recorded in concert at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter
30th July 2015 by Jon Hiseman and Miles Ashton
Distribution by Proper Note
ASC Records asccd 162/163
Now available from from Westbrook Records
Gas, Dust, Stone (excerpt)
Gas, Dust, Stone (excerpt)
A Bigger Show has been described as a Jazz/Rock Oratorio. Kate Westbrook’s scenario uses the image of the fairground to examine, with irony, humour and high drama, the lot of Humankind in the age of the World-Wide-Web. Mike Westbrook’s score for 21-piece ensemble involves 3 vocalists/actors, acoustic brass and saxophones, electronics and a double rhythm section. Kate Westbrook and fellow vocalists Martine Waltier and Billie Bottle, are joined by established Jazz musicians together with lesser known artists, Pop and Rock musicians, Classical players and talented youngsters in a new kind of big band - the Uncommon Orchestra. Featured soloists include saxophonists Roz Harding and Alan Wakeman, Dave Holdsworth on sousaphone and pocket trumpet, guitarists Jesse Molins and Matthew North, Marcus Vergette on bass, and Coach York on drums.
A Bigger Show
videos by Stan Willis
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“A roaring ensemble orchestrated by a master of the art. The result is, simply, epic”
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 Billie 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
Live Performance Reviews:
Kate Westbrook & Martine Waltier voice Billie Bottle voice& bass guitar
Roz Harding, Sarah Dean, Alan Wakeman,
Pete Whyman, Ian Wellens saxophones
Jon Scott & Sam Massey trumpets
Dave Holdsworth Sousaphone & trumpet
Stewart Stunell, Joe Carnell, Sam Chamberlain-Keen trombones
Marcus Vergette bass Jesse Molins & Matthew North guitars
Coach York & Theo Goss drums
Mike Westbrook piano
dramaturge Tim Goodwin
supported by Airshaft Trust and the late Stephen Hewitt and
Patrons of the Uncommon Orchestra.
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 Billie 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 Storror and his three decades of commitment to bringing the country’s best jazz to Bristol."
Tony Benjamin - Bristol 24/7 http://tinyurl.com/q33qqnm
Our Mistress of Ceremonies welcomed us to “The show that never ends, the show that lures us on and on” in the opener, Gizzards All Gory which introduced an imaginary cast of characters including Madam Waxwork and painted a word picture of that 19th. Century fairground show. Alan Wakeman was featured on the first of a number of blistering solos with the band riffing behind like a behemoth. Blown out of our seats we were off on an adventure. Juxtapositions followed broadening the cast of characters to include Jack the Ripper, David Beckham, Chairman Mao and Tracey Emin. Not your usual jazz subjects! Transforming that fairground into the World-Wide-Web it warns us of “Disasters yet to be”. Marcus Vergette’s lovely bass sound opened the number followed by a beautiful Sam Massey trumpet solo and further pyrotechnics from Alan Wakeman, this time on soprano sax.
Freedom’s Crown followed. A slow ballad it showed off the harmonies of the three voices, Kate Westbrook, Martine Walter and Billie Bottle perfectly. The lyric is an acrostic of the name of the songs dedicatee Stephen J Hewitt. The voices give over to the first of a couple of beautifully constructed alto saxophone solos from Roz Harding, a name new to me but one definitely to watch. In the ensemble playing with Dave Holdsworth’s sousaphone underpinning the bass end and voices meshing together above the alto there’s was something of the classic British Jazz ensemble sound here with a Gil Evans-like elegance. At around ten minutes this was probably the shortest piece of the evening but for me one of the highlights.
Scattered and Cold gives us the “inevitable self-destruction of the seductive Internet”, think of the implications of that. The three voices begin softly repeating the song’s title like a Mantra before Billie Bottle takes up the story, her singing and body language adding a theatrical flourish to be passed on to a three line whip of saxophones that take the riff and run with it giving us something to move to in our seats while booting the number on to a thundering drum solo from Coach York. Back to the song which transforms into a rap about the all seeing eye of Twitter, ASDA, Tesco, Google, Twoddle monitoring our every move. As the number winds down it takes on a darker edge lyrically with Dave Holdsworth grumbling behind the voices like a trumpeting demonic elephant on sousaphone. Scattered and Cold indeed.
