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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
07 December 2022
Chris Biscoe Plays Mike Westbrook
Mike Westbrook writes:
It has been rare for anyone else to play my tunes. Nowadays jazz musicians tend to write their own material, though many still draw on a common repertoire of well known ‘standards’ borrowed from popular music or bequeathed by great jazzmen of the past.
Music Is - Chris Biscoe Plays
Kate and I must have written well over a hundred original songs and settings of poetry, most of them for theatre shows, jazz cabaret and opera. I have composed numerous instrumentals for bands of all shapes and sizes. Most of these vocal and instrumental compositions were originally conceived as parts within works like Citadel/Room 315 or The Cortège. The fact that they are often written for specific voices or instrumentalists perhaps makes them less interesting to other soloists. Also many use experimental structures, and song-forms where the shape is determined by the lyrics and that does not necessarily appeal to an improvising musician.
However, Chris Biscoe has shown that it is possible to take this material out of its original context and make it universal. I had never thought of the ten-bar Mama Chicago song as a vehicle for improvisation but the quintet produces variations on that chord sequence that leave Chicago far behind. In my big band arrangement of July ’79 the thirteen-bar ‘verse’, with its arbitrary succession of chords rather than a coherent sequence, was not intended for improvisation. Chris disproves this in fine style before handing the ‘chorus’ over to Mike Outram. Like Chris, Mike is master of all areas of the instrument and his guitar is the perfect foil.
Chris is in a good position to make these structural alterations because he knows this music from the inside. Since joining the Brass Band in 1979 and subsequently the Orchestra he has taken part in most of the bands, in particular our most travelled group, The Trio, now in its 40th year. Chris has often been the first musician to play a piece, whether soloing on baritone on Music Is at the premiere of On Duke’s Birthday, or all his horns on L’Ascenseur/The Lift, the suite inspired by the Trio’s 1993 “World Tour” that gave rise to Aggro-Vancouver-Desperado.
In his arrangements for the quintet Chris has freed-up the songs. Only on Goin’ to Chicago does he use the classic format of opening theme, string of solos, closing theme. Elsewhere the theme may appear in the middle of a piece, as in ‘Mama Chicago”, sometimes be simply referred to obliquely or woven into an improvisation as on the baritone tour-de-force Wasteground and Weeds or in the musical landscape of Aggro, where the clamour of alto clarinets stirs a neighbouring robin into competition.
Chris also makes imaginative use of the instrumentation. The full quintet is only used on four tracks. The piano only appears when there is a reason for it, making the eloquent economy of Kate Williams’ interventions, as on the two Chicago tracks, all the more telling. I can see why Chris likes that uncluttered space where the choruses flow together un-marked, and the harmony can open up without being tied to particular chord voicings of an accompaniment. A solo becomes a three-way exchange with bass and drums.
The depth and rhythmic drive of Dave Whitford bass and the endless inventiveness of Jon Scott’s drumming are the beating heart of the album. This is clear from the very first track. After a loosely sketched in chorus with soprano sax and bass, a drum solo takes us by surprise and opens the way for Chris’s soprano in a free flowing trio improvisation in which the structure of Music Is is extended at a medium 3/4 (I wish I’d thought of that!). We wait for the final track for Kate to spell out the chord changes in a reprise of Music Is that brings the quintet together in a complete version of the tune.
If Chris Biscoe has any of those well-worn blues phrases or hard bop licks that offer the listener an easy way in, I’ve never heard him use them. He doesn’t need them. Indeed a subtle overturning of preconceptions runs through the album. Charlie Parker said ‘music is your thoughts, your wisdom’. In attempting to describe the playing of the late Lou Gare I once referred to Paul Klee’s definition of drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’. Equally it could be following William Blake’s ‘golden string’. Listening to Chris you are following a line of musical thought. You don’t know where he’s going or what will happen en route. You have to trust him.
It may partly be due to the fact that the material is all from a single source that there is a musical integrity about this album. But I think that what really holds it together, with its subtle changes of form and structure, and variations of of instrumentation, is the musical authority of Chris himself, his imagination, his quiet determination. He set up the recording in a way that gave latitude to the players, choosing people who would instinctively know where he was coming from musically. Doubtless without a word being spoken they rewarded him with this very fine playing.
The tunes on this album, and the many other albums that Chris has put his marker on, are all part of the Musician’s life story. They tell of musical and geographical adventures. Tell of the inordinate amounts of time spent travelling or simply hanging around. Of long waits in airport lounges. Once in Montreal airport, when no doubt suffering from a mild attack of ‘road rot’, we were so deep in a conversation about the merits of British Home Stores lighting that we missed repeated calls for our flight, to the extent that our seats were given to three stand-by ticket holders. Those three weren’t happy to be ejected when we scrambled on at the last minute. When we got to Calgary we found all hotel rooms were taken and we were lodged way out of town on Stampede Drive. There was a big competition going on and the city had been invaded by a thousand Barber Shop Quartets.
Kate and I are deeply grateful to Chris for taking our songs and making them his own. All have personal significance for us, none more so than View From The Drawbridge, written in 1974. Chris has soloed in the big band version many times. Here he has simply taken the 3/4 section, using just guitar, bass and soprano. He is right to use this ‘rehearsal’ take,- there is a tentative quality at first, a sense of discovery, and then of realisation, expressed with such tenderness and restraint that it’s clear no-one wants to break the spell. Magic.
M U S I C I S
Chris Biscoe plays Mike Westbrook
Chris Biscoe soprano, alto and baritone sax, alto clarinet
Mike Outram guitar Kate Williams piano
Dave Whitford bass Jon Scott drums
Music Is Mama Chicago Goin’ to Chicago
Aggro-Vancouver-Desperado View From The Drawbridge
July ’79 Wasteground And Weeds Music Is
all arranged by Chris Biscoe
Trio Records tr607
International Distribution by Proper Music Distribution
available from Trio Records
and as a download on Bandcamp
See the album page for more information
More information about Chris Biscoe on his website.
Friday 13th January 2023
Polish Social and Cultural Association
238 - 246 King Street
London W6 0RF
020 8741 1940
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