Mike Westbrook Band of Bands
(Pizza Express, Dean Street. 23 September 2023. Live Review by Patrick Hadfield)
This gig closed in a way that summed up the whole event: with a joyous, witty, song, What I Like, sung with passion and glee by Kate Westbrook, backed by a new septet playing the music of Mike Westbrook, his Band of Bands. “What swing do I like?”, she sang, “All swing! … What Ellington do I like? All Ellington!” And so say all of us.
The Band of Bands features members from throughout Mike Westbrook’s career – he reckoned he’d been playing with saxophonist Chris Biscoe for fifty years, and others for not much less, though this was the first gig in which they had all played together. Across two sets on Sunday lunchtime, they played music from several projects in Westbrook’s prodigious output.
The blues was never far away – quoting Duke Ellington, Westbrook said “when times are hard, I write another blues”. He quoted Ellington musically too. The band played a fine version of Billy Strayhorn’s Johnny Come Lately, and Westbrook’s piano style is itself a nod in Ellington’s direction, as with a chord here and a chord there, he nudges the music along.
It didn’t take much to keep the band on track. Marcus Vergette‘s bass playing did the job perfectly, driving when it needed it but relaxing when it suited the music. Similarly, Coach York on drums pushed things forward urgently when needed and held back when not. Together, they kept things swinging along.
The front line consisted of Biscoe on alto and Pete Whyman on alto, soprano and clarinet, on which he provided some beautiful, rich solos. They duetted on several numbers, their altos weaving together intricate patterns. Each provided eminent solos, too.
Filling the space between the piano and reeds was Karen Street‘s accordion. The instrument provided variety and depth, giving the band a more orchestral feel. In the second set, Street have us some excellent solos, too, clearly making the case for more accordions in jazz.
Many of the pieces played were songs, highlighting Kate Westbrook’s words and voice. On South of Toulouse, she growled and whistled whilst the band conjured the sounds of Camargue. My Lovers Coat, like What I Like from the suite Fine ‘N Yellow, was heartbreakingly moving, as she described the grief of losing a loved one.
There were songs too from the Westbrook’s Art Wolf project, Unsigned Panorama and Art Wolf Sketches, as well as Dolls House, which described the artistic process.
The tour de force was Gas Dust Stone, most memorably featured on A Bigger Show. Despite the Band of Bands’ small size relative to the Westbrooks’ big big band The Uncommon Orchestra, their sound seemed to expand to fill the size of the music.
It was a tremendous couple of hours. Even those pieces written to commemorate the dead were full of life, music from hard times suffused with joy and vitality. The audience who seemed to have gathered from across the country applauded rapturously. Which Westbrook do we like? they seemed to say, “All of it!”
Patrick Hadfield - London Jazz News
Mike Westbrook Band of Bands
(Pizza Express, Dean Street. 23 September 2023. Live Review by Richard Williams)
You might have noticed, Mike Westbrook said as the second of today’s two lunchtime sets at the Pizza Express drew to a close, that a lot of this music we’ve been playing has something to do with the blues. And then he quoted Duke Ellington: “When times get tough, I write another blues.” That, Westbrook said, is what he found himself doing rather a lot these days. And then he and the new septet he calls his Band of Bands played “Gas, Dust, Stone”, which he described as “a blues for the planet”.
Its slowly wandering theme, first sung by Kate Westbrook and then voiced for the alto saxophones of Chris Biscoe and Pete Whyman and the accordion of Karen Street, reminded me at times of Ellington’s world-weary “4:30 Blues” before the mood switched, charging into the 12/8 of Charles Mingus’s “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, powered by Marcus Vergette’s bass and Coach York’s drums, with a beautiful Street solo.
Westbrook, who is 87, formed his first band in Plymouth in 1958, and the Band of Bands celebrates longevity. Mike and Kate have been working, writing and performing together for 50 years. Biscoe first joined them 40 years ago, to create the Westbrook Trio. Street and Whyman have been with them on various projects for 30 years. Vergette and York, the newcomers, were called to the colours a mere 20 years ago, and are now the heartbeat of the Uncommon Orchestra.
The septet is both an expansion of the trio and a reduction of the big band, capable of handling everything from the fast bebop of the opening “Glad Day”, one of Westbrook’s pieces inspired by William Blake, through a brilliantly recast version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately” to the slow-rolling gospel cadences of “Blues for Terenzi” and the open spaces of “Unsigned Panorama”, with marvellous unaccompanied solos by Whyman (on clarinet) and Street.
Several songs from Fine ‘n’ Yellow, their 2010 song cycle, made an impression. Throughout “Yellow Dog”, York maintained a pulse (on his beautifully clear Murat Diril ride cymbal) three times that of the rest of the band, allowing Biscoe to float in his typically expressive solo between the drummer’s tempo, the much slower one being paced by Vergette, and the unstated one in between. “My Lover’s Coat”, finely sung, seemed to have “Blue Monk” in its bones.
If there were frequent reminders of how thoroughly Westbrook has metabolised his love of Ellington, Mingus and Monk, there was also evidence of a new enthusiasm for the songs of Frederick Hollander, a German composer of film music. Born Friedrich Hollaender in London in 1896 and brought up in Berlin, he wrote for Max Reinhardt’s theatre productions, accompanied artists in the Weimar-era cabarets, and wrote the music for Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, including “Falling in Love Again”, delivered by the film’s star, Marlene Dietrich. Leaving Germany when the Nazis took power, he arrived in Hollywood in 1934, anglicised his name, and had written for more than 100 films before his return to Germany in 1956, where he died in 1976.
One of those Hollywood films was A Foreign Affair, a 1948 comedy-drama set in post-war Berlin, directed by Billy Wilder and again starring Dietrich. Kate Westbrook delivered two of Hollander’s songs from that film, both concerned with the perils of emotional and sexual transactions: the sardonic “Black Market”, a Weill-esque piece on which she departed from the text to display her command of vocal effects, and “Illusions”, a gorgeous ballad on which she was exquisitely supported by Street and Biscoe.
Pointing out to the audience that this was the first public appearance of the Band of Bands, Westbrook expressed the hope that there would many more. An album devoted to the music of Frederick Hollander might not be such a bad next step.
Richard Williams - The Blue Moment
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See also, Martin King's review on the Notice Board
Mike Westbrook