nähe des Geliebten (In the Presence of the Beloved), which Kate sang in our 1980s composition London Bridge is Broken Down (originally recorded for Virgin Venture). This is followed by two pieces from from Citadel/Room 315, written in the mid 70s, the time when Kate and I began our life together. This improvisation on View From The Drawbridge takes the original orchestral version as a starting point. I find that over the intervening years it has taken on new layers of meaning, and acquired all kinds of personal musical references. The ballad Tender Love was immortalized by John Surman on soprano saxophone. The Citadel /Room315 album was initially recorded for RCA and has been re-issued several times over the years.
The song You Make Me Feel Brand New, the Stylistics’ hit, was around at the time of Citadel, and the early days of the Brass Band. One of our earliest gigs in France was at the Sigma Festival in Bordeaux. In the vast and beautiful space of the old Entrepot Lainé, the alto saxophonist Gary Bartz played this song. The magic of that moment has stayed with me ever since.
A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square is that rare thing in the repertoire of jazz standards, an English ballad about London. I am fascinated by the idea of using hybrid chords, mixed in with the usual harmonies. In our show Paintbox Jane, about the painter Raoul Dufy, The Sound of Caress is sung by Billy Bottle. This is one of Kate’s loveliest lyrics, evoking the Côte d’Azure and the sound of Collared Doves calling. She Loves You, one of the Beatles’ greatest hits, is a song we played as an encore on Off Abbey Road concerts, with Kate and John Winfield taking the vocals. Like Brand New and other pop songs not generally used in improvisation. I find She Loves You refreshing to play.
The concluding part of the album, The Blues, begins with My Lover’s Coat, from the album Fine ‘n Yellow, (Gonzo Records) dedicated to the memory of John and Marjorie Styles. refers to the fact that, after John’s death, Marjorie always wore his coat on her travels round the world. Kate’s lyric uses this as the starting point. The song is a variant on an 8-bar blues.
Trombonist Danilo Terenzi and drummer Tony Marsh were members of the Brass Band in the 80s, a period when we were often on tour together. Both were involved in On Duke’s Birthday. They took part in the premiere and live recording in Amiens in 1984 (hatOLOGY). Derived from one of the movements of On Duke’s Birthday, D.T.T.M. is dedicated to their memory. The piece is basically in 12-bar form with unconventional chords. Good Old Wagon is a brief tip of the hat to Bessie Smith, a song Kate has often sung with the Trio. It’s a 16-bar blues. I never want to forget where this music comes from and what drew me first to Jazz.
When Danilo died, at the tragically early age of thirty nine, I dedicated the piece I was writing for the Steve Martland Band to him. The result was a 24-minute composition (recorded on The Orchestra of Smith’s Academy album). Its starting point was this 8-bar blues. Danilo and Chris Biscoe were also great friends, - Chris and I often play Blues for Terenzi on Trio gigs. It is modeled on Jimmy Yancey’s Death Letter Blues, one of the most moving elegies I know.
My brief version of If Thou Must Love Me is a setting of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, and forms a postscript to a set drawn from forty years of music. The poem was originally suggested by Kate for my previous solo piano album, recorded in 1976. At that time we couldn’t have imagined where our collaboration would lead us.