Part Two of the evening’s entertainment opened with Propositions and an extended baritone solo over a stately funereal theme. We are told that “Humankind is no longer earthbound”. It seems that following some apocalyptic post Internet shenanigans earth is somehow scattered and all knowledge with it. I loved the ensemble textures here. We are treated to a duo performance by Roz Harding on alto saxophone and Dave Holdsworth shifting from sousaphone to the pocket trumpet, quite a contrast of scale. Again there’s that lovely blending of the three human voices with the full strength of the orchestra. Propositions is a suite in itself at over thirty minutes durations. It also features the only true piano interlude featuring the composer himself who allows us to hear his unique sound at the keyboard. Something not heard enough in this extended work but very much worth checking out on his 2016 recording Paris which sees him performing solo at the grand piano. If you haven’t heard it it is well worth checking out. Propositions vied with Freedom’s Crown for orchestral performance on the evening with some truly beautiful work by all concerned with a notable solos from Alan Wakeman once more on tenor saxophone and Jon Scott on fluegelhorn bringing the number to a quiet end.
Gas, Dust, Stone creates a metaphysical scenario of Mind adrift in endless space. I did say earlier that this is a work painted across a huge canvas. The repetition of the title as chorus really got into the head after the first few times. Some fine rock guitar elements in the mix here too from Jesse Molins and Matthew North, the latter providing some shimmering spacey-ness throughout the evening and adding to the visual character of the multi coloured ensemble.
Lovers Galore provided the finale and reminded us that for all of the undertone of weighty subject matter and ponderous philosophical implications this was after all just a show and an entertainment. We went full circle back to the jokiness of the Show That Never Ends.
The pity is that the opportunity to experience a work on this scale live are very rare. As such this was a triumph for all concerned and a real tribute to the promoters and musicians who Mike Westbrook thanked at the end of this tremendously adventurous and entertaining evening of music which sounded superb in the Blue Orange Theatre thanks to the work of the often unsung sound engineer Peter Maxwell Dixon.
Mainly it is a tribute to the Westbrooks, Mike and Kate out of whose heads, heart and hands the music came.
My contender for ‘Gig of the Year’.
Gary Corbett - Ukvibe.org
A Bigger Show - Orange Theatre, Birmingham
Even before the music started the show began. As the musicians took to the stage librettist singer Kate Westbrook could be seen working the front row of the audience asking in a concerned voice “have you seen my little dog Lucky?”. Sensing that this was part of the show when asked I responded with “I thought I saw him scurry beneath a chair”. There was no obvious break in Mrs. Westbrook’s deadpan delivery. Lucky the little dog didn’t get another mention until the very last number of the evening but from the entry of the musicians of the Uncommon Orchestra it seemed obvious that this was not to be your average jazz gig.
Tonight’s ambitious seven part extended composition marks the latest in a long line of collaborations between Mike and Kate Westbrook, he providing the music and she the text. Taking a broad sweep from the 19th. Century fairground to the end of life as we know it via the impact of the world wide web, A Bigger Show is painted across a huge canvas. This requires a large brush, in the form of an ensemble of 19 performers (the album recording features 22) including three voices (one playing bass guitar), five saxophonists, two trumpet players, sousaphone/pocket trumpet, three trombones, double bass, two guitarists, one drummer plus the composer himself at the piano.
The stage of the jewel-like Blue Orange Theatre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter would not have had have room for that second drummer from the recording had he turned up with is kit. A colourful ensemble full of character with ages ranging from 18 to 80 took us on a trip which had elements of Vaudeville, space rock ambience, marching band rhythms and at times put me in mind of Mingus, Gil Evans and Frank Zappa without being anything other than pure Westbrook.
"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, Billie 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!"
Jon Turney - Listomania Bath http://tinyurl.com/pz6n9hv
Comments from Social Media
"Received my copy of the new Westbrook / Uncommon Orchestra 2CD 'A Bigger Show' - holy smoke! - it really is fantastic, no over-exaggeration to say that it can sit proudly next to the great Westbrook large ensemble works of the past. I saw the show earlier in the summer, but it is clear that it has kept developing over the course of the tour. My memories of the live performance I saw was that it was very good indeed, but that didn't quite prepare me for this recording I have to say!"
"I was lucky enough to hear this live in Exeter last week and have since listened to the CDs non stop. 'Holy smoke' is perfect but I can't help thinking of Miles Davis's favourite M word as I listen to the music and each of these fantastic musicians, many of whom I had never heard of. It's a cruel world when this is playing to arthouse audiences while the tedious big band music of Wynton M, the younger overhyped Kamasi Washington and so forth fill out big halls. Thank you Mike and Kate for reeling back the years - amazing. Festival promoters everywhere please open your ears and heart, do whatever you can to book this project NOW!"
"But where he finds those great musicians from, most I've never heard of,
this is 1967 all over again"
“The 2CD set is certainly addictive, that's for sure. One thing that comes across strongly is just how good the performances of both Kate and Mike are on this one, even by their own usual high standards.”
“Just finished a first run through. Loved it. Such strong soloing throughout.
Is this the first jazz record to mention David Beckham? Or Facebook?”
“Listened to the CD last night...it really is one of his strongest pieces.”