Chris Biscoe can trade choruses with the best and melt the heart with the tenderest of ballads. But that is not what makes him special. Live and on record there is always a sense of quiet anticipation as he starts a solo. One knows one is about to hear something new, something different. It is more than his mastery of a range of woodwinds. It is more than the wonderful tone he achieves seemingly effortlessly on each of his instrumentspowerful, rounded and majestic on baritone, elegant but slightly acerbic on alto, warmly lyrical on soprano and with a rich wooden timbre on clarinet. It is about the capacity to say something fresh and pertinent to the situation and occasion every time he puts mouthpiece to lips.
The phrase that often springs to mind with Biscoe is that of "quiet surprise," that same something that Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond, Bud Shank or Art Pepper possessed. Biscoe's 44-year association with the great British composer Mike Westbrook and his music and life partner Kate Westbrook gives him a unique insight into their artistic world. But that is only part, important though it is, of what that one hears on this lovely record. It is what the saxophonist brings to their music that truly delights, namely a distinctive clarity of line and abundance of intriguing musical ideas.
The set is bracketed by two different takes on "Music Is" from Westbrook's tribute to Duke Ellington, On Duke's Birthday (Hat Hut, 1985). The firstjust soprano, bass and drumsis a little gem of group interplay between Biscoe, Dave Whitford on bass and Jon Scott's drums. The second with Kate Williams on piano emphasises, perhaps, the way Westbrook leads from the piano and the duet between the leader and Williams lifts the performance into whole other realms. But the two solo performances are just as fine. Kate Westbrook's "Wasteground and Weeds" is just with Biscoe on baritone but "Aggro-Vancouver-Desperado" (a great title for a film) is with Biscoe overdubbed on alto and two clarinets. The latter offers a marvellous opportunity to compare the distinctly personal sound Biscoe obtains on his horns.
The two pieces from the Westbrooks' Mama Chicago (RCA, 1979), the title track and "Goin' To Chicago," are beautifully essayed bebop-influenced tunes featuring the whole quintet with the addition of Mike Outram on guitar. Outram also features prominently on "View From The Drawbridge," one of Westbrook's most gorgeous ballads. The empathy between Biscoe and the guitarist is a delight and a reminder of the albums Paul Desmond made with Jim Hall. Lastly, but certainly not least of all, there is Biscoe's version of "July '79" from The Cortège (Original, 1982) with the whole quintet. Again, the sense of joy and delight in shared music-making is palpable.
Music Is: Chris Biscoe Plays Mike Westbrook might have begun with the idea of a tribute to one of the most important composers in jazz but it has become so much more. It is a tribute to a very fine, if quietly surprising, musician in Chris Biscoe. The Westbrooks and many more knew it all along. Now others will too.
Music Is; Mama Chicago; Goin’ to Chicago; Aggro-Vancouver-Desperado; View From The Drawbridge; July ’79;
Wasteground And Weeds; Music Is.
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