Behind a bluff exterior Brian Blain was an idealist, a romantic. But he was also a man of action. He wanted to make things better. He was impatient with the way things were, angry at perceived injustice and the cultural barriers that thwarted so many musicians. Jazz is, and should be, a thorn in the side of mainstream culture, questioning its assumptions and orthodoxies. A possessor of passionate beliefs and forthright opinions who never shied away from controversy, Brian was a formidable advocate for jazz. I can hear him now in one of those heated discussions at the bar. Behind that confrontational style beat the heart of a true jazz lover, and the best friend we jazz musicians ever had.
Thank you, Brian. Rest in Peace.
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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
22 October 2022
No. 72
In the city where Gioacchino Rossini lived, and in the Theatre where he actually played, Mike Westbrook breathes new life into the immortal magic of the Italian Maestro’s compositions.
For Mike Westbrook, this was a concert of a highly evocative nature: to play his distinguished arrangements of the music of Gioacchino Rossini in the city where the ‘Maestro from Pesaro’ himself lived for two years (from 1802 to 1804), in the Theatre named after him, and on the same stage where he performed in 1806.
The ‘English Maestro’ planned the event with meticulousness, first presenting it to the public in Cambridge the previous week, with Ben Cottrell conducting the 19-piece Uncommon Orchestra, then bringing it to Lugo (Italy) to launch the “Rossini Open” season - and courageously so. Offering his version to an audience mainly accustomed to classical music might be of some concern: yet, the prolonged final applause from the audience asserted a tremendous appraisal and understanding of his work.
Westbrook guided the listener through the pieces with detailed programme notes, explaining how the diverse arrangements aimed to evoke the corresponding stage action of the original operas. Rarely has a ‘classical author’ proved so effectively open to the reinterpretation by a ‘jazz visionary’ - the variety and freshness of the original works disclosing unexpected glimpses, evoking exotic colours, describing suspended atmospheres, inviting irresistible crescendos and vigorous full orchestra. One finds hints of the expressive freedom of the Sixties in the deliberately ‘dirty’ sound that Westbrook creates in his brilliant arrangements, as well as the vigorous and unrestrained groove of the street bands. He even succeeds in reinforcing the already superb original work, highlighting the changes that intervened in the 200 years that separate the two composers - tenderness, melancholy and ardour as painted anew and afresh again. Changes in rhythm and atmosphere segue overwhelmingly from piece to piece, recreating the astonishment that Rossini’s works - soon to become part of humanity’s common heritage - must have caused at the time of their first public performances.
MIKE WESTBROOK & UNCOMMON ORCHESTRA – ROSSINI RE-LOADED – apertura del Rossini Open International Music Festival – Teatro Rossini – Lugo 6 October 2022

Chris Biscoe, Peter Whyman, Sarah Dean, Alan Wakeman, Ian Wellens (saxophones), Robin Pengilly, Andy Hague, Graham Russell, Sam Massey (trumpets), Joe Carnell, Stewart Stunell, Sam Chamberlain-Keen, Ashley Nayler (trombones), Peter Rosser (accordion), Frank Schaefer, (cello), Marcus Vergette (bass), Coach York (drums), Kate Westbrook (voice), Mike Westbrook (piano), Benjamin Cottrell (conductor).
Mike Westbrook, Frank Schaefer
The Uncommon Orchestra
The Uncommon Orchestra
Kate and Mike Westbrook
Kate and Mike Westbrook
Sam Chamberlain-Keen, Joe Carnell
Sam Chamberlain-Keen, Joe Carnell, Andy Hague (in the background)
Peter Rosser, Sarah Dean
Peter Rosser, Sarah Dean
With Rossini Re-Loaded Westbrook did not limit himself to merely reproducing the program as known from the Hat Art releases - a double LP and a CD recorded in 1986 both in concert and in the studio. While the first set followed the sequence of the original albums, the second started with a surprising "Funkin’ Cinderella" (from Cinderella's Overture) and an equally exceptional version of Once Upon A Time (‘Una volta c'era un re‘) from the same opera, introduced by a captivating accordion solo leading to an enchanting vocal interpretation by Kate Westbrook, Mike’s wife, co-author and irreplaceable companion in innumerable musical ventures.
Kate Westbrook, The Uncommon Orchestra
Westbrook’s concerts are now rare and all the more precious, due in part to the advanced age and also to the exacting care required for musical setups of such complexity: they’re quite a challenge too for his loyal musicians in the Orchestra, who nevertheless - as with Gil Evans’ orchestra players - are ready and willing to withdraw any other commitment they may have in order to play on these occasions. Surely none of them would want to miss the opportunity - and the pleasure - of playing some of the most exciting music of the century.
Kate Westbrook, The Uncommon Orchestra
Giancarlo Spezia - Musica Jazz
translation: Sergio Amadori
photos: Francesco Spezia
26 October 2022
No. 73
Brian and I were almost contemporaries. We both cut our jazz teeth in those post-war days when the nation still went out dancing to the big bands of Ted Heath, Geraldo, Dankworth and others. The ballrooms were packed. The bands were well stacked with jazz musicians. Evenings of mainly commercial music and crooners invariably contained morsels of sustenance for the hungry jazz lover, - an Ellington tune, a Reg Owen arrangement, maybe a solo by Stan Tracy, Tubby Hayes or Ronnie Scott, or a drum feature on Skin Deep when the dancers crowded round the stage. I remember an occasion in the Torquay Spa Ballroom, when this took the form of a drum battle between Phil Seaman and Jack Parnell. When guitar groups took over from big bands in the dance halls, these musicians struck out to become soloists in their own right. A UK modern jazz scene was born.
Times were a’changing. As Brian once said to me, with more than a touch of nostalgia, “ We thought we were building a new world” -classless, internationalist, forward looking. A hip world of bebop where Dizzy might well become President. Jazz, a model of freedom within collectivity, seemed to embody the spirit of this age. Those of us lucky enough to have been around at that time saw how jazz could really become ’the music of the people’. But when the R&B craze (engendered in the bosom of jazz itself) drove jazz out of the clubs, we jazz loving socialists realised that building that particular Jerusalem was going to take longer than we’d hoped. And when the music business caught up, and the world succumbed to Pop, jazz musicians were obliged to surrender, or take to the hills. Brian went to work with the Musicians Union in the mid 60s and embarked on a mission to further the cause of live music in general and jazz in particular.
Jazz may have lost its broad popular audience, but musically this was a period of enormous creativity in the States, which in turn galvanised the local scene. That was when Brian and I first got to know each other. Courtesy of Ronnie Scott, it was a time when we were at last allowed to hear in person Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman and other jazz giants. In the UK a new wave of musicians emerged, musicians who had come straight to jazz without having to serve a dance band apprenticeship. Freedom was in the air and Brian was never far from the action. He sought out jazz wherever it was to be found, in the back rooms of pubs as well as more established venues. He got to know the musicians personally, shared their aspirations, suffered their setbacks. Their struggle became his struggle.
Moonlighting as journalist Christopher Bird, Brian was a major contributor to the Melody Maker ‘Caught in the Act’ column. His pithy and informative reviews were responsible for putting many new arrivals on the map. I certainly was one of those to benefit from his support. For me, his endorsement of Marching Song in 1968 was crucial. We may not have agreed about everything, but throughout our long and friendly acquaintanceship I always valued Brian’s opinion.
Mike Westbrook

Brian Blain
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