Kate Westbrook Mike Westbrook
‘THE SERPENT HIT’ A Fable
text by Kate Westbrook music by Mike Westbrook
Some of our foremost Jazz writers respond to the new album.
The only time I visited Wilton’s Music Hall, in the old streets just north of Tower Bridge, was on New Year’s Eve in 1998, to hear the actress Fiona Shaw recite The Waste Land, an experience rendered all the more unforgettable by taking place close to several of the locations mentioned in Eliot’s poem (“The river sweats / Oil and tar / The barges drift / With the turning tide…”). I wish I were able to return there tomorrow night, to see Kate and Mike Westbrook perform their new song cycle.
The Serpent Hit is its title, and also that of Kate Westbrook’s painting (above), the illustration on the cover of the CD, just released on the their own label. The piece deals with a big theme: mankind’s continuing fall from a state of grace, through the careless disregard of warning voices.
Five of the six individual pieces making up The Serpent Hit are written for Kate’s voice, a saxophone quartet (Andy Tweed, Chris Biscoe, Karen Street and Chris Caldwell) and a drummer (Simon Pearson); the sixth is an instrumental interlude. The music is Mike’s, and reminds us of his very personal gift for voicing: there are passages that echo his very earliest recordings, Celebration and Release, which were made with his big band in the late ’60s and still sound startlingly fresh. He writes beautifully for the saxophones, and in turn the soloists — notably Biscoe on alto and Caldwell on baritone — rise to the occasion, driven by the tireless Pearson. The effect of the ensemble is somewhere between the Ellington reed section and a Southern European marching band, but dominated by that pungent Westbrook flavour.
No less striking are Kate’s lyrics, spoken and sung in a theatrical style that has its roots in Lotte Lenya’s work with Brecht and Weill. It is an approach built for music of protest, and those three would have appreciated this harsh and bitter tirade against those who would rob the world of its innocence, its fruit and its future.
So, perhaps, would Eliot. And I can imagine Wilton’s — said to be the world’s oldest surviving music hall, with origins as an alehouse going back to the early 18th century — providing the perfect ambiance. Richard Williams - thebluemoment.com
Although The Serpent Hit, described in its accompanying publicity as a ‘modern-day fable of the Fall of Humankind’, does indeed provide a tour d’horizon of contemporary ills – listed by librettist Kate Westbrook as the ‘wanton destruction’ of (in song order) innocent pleasure, art, the environment and planet Earth itself – it is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic work, infused as it is with the defiant jauntiness, even exuberance, that have characterised the many projects on which the Westbrooks have collaborated over the years, whether their subjects have been unequivocally grave (the reflections on a broken Europe in London Bridge) or apparently trivial (tips on trifle-making in English Soup).
Thus, the blinding of a merry-go-round horse by a stone (‘Threw’), the smashing of a pot by a glass (‘Lob’), the striking of a basking shark by a barb (‘Hurl’) or the annihilation of the planet by a bomb (‘Trigger’) are all addressed with the same seriousness as manifestations of human folly and destructiveness. Mike Westbrook’s music (originally commissioned for the Delta Saxophone Quartet, now adapted for performance by saxophonists Andy Tweed, Chris Biscoe, Karen Street, Chis Caldwell and drummer Simon Pearson) is carefully calibrated to accommodate Kate’s characteristically idiosyncratic but hard-hitting text, drawing on everything from the cabaret/music-hall tradition to punchy modern jazz in the process.
