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Artist Profiles

Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

By Published: November 7, 2011
It was never really an attempt to be a bona fide pop group [laughs]! There was a lot of irony in Phil Minton singing pop songs with improvising musicians. It was that sort of period. The records maybe don't reflect the music terribly well but if you'd seen those Cosmic Circus gigs with fire-eaters, clowns and trapeze artists and all sorts of wild behavior, you'd have seen quite a show.

It didn't really get anywhere. We were not really serious enough doing the rock thing. It was something that we were partly interested in but the main thing was theatre really. So, I don't think it was that convincing as a rock band that you could promote heavily [laughs], though RCA did try.

The records do have something, however, and perhaps more importantly they allowed Westy to develop and integrate rock elements within his music. He had already shown how successfully he could do so with both Metropolis and Citadel, but the Westbrook Band's Beatles' tribute, Off Abbey Road (Enja, 1989), reveals how much of this he has retained. In fact, Brian Godding (ex-Blossom Toes) played with Solid Gold Cadillac and has continued to play with the Westbrook's in a number of settings. Just listen to his guitar work on "Erme Estuary" and "July '79" from The Cortège, if proof were needed.

One of Westbrook's great skills lies in an ability to integrate diverse elements into a natural, organic whole. The process that he describes in discussing the late sixties and early seventies continues to be the case today:

We were all finding our wings, so to speak. From a composing point of view , having had all the resources of a big band and then the rock group, then just to be reduced two horns or one horn and a voice or whatever was a wonderful education really. Because you had to get a good sound with whatever you had available.

The connection between the Westbrooks and Henry Cow might not sound like a marriage made in heaven, as Mike acknowledges:

Musically, we were completely different but there was a lot of mutual respect and we just decided to do something together and form ourselves into The Orckestra, which had a brief but rather glorious period of activity and did some major gigs in various places, where we each played our own thing and quite a lot of material together— always rather under-rehearsed.

Westbrook retained cellist Georgie Born and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Cooper, from Henry Cow, for the incarnation of the Westbrook Orchestra that recorded The Cortège. Reissued by Enja in 2011, this is certainly one of the high spots of Westy's career as a composer, with its bravura settings of poems from Blake, Lorca, Rimbaud and "ploughboy poet" John Clare. But the canvas of London Bridge is even broader, and grew from, as Westbrook puts it, "a rather unique period with the trio with Kate, Chris and I, when we were crisscrossing from Vienna to Berlin to Athens to wherever, and just got this kind of snapshot of Europe in all its suffering, its history, its culture."

This sense of jazz existing within a broader social and political context is clear to Westbrook, as he says, with a certain wry humor,

Over the years I've had a band and been travelling around, we're like a sort of Everyman troupe. Somehow we carry on like Mother Courage and her wagon. Whatever battle's going on, we're there and we're affected by what's happening, surviving somehow on the fringes, going through all these different political changes.

From the night of François Mitterand's election in France—where Westbrook's band came out of a concert hall in La Rochelle to play alongside other French bands in the Town Square—to factories in Eastern Europe and left wing festivals in Italy with the Brass Band and Henry Cow, his vision encompasses and reflects all these experiences:

The Left in France and Italy has always allied themselves with progressive ideas in the Arts. The Brass Band used to tour with Henry Cow, playing these enormous popular events promoted by Communist councils. Here, we never had that alliance between the Left and progressive artists.

The political dimension of Mike and Kate's work is important but it is equally necessary to point out there is nothing propagandist about it. Values, aesthetical and ethical, are an organic part of the creative process, just as Mike's compositions for large and small ensembles arise from the same musical imagination. The Westbrooks are driven by love and joy—of jazz, of art of literature, of theater, of life—not by ideology. And it is this that unifies works as diverse as Marching Song, Mama Chicago and Art Wolf. That and a desire to communicate or maybe even commune with their audience, as Mike explains:

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