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Remembering John and Margery Styles, founder members of Smith’s Academy.
11 October 2023
No. 81
A review of the Band of Bands performance at the Pizza Express on 24th September 2023 by former SAI editor Martin King.
Mike Westbrook piano, leader
Kate Westbrook voice
Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman saxes
Marcus Vergette bass
Coach York drums
Jazz is a music of the moment, and many great moments have come from one-off encounters. Think, for instance, of Duke Ellington’s sessions with Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, or the fireworks with Mingus and Max Roach. On the other hand, long-established partnerships, such as Duke had with Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, and several other loyal collaborators, can develop their own special rapport and result in their finest work.
Kate and Mike Westbrook have been composing and performing music together for some 50 years - that’s longer than the combined years of the Ellington/Strayhorn and Lennon/McCartney collaborations.
Kate and Mike Westbrook at the Pizza Express (photo: Robert Crowley)
Kate and Mike Westbrook at the Pizza Express (photo: Robert Crowley)
They’ve worked with Chris Biscoe for 40 years, Pete Whyman and Karen Street for 30, and ‘new boys’ Marcus Vergette and Coach York have propelled the Uncommon Orchestra for 20 years.
The members of the Band of Bands have Westbrook music in their blood. The very name of the group is a statement of intent - no casual pick-up band here but a definitive vehicle for presenting Kate and Mike’s music. The seven-piece unit is big enough to make a mighty roar and explore a variety of textures, yet small enough to allow everybody plenty of solo space.
From the outset it was clear this outfit meant business. A buoyant driving beat from York and Vergette set the scene for an exuberant soprano solo from Whyman and the band hit the ground running with Glad Day
The tempo slowed for Blues for Terenzi, based on an 8-bar Jimmy Yancey tune, the first of several blues-infused pieces on display today.
Billy Strayhorn’s Johnny Come Lately is a composition that the Uncommon Orchestra have often featured. This arrangement for the smaller group lost none of its power and gained a clarity of texture. It took me a while to latch on to what was being played - something familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, then that eureka moment when the main tune, starting with its distinctive octave drop, came in from the two saxes in unison. Strayhorn lives!
Mike’s Yellow Dog from FINE & YELLOW is one of those atmospheric, bluesy pieces he’s written in recent years, then Frederick Hollander’s Black Market took us into Marlene Dietrich territory, an area which Kate has made her own, as well as a chance to demonstrate her full range of vocal expression, and - boy - these goods are hot!
In Meinem Puppenhaus (Dolls House) a song from ART WOLF, the suite dedicated to Swiss painter Caspar Wolf, featured Kate plus some white-knuckle interplay between the two saxes and brought the first set to a close.
Funkin’ with Cinderella, based on Rossini’s La Cenerentola Overture came after the interval. It’s another of those arrangements that delays its theme statement and keeps an audience guessing.
My Lovers Coat, one more of those bluesy tunes (and the one I was couldn’t get out of my head for at least a week after the gig) looks at love from an astronaut’s perspective.
For South from Toulouse, that evocative tone picture of the landscapes of south-west France, we were invited to contribute to the sunlit panoramas by rattling our cutlery. The band worked a hypnotic groove up to a powerful intensity - timeless Westbrook!
We continued with another ART WOLF song Unsigned Panorama featuring Kate with Whyman’s clarinet and Mike’s piano, than a Hollander song Illusions, whose lyrics share some common ground with Cole Porter’s Love for Sale.
Gas, Dust, Stone, a ‘blues for the planet’ from the Uncommon Orchestra’s A BIGGER SHOW is a slow-burn 12/8 number which develops a strong momentum. Then finally What I Like, a joyful celebration of all things good including several jazz citations both in the text and the music. (My own such list would have to include ‘Westbrook’. Which Westbrook? Any Westbrook!) Finally a cheeky quote from The Peanut Vendor brought the tune and the afternoon’s proceedings to a happy conclusion.
A triumphant debut from this hugely talented and highly original band. It not only met but exceeded my already high expectations. Hopefully there’s a lot more to come from this Band of Bands.
Martin King
29 October 2023
No. 82
Cadillac CD (review)
Mike Westbrook Live 1972 CD cover
George Khan - Tenor Saxophone, Electric Saxophone and Flute
Gary Boyle - Guitar
Mike Westbrook - Electric Piano, Harmonica
Butch Potter - Bass Guitar, Pogo Stick, Flute
Alan Jackson - Drums, Alto Saxophone
A death-defying leap from the battlements of the Tower of London into a flaming pit of fire could almost be a scene from one of Hilary Mantel’s historic novels. But I witnessed this in the summer of 1972 as a spectacle accompanying a live performance by Mike Westbrook and his band.
The music itself was pretty fiery too: a melting pot of different styles and genres. Westbrook, like Miles, Zawinul, Tony Williams and other contemporary luminaries, was at the vanguard of exploring the innovations rock music could bring to jazz. There were the rhythms, which divided the beat into equal quavers and semiquavers rather than the triplet swing feel which had dominated the music since Louis Armstrong. Electric instruments and electronic effects added tonal colour. And the open-ended structures provided new realms of space for improvising players.
“It is the infectious music which doesn’t seem to begin or end” wrote Esther Ripley in the Tavistock Times and reprinted as liner notes on the LP and CD releases of MIKE WESTBROOK LIVE 1972 ‘It whisks you away into a pulsating kaleidoscope dream of world sounds, bursts of noise and quiet, unnerving spaces. Then suddenly the melody is back, like a familiar turning in the road.”
Travelling, the first track of LIVE 1972, opens tentatively. Some unaccompanied free-time bluesy phrases ring out from Gary Boyle’s guitar - you almost expect John Lee Hooker’s voice to come in moanin’ low but instead the band slips into slow moody late-night blues groove. Boyle was much in demand for session work at this time and would later go on to form the fusion band Isotope. George Khan, veteran of Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, takes over with his hard-toned electric tenor playing lead while Boyle’s wah-wah guitar riffs behind.
Some gentle exploratory noodling at the beginning of Compassion gradually builds in intensity, aided by several timbral extremities from Butch Potter (also a Battered Ornaments veteran) bowing his pogo stick bass, and Khan on sax before he switches to flute to introduce a pastoral note. Though the hint of the Marching Song theme here suggests this rural idyll is likely to be shortlived.
Indeed, crisp military-style drumming follows, introducing the full Marching Song tune, the title track from Westbrook’s large-scale Concert Band suite. Khan states the theme and takes a characteristically declamatory solo punctuated by the rest of the group before Boyle enters with a speed and intensity worthy of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.
An explosive drum solo provides a link into Spaces before we move to the bucolic soundscapes of Down on the Farm.
Back to the city for the last two tracks, and in my view the highlight of this CD: Pleasure City and Metropolis IX. Both of these were originally heard in METROPOLIS an extended suite which was one of Mike’s most ambitious works up to this point. Khan, Boyle and Jackson were among the 23-piece line-up that recorded this work in 1971. While the big band version featured complex arrangements with big blocks of sound flying around and competing with each other à la Rite of Spring, the 1972 version of Pleasure City becomes a basis for extended jamming. At times the main riff hints at the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, with which it bears a surprisingly close relationship. The band develops an unstoppable momentum with Jackson holding down a rocksolid beat throughout, interspersed with outbursts loud and busy to complement and challenge the front line.
This finally leads into tranquility of Metropolis IX (sometimes known as Hyde Park Song), an engaging piece in a slow 7 time. A little clowning among the band, some indecipherable off-mic comments from Westbrook, audience laughter then, after 1 hour 17 minutes the disc ends on a fade out.
LIVE 1972 is in many ways a product of its time, but what a time it was! And much of the music contained here transcends its era and, after half a century, still has the ability to engage, intrigue and surprise us. it’s great to have the album available again.
Cadillac Records is marking its 50th anniversary with the re-issue on CD of Mike Westbrook's LIVE '72 album originally released on LP in 1973. Martin King has a listen.
Martin King

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