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Artist Profiles

Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

By Published: November 7, 2011
In my band I had a combination of free improvisers and straight-ahead players, as well as people from the rock world. As a composer, I've always been interested in structuring music in some way. That can mean a formal arrangement or chord sequence or just a concept or even a poem. There were a lot of people around—still are thankfully—like Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
b.1930
trumpet
and Paul Rutherford who enjoyed playing in a range of settings. The ideal world is one where all these things can come together.


Though seen by some as the enfant terrible of British jazz at that time—at the Melody Maker Poll winners' Concert at the Royal Festival Hall in May 1969, a provocative Concert Band set closed the night, summoning as many catcalls and jeers as applause and cheers—atonality or abstraction were never goals but compositional tools and just one aspect of a performance ethic. For all the excitement of wild, freely improvised passages, Westbrook revels in the romantic and beautiful. And why, indeed, would any composer wish to limit himself to any narrow frame of emotion or texture? It is no accident that Westbrook later became involved in musical theatre—drama and dramatic intent have always informed his approach.

Love Songs marked the end of Westbrook's association with Decca and Peter Eden. The real successor to Marching Song was, however, Metropolis, which came out on RCA in 1971. This could be the hidden gem in Westbrook's career. Melody Maker critic Richard Williams described it as "more unified than Release" and "more compact than Marching Song," noting Westbrook's successful deployment of certain rock techniques. In fact, it was a very large ensemble using five trumpets, five trombones and five saxophones with a rhythm section of piano and electric piano (John Taylor
John Taylor
John Taylor
b.1942
piano
), guitar (Gary Boyle
Gary Boyle
b.1941
), two drummers (Alan Jackson and John Marshall
John Marshall
John Marshall
b.1941
trumpet
), the great Norma Winstone
Norma Winstone
Norma Winstone
b.1941
vocalist
on vocals and two bassists (Harry Miller and Chris Laurence). It deserves to be heard, not for the sheer range of styles the composer explores, but for the bravura manner in which they are used.

Williams was spot on in his reference to "rock techniques," and the comparisons, here, would need to be George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
, Mike Gibbs and Don Ellis
Don Ellis
Don Ellis
1934 - 1978
trumpet
. Much of the music is, in fact, quite funky with an almost danceable pulse, though Westbrook also uses a series of effective collective improvisations to link different sections. The standard of soloing is, if anything, higher than on either Celebration or Release, and just as strong as on Marching Song. Surman was now out of the picture and, if his own unique voice was still missed, the performances of Gary Boyle, Alan Skidmore
Alan Skidmore
Alan Skidmore
b.1942
, Kenny Wheeler, Malcolm Griffiths, Henry Lowther and, in the wonderfully compelling final statement, Harry Beckett
Harry Beckett
Harry Beckett
1935 - 2010
flugelhorn
, are compensation aplenty. Metropolis is a very special achievement.

Citadel/Room 315 (RCA, 1975)—another major achievement—would prove the last concerto grosso from Westbrook for some years and actually came about in the middle of a period when his career was pulling him in a number of unusual directions—for your average jazz composer, that is. In 1971, through poet Adrian Mitchell—incidentally and unarguably Britain's greatest post-war poet—Westbrook was asked to write the music for a National Theatre commission. Mitchell's play, Tyger, was a celebration of the work and life of Romantic poet and painter William Blake and had a major impact on Westy's future writing. It also began to draw him into musical theatre and a form of jazz cabaret or jazz entertainment that he and partner Kate would develop as just one mode of expression for their art.

The seventies were singularly important for Westbrook, indeed more so than the sixties. It is a personal opinion, not necessarily shared by Mike himself, that the sheer diversity of his activity in this period confused both part of his audience and some critics and promoters in the UK. Within a short space of time, Westbrook became involved with John Fox in the theatre troupe Welfare State, firstly through a strange multimedia work performed at the Mermaid Theatre called Earthrise, inspired by the moon landings and then through a joint venture, Cosmic Circus, involving actors and circus performers. By then, Westy had also formed the jazz-rock group Solid Gold Cadillac, which was an integral part of Cosmic Circus.


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