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Kate Westbrook: GRANITE

Duncan Heining By

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GRANITE is Kate Westbrook's fourth solo album, though saying so seems quite an artificial point given her partnership with husband Mike Westbrook over so many recordings. As he is quick to point out, Kate's texts are crucial to the shaping of compositions and projects.

That said, GRANITE is Kate Westbrook's most ambitious record to date, its libretto matched perfectly by some of the most intriguing music her partner has created during his long career. In fact, these performances would sit as easily alongside albums by the more interesting progressive rock artists such as Faust, Gong and Henry Cow as next for obviously 'jazz' CDs. GRANITE is a timely reminder of the period when the Westbrooks toured extensively with Henry Cow. That its subject matter is the personification of the granite, alien landscape of the Westbrooks' beloved Dartmoor makes their use of rock music both an apt and witty choice.

As ever with the couple, the music and text combine to create a multi-layered entertainment. Here, however, the use of the electric guitars of Matthew North and Jesse Molins allows for diverse textures in the music and contrasting rhythms. This is as true of the opening "Tracks of Desire," as it is of the later "Curlew Cry" or wonderfully atmospheric "Late Autumn." And the guitarists' instrumental duet on "Exile" is a lovely thing, indeed.

But this use of electronic textures also allows Roz Harding's alto to cut through the sound at key points or enables the rhythm section to create a strong counterpoint to the guitars. It helps, of course, that the musicians chosen by Kate Westbrook