Beautifully illustrated by Kate’s cover painting and flawlessly and enthusiastically performed by a crack band, The Serpent Hit, despite its ostensibly grave subject matter, is – somewhat paradoxically – an inspiring and oddly uplifting listening experience. The Westbrooks have never been afraid to address the ‘big issues’ – their profound and deeply moving meditations on the Great War in the aforementioned London Bridge, for instance, should surely form part of any self-respecting forthcoming public commemorations of that earth-shattering conflict – and The Serpent Hit, infectiously lively and immediately accessible as it is, constitutes another considerable artistic triumph for them. The Serpent Hit is to be performed at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, on 1 October. Chris Parker - LondonJazzNews.com
Mike and Kate Westbrook, the most prolifically creative husband-and-wife team in UK jazz since John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, have been producing a pungently unique music for almost four decades. They're inspired by cabaret, music-theatre, poetry, opera and brass-band music as much as by jazz, and this venture (Kate's libretto on the fall of humankind, for her vocals and a sax-packed sextet) displays all Mike Westbrook's Ellington- and Mingus-inspired mastery of harmonies and textures for reeds, in five episodes on human frailty that deal with everything from vandalism to nuclear meltdown. His fast ensemble passages sound like a big band rather than four horns, there's a mean-streets sleaziness to the slower moments, and the tightness of the grooves and punctuating accents (originally written for the Delta Saxophone Quartet, the piece was first conceived without percussion) are all the more intense for the addition of drummer Simon Pearson. Altoist Chris Biscoe occasionally suggests Lee Konitz floating over the Birth of the Cool band, and the jagged pulse midway through Pitch shows how Westbrook can still bend contemporary grooves to his own ends. Kate Westbrook might have welcomed a vocal sidekick, (a softer singer as mellifluous as the horns would have been an interesting contrast) but The Serpent Hit shows both Westbrooks are still in very original business. John Fordham - The Guardian
For once, the word "unique" really does apply in the case of this partnership. They have been crossing genres for the past 40 years – cabaret, musical theatre, opera, brass bands, oratorio and every imaginable sort of jazz ensemble. This time, the subject is nothing less than the fall of man, with music by Mike for saxophone quartet and drums, and words written and declaimed, rather than sung, by Kate. The music is by no means easy listening, but full of surprises – spiky and tender, warm and ice cold. There's some great playing, too, especially by alto saxophonist Chris Biscoe. Dave Gelly - The Observer
Originally commissioned by the Delta Saxophone Quartet for voice and four saxophones The Serpent Hit features the text and voice of Kate Westbrook and music of Mike Westbrook joined by the quintet of alto saxophonist Chris Biscoe, baritone saxophonist Chris Caldwell, tenor saxophonist Karen Street, soprano/alto saxophonist Andy Tweed, and drummer Simon Pearson. Radio 3’s Jazz on 3 programme broadcast the work two years ago in a concert marking Westbrook's 75th birthday recorded at Kings Place, however this is a studio version recorded earlier this year produced by Colosseum’s Jon Hiseman. Each of the first three tracks is an absorbing meditation on the wanton destruction, respectively, of innocent pleasure in the opener ‘Throw’; art in ‘Lob’; and the environment in ‘Hurl’, Kate Westbrook’s text quoting John Masefield in one telling section. Following an instrumental ‘Pitch’, the destruction of the planet is then meditated upon in ‘Trigger’, with the coda ‘Strike’ culminating in these final lines: "Man from the apple bites a bit,/And, once again,/The Serpent Hit.” The record operates on several levels: as a scathing but lucid social critique featuring some of Kate Westbrook’s most cogent lyrics, delivered as an actor might recite, in a spirit more in sorrow than anger at the sentiments that need expressing. Sitting in a radical literary and artistic tradition hugely flavoured by William Blake, Bertolt Brecht, and even the late John Arden, as far as Mike Westbrook’s musical settings are concerned the band at least in the opening tracks operate like a chorus to Kate Westbrook’s emboldened narrative voice and charts a riotous course until a transition occurs on ‘Lob’. Mingusian, humane and characterful, a wake-up call to a society long gone feral The Serpent Hit is a new significant milestone of Mike Westbrook’s career. The harmonic underlay Westbrook weaves lends itself to its own plangently beseeching narrative throughout heard best on the instrumental ‘Pitch’ but underpinning most of the drama on the album so effectively. The Westbrooks never seem to fit into any contemporary style of jazz which is to their eternal credit as artists, even if their method may cause some bafflement or false expectations among listeners cut adrift from a pre-Internet world whose radical artistic and literary movements seem remote or even quaint. The Serpent Hit makes that lost history relevant like never before. Stephen Graham - Marlbank
Mike and Kate Westbrook have a reputation for tackling big subjects—war, European history, life and death and the nature of art and creativity. With The Serpent Hit, they turn their attention to perhaps the grandest subject of them all—the fall from grace and the loss of paradise.
This beautifully packaged CD features a gorgeous cover painting by Kate Westbrook that could easily have sprung from the wall of a 14th century Italian church. We start with this because it offers a key or clue to what lies inside and therein lies much indeed. The Serpent Hit is more than a rewriting of the Judeo-Christian creation myth or an examination of the meaning of sin. It's more an exploration of personal, and even, species responsibility.
Listening to the music, the first impression struck by Kate Westbrook's lyrics is their riddle-like complexity. This aspect of the Westbrooks' work is one of its pleasures, one that reveals its gifts slowly. A number of motifs appear. There are repeated references to circles and spheres—the merry go-round and stone in "Throw," the potter's wheel in "Lob," the whirlpool in "Hurl," the Earth itself in "Trigger" and "Strike," the apple in "Strike." The imagery at times suggests the possibility of momentum but either brings this to a brutal halt ("Trigger") or suggests that forward movement is all too often a circular illusion rooted in the repetition of human error and vanity ("Strike"). Nevertheless, at the center of all of these circles, lies not a hint of contempt or hopelessness but rather the same love and respect for nature and the planet that one finds in Kate Westbrook's landscape painting. This may be a Cri de Coeur but it is one that comes with a wake-up call and which understands that sins may arise from many motives.
The Serpent Hit is inevitably a complete work that combines music, lyrics and images to rich effect. It is a remarkable collaboration from two artists, who continue to surprise and, sometimes, to confound. Mike Westbrook's music is written for saxophone quartet and drums. Over the years, Westy has developed the ability to transform small musical resources into grand conceits—a metaphor, maybe, concerning how we might better manage the environment and our place within it. Beautifully played by Chris Biscoe, Karen Street, Andy Tweed, Chris Caldwell and, most notably, drummer Simon Pearson, the music has flow, humor and a capacity to shock where necessary.
At times, Westbrook's score supports the notion of circularity. The opening theme of "Throw" recurs, sometimes beginning a new tune before spiraling off in new directions or else offering a refrain to emphasize a point lyrically and musically. Genre provides a source of play for the Westbrooks. For example, here, a rock and roll vamp appears on "Pitch," whilst elsewhere the piece echoes Kurt Weill's awkward syncopation. But most of all, this is music of texture and timbre and it is the music as much as the lyrics that give The Serpent Hit its fullest meaning. Nowhere is this more evident than on the long closing track, "Strike."
The piece moves between an ethereal, extended section that recalls Westbrook's own "Landscape" (from Marching Song) in its feeling of unworldliness, on through a near-operatic section and through ragtime and bebop. It then builds into a "Broadway" finale, albeit refracted through the Weill-like sensibilities, as Kate Westbrook sings, "Man thanks the Lord on bended knee/The serpent coiled around the bough/And smiling at the man, and how!/Snake leads him to break his vow,/The scaly wily serpent/Man from the apple bites a bit,/And, once again, The Serpent Hit." Music this fine needs to be savored—one bite is never enough but, then, perhaps that's the problem. Duncan Heining - All About Jazz
Nothing if not ambitious, The Serpent Hit finds the Westbrooks addressing the tiny matter of The Fall of Humankind. The six-song cycle meditates on man’s destruction of innocent pleasure, art, the environment and ultimately the planet. And in Westbrook World there is no God to redeem us. So not exactly a bundle of larfs. We are of course in familiar territory for the Westbrooks and Kate’s text draws deeply on William Blake’s visions of innocence crushed by experience: but the mental fight goes on, and in the splendid quintet that expresses Mike’s music there are intimations that small victories can be won.
