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Artist Profiles

Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

By Published: November 7, 2011
For over thirty years we've always been concerned with communication as part of the Art. I think we've been proved right. The music follows it's own course and it's not geared to commercial success. Some of the stuff is difficult—for us and everybody else as well. But within that one can do something in terms of presentation or context for the work.

Sometimes, Mike and Kate use visual means of getting information across to the audience. Art Wolf, a recent project based on the paintings of Caspar Wolf, uses just four musicians—Mike, Kate and saxophonists Pete Whyman and Chris Biscoe
Chris Biscoe
Chris Biscoe
—with back projection of Wolf's canvases adding a whole new dimension to the performance. Playing abroad Kate makes a point of singing songs in translation. At other times, the group might perform with dancers or, as in their theater piece Platterback, as actor/musicians in costume. Westbrook uses the word "appropriate" a lot, meaning that sense of what is right and what works for the occasion, whether it's something musical or some visual adjunct.

Art Wolf, from left: Mike Westbrook, Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman, Kate Westbrook

Westy offers a lovely image of the travelling musician, when he says, "We're like the canaries they send into mines to see what the atmosphere's like [laughs]. We flutter around just trying to do our gig but, in the course of that, we experience all these different things and our music has been very much affected by them." From London Bridge, and its picture of Europe through its cycles of war and renewal, to Chanson Irresponsable (Enja, 2002) and its championing of the beauty of nature and the environment, from the portraits of troubled artists like Caspar Wolf in Art Wolf or D.H. Lawrence in The Ass (Voiceprint, 1985), Mike and Kate present a music that is so much more than notes to be played. The texts, poems, voices and images aid the music in telling a much broader tale of humanity—sometimes suffering but more often transcendent—and they do so without cynicism or dejection.

There has been and continues to be so much music. Westy recently formed a new big band in the South-West, where they live. As well as musicians they have played with in recent Brass Band incarnation The Village Band, Lou Gare is once again playing tenor and Dave Holdsworth is once more there on trumpet. Such musical relationships persist over decades like those with Chris Biscoe, who plays with the couple in the Westbrook Trio (it celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012), or with saxophonist and accordionist Karen Street
Karen Street
, who plays in the current Blake band and who made the remarkable Nijinska Chamber (Voiceprint) with Kate in 2006. Imagine that—a jazz album with just voice and accordion. But then in Karen's hands the accordion is orchestra enough.

There's no retirement beckoning, no pension plans in jazz. And there will be no letup. Two new works surfaced in 2011, The Serpent Hit, which takes a wonderfully wry look at "man's fall from grace" and all that has followed. Featuring voice, saxophones and drums, it utilizes both improvisation and virtuoso ensemble playing, while Kate's lyrics are upfront, and confrontational, dealing as they do with political, cultural and religious themes. Or as Mike describes it, "like someone declaiming on a street corner accompanied by a bebop marching band.'" English Soup is still harder to define but, like its subject, results in a confection so much greater than its apparent ingredients. A DVD is promised in 2012.

For Mike and Kate music and jazz is a fulltime thing. Something he said to me a few years ago applies now as much as it ever did:

The best people in the world are the ones we meet—both the lovers of jazz and the players. It's a world where there's quite a lot of idealism and honesty. You've got to mean it and you've got to be good because among musicians there's a great equality. It's not stars and groundlings. We're all in it together. And there's a huge love of the music and a desire for a world in which it can be a really powerful force for good. People are committed to the music and that still goes on generation after generation, thank God.

Selected Discography
Mike Westbrook, The Westbrook Blake—Bright As Fire (Impetus, 1980)
Mike Westbrook Kate Westbrook, Art Wolf (altrisuoni, 2003)
The New Mike Westbrook Orchestra, Chanson Irresponsable (Enja, 2003)
Mike Westbrook Band, Off Abbey Road (Enja, 1990)
Mike Westbrook / Kate Westbrook, London Bridge Is Broken Down (BGO, 1988)
Westbrook-Rossini Westbrook-Rossini (hatOLOGY, 1986)
Mike Westbrook Orchestra, The Cortège (Enja, 1982)
Mike Westbrook The Westbrook Blake —Bright As Fire (Impetus, 1980)
Mike Westbrook Mama Chicago (Jazzprint, 1979)
Mike Westbrook, Metropolis (BGO, 1971)
Mike Westbrook Concert Band, Marching Song Volumes 1 & 2 (Righteous Psalm, 1969)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Kate Mount

Page 6: Frank Eichler
Pages 2, 3: Joss Reiver Ban

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