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Mike Westbrook Orchestra: Catania

Ian Patterson By

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A major figure in British jazz since the late 1950s, composer-pianist Mike Westbrook continues to write, perform and record at a rate of knots which would leave contenders half his 83 years on the ropes. Four albums since 2016, including—after a gap of forty years—not one but two solo piano recordings, are testament to the creative fire that continues to burn inside him. This previously-unreleased live recording from Sicily in 1992, captures the twenty-three-piece Mike Westbrook Orchestra in truly scintillating form.

Recorded from multiple sources over three July nights, this free festival was the Catania Jazz Association's tribute to Westbrook, with each night dedicated to a different sphere of the multi-faceted composer's music. Most of the music on this double-disc feast comes from one evening, where Westbrook delved deeply into European literary and theatre culture; Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weil, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gioacchino Rossini and William Blake provide the inspiration for some of the set's most captivating music. Westbrook's arrangements allow acres of space for the soloists, who whip up a veritable storm throughout.

However, the recording begins with a trio of vintage Westbrook's titles. A sumptuous Gil-Evans-esque horn arrangement on "View from the Drawbridge" provides the backdrop to a rollicking intervention from Alan Barnes on clarinet and alto saxophone. Buoyant groove and punchy brass riffs underpin the wild flight of tenor saxophonist Alan Wakeman on the eighteen-minute behemoth "Love and Understanding." The Catania crowd catches its collective breath on the brief, palate-cleansing ballad "Tender Love," where vibraphonist Anthony Kerr and soprano saxophonist Chris Biscoe ply a gentler, more lyrical course.

Stonking ensemble vehicles are intertwined with several vocal numbers, which are no less striking for their power, beauty and originality. Kate Westbrook, singing in Spanish, brings worldly gravitas to "Leñador"—her husband's re-imagining of Lorca's poem "Canción del Naranjo Seco." Starting out at ballad tempo, the orchestra gradually enfolds and lifts the singer, the rising wave culminating in a vibrant solo from trombonist Danilo Terenzi. Incomparable baritone singer Phil Minton displays extraordinary lungs and range on several tunes: from caressing balladry on "Song of the Rain" to belting, hymnal-blues on "I See Thy Form," the latter an adaptation of William Blake's "Jerusalem—The Emanation of the Great Albion."

On another Blake adaptation, "Long John Brown," Minton howls and babbles like Screamin' Jay Hawkins with the devil in his gut. Wakeman's solo is appropriately wild and impassioned on this tale of love and possession. The former Soft Machine saxophonist follows a more mellow muse on Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weil's "Surabaya Johnny," where Kate Westbrook is lent sympathetic support from the ever versatile Karen Street on accordion. Greater theatricality arises when Kate Westbrook and Minton combine on "Alabama Song." This much-covered Brecht-Weil song has inspired everyone from The Doors and David Bowie to Eric Dolphy. Here, the orchestra's cabaret-esque reading signs off in a wacky romp suggestive of Frank Zappa's larger groups.

In a nicely varied programme there are graceful tributes to Duke Ellington ("I.D.M.A.T.") and Billy Strayhorn ("Lush Life"), and a lively marriage between bebop and opera ("Factotum al Bebop"). By contrast, electric violinist Dominique Pifarély brings a dash of modern panache to "South from Toulouse." Saving the best to last, Westbrook leads the orchestra in the celebratory "The Toper's Rant," an exuberant, bluesy weave of joyous solos from alto saxophones, violin and trombones which ignites sustained applause from the appreciative Catania audience.

It is worth noting that the Mike Westbrook Music Festival in Catania, as these three nights were billed, took place against the backdrop of the widespread cancellation of public events in Sicily, in the wake of the car-bomb killings of the high-profile anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino by the Sicilian mafia.

That the concerts went ahead at all, in a nationwide climate of fear and pessimism, is testament to the resolve of Pompeo Benincasa, Marcello Leanza and Sabina Sacchi of the Associazione Catania Jazz, and to the spirit of the Catania public. This brilliant live document of the Mike Westbrook Orchestra serves as a tribute to people's resilience and to the power of music. Music can't change the world, but as this wonderfully uplifting recording demonstrates, it surely makes it a much more bearable place.

Track Listing: CD 1: Introductions; View from the Drawbridge; Love and Understanding; Tender Love; Leñador; Song of the Rain; Factotum al Bebop. CD 2: I See Thy Form; I.D.M.A.T; Lush Life; South from Toulouse; Long John Brown; Surabaya Johnny; Band introductions; Alabamasong; The Topers’ Rant

Personnel: Kate Westbrook: voice; Chris Biscoe, Alan Barnes, Pete Whyman, Alan Wakeman, Chris Caldwell: saxophones; Karen Street: saxophone, accordion; Graham Russel, Dave Plews, Noel Langley, James McMillan: trumpets; Paul Nieman, Adrian Lane, Tracy Holloway: trombones; Andy Grappy: tuba; Frank Schaeffer: cello; Pete Saberton: piano; Anthony Kerr: vibraphone; Steve Berry: bass; Peter Fairclough: drums; Mike Westbrook: piano; Phil Minton: voice; Dominique Pifarely: violin: Danilo Terenzi: trombone.

Title: Catania | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Westbrook Records

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