Biscoe’s alto retains the delicious gift of being simultaneously free and lyrical, while Pearson briskly underwrites the tight ensemble writing. All that’s missing is Street’s absent accordion. But Mike’s writing is not about added colour: rather, the ritualistic repetition of riffs and figures matches the inescapable coiling of the Serpent around all that is good and graceful in the world. Indeed like Milton, Westbrook gives the best tunes to the Devil, with Kate’s sibilants subtly and supplely slinking through the text. Westbrook’s voice grows stronger precisely because of its frailty: declamatory and dramatic, soaked in Weill, steeped in latter day Holiday, she makes Marianne Faithfull sound like One Direction, but then you don’t do pretty with the world looking down the barrel of a gun. Andy Robson - Jazzwise
FALL and annihilation and it is the serpent in the Westbrook script, not Jesus, who sings out the challenge - "Let one who is without sin throw the first stone."
An antithesis in the form of jazz cabaret of song and poetry out loud, of ensemble and solo horns, of splattering drums.
This is The Serpent Hit. The wanton plunder of "innocent pleasure" as a merry-go-round is vandalised; the spoliation of the environment in a marine whirlpool full of barbs and shards; the devastation of the Earth itself with the trigger of the final bomb - such is the impact of this serpent's tale rising from Bible and myth, told by Mike Westbrook's music and Kate Westbrook's words with four saxophones and a drumset, and there is no paradise regained here, only some scintillating sounds and the human endgame.
Kate's voice - a tone and projection like no other, sharp-edged and cutting, carping and sometimes tender, full of warning, always ambivalent.
Listen to the opener Who Threw That Stone? And the horns respond, Andy Tweed's soprano saxophone, Chris Caldwell's choric baritone saxophone, "was it he, or she, was it they?"
There is no answer beyond the jarring pronouns, until the serpent rips the words from Christ.
The second track Lob gives a mercantile answer to the question about the ruination of art as smashed glass is thrown at the Potter's wheel.
Who kills culture, and you think, is it the likes of Simon Cowell and his satraps? "Will the market go down or go high?/Dealer buys, gets the lot-/Let one who hates creation lob the first glass."
Simon Pearson's bouncing drums jump to begin Hurl and Chris Biscoe's springing alto blows an obbligato to Kate's story of the jagged shrapnel-like shards and stabbing fragments that bring death to the world's seas.
It is the leviathan of indifference and insensitivity that provokes the first barbs to be hurled in defiance of nature.
The next track is Pitch, an instrumental where the horns in ensemble replace the words before Biscoe's alto breaks out and Caldwell's baritone surges with deep indignant power.
Yet Tweed's soprano is almost birdlike and Pearson's drums throb and resonate before they fade into a menacing silence.
Trigger is about the exploding of the final bomb on this beloved "sacred Earth, holy world, dancing Earth," its fear and revulsion a constant theme of the Westbrooks' generation.
Caldwell blows another pumping chorus and Kate's voice sounds agonised, unleashed, shocked by her own repugnant words as the mock-epic morphs to the anti-epic.
A sonic desert spreads across the beginning of the suite's coda, called Strike, and the dying away of the world, where "planet Earth is dust/Tremble oh stars!"
Kate sings this while the other planets dance and Neptune goes "bebop" while only one "bourgeois fleshy couple" fly to a new world to delve another garden and repeat the events of another epic meeting with the serpent.
And as the horns prime up for the repeated Fall around Karen Sweet's sustaining tenor saxophone, the fruit is offered and taken.
There are few now-times artistic achievements and messaging that can be com-pared to the mythic audacity of The Serpent Hit.
There are prevailing reminders of Blake - with Ellington the Westbrooks' great inspiration - and Kurt Weill, with many moments when it is easier to think of Milton than any contemporary comparison -not the conventional reference points of jazz. But outrageous surprise was always a Westbrook trait, and that, mixed with brilliance, pours from this music. Chris Searle – Morning Star