Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75
Between 1967-1970, Westbrook cut four albums for the Deram label, Decca's pop-rock-progressive label. By the time Celebration (1967) came out both Keith Rowe and Lou Gare had departed and Harry Miller was in place of Lawrence Sheaf on bass, whilst Bernie Living was on alto and flute. Some critics felt Celebration did not convey the live experience of the Concert Band, yet its air of contained emotion is part of its beauty. Release (1968), on the other hand, benefited from producer Peter Eden's background in pop and rock music. The sound was much improved and one hears a band truly reaching out to its audience. By now trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist George Khan were on board. The whole set, including "Flying Home," "Lover Man" and "The Girl From Ipanema," is again organized as a suite.
Any irony is affectionate, as Westbrook suggested to Mike Hennessey. Noting Duke Ellington as his primary influence, he continued, "I also drew inspiration from blues and boogie as a youngster, from Jimmy Yancey and Louis Armstrong. I still love New Orleans jazz and often listen to it." Indeed, Westbrook is happy to throw in a burlesque contribution or two of his own, most notably with "A Life Of Its Own," while tenorist George Khan rips into "Flying Home." Dave Holdsworth's fluegelhorn on "Rosie" is a thing of beauty and perhaps the record's highpoint.
As for Griffiths, the service he gave to the music of both Westbrook and Surman really has to be acknowledged. The more one listens to these records the more important his contribution seems. He added to an approach derived from J.J. Johnson, the more bizarre sounds of the avant-garde and some that New Orleans-Chicago tailgate trombone. His strengths are even more evident on Westbrook's "pop-soul-jazz" Love Songs (1970), where his elegance and poise match an accuracy of articulation and a strong dramatic sensibility. One must also note the support of Harry Miller and Alan Jackson. Both give so very much to the band's unique sound. The word "gravitas" is no overstatement here.
But the weightiest album from this period has to be Marching Song (1969). When Universal issued the record on CD in the States around 2000, the publicity referred to it as "an anti-Vietnam [sic!] jazz symphony." It was, in fact, about all wars and made its point through frequent references to landscape and the alien nature inflicted by the industrial machinery of war and inflicted upon nature. It recalls two paintings by Paul Nash"We Are Making a New World" (1918) and "The Menin Road" (1918-19), with their images of the obliteration of all life, human, animal and plantand one by Richard Nevinson, also from the First World War, called "Column On The March."
Marching Song deserves an essay all of its own. The music, by Westbrook but with a couple of pieces by Surman, has an astonishing breadth that stretches through some of the wildest free playingGeorge Smith's tuba on the penultimate track "Conflict," and trombonist Paul Rutherford's extreme, spluttering solo on "Other World"to some exquisite Ellingtonian moments such as Osborne's achingly lovely alto on "Ballad" and some beautiful pastoral moments on "Transition" and "Home." Ironically, Decca refused to release its two volumes as a double in 1969, its integrity being finally restored by Universal thirty years later with its CD release.
Marching Song revealed an aspect to Westbrook's work that has been developed further through partner Kate's contributions of lyrics and texts to later recordings. In both the musical and supra-musical content, there is an ongoing discourse between tradition and history on the one hand, and modernity and the present on the other. This juxtaposition is to be found in Mama Chicago (RCA, 1979), Westbrook Blake (Original, 1980), London Bridge Is Broken Down (Venture, 1988), The Cortège (Enja, 1982) and Art Wolf (altrisuoni, 2003). In the first three, the issues raised might be in the broadest sense political. With regard to Art Wolf, however, the questions appear to be aesthetic in nature contrasting past and present artistic values and their relevant social contexts, while the concerns of The Cortège were perhaps more spiritual-philosophical in nature in their focus on life and death.
Westbrook came into jazz as a composer and, from the very outset of his career, form and structure have been central to his art, as he explained in an article in Avant Magazine in 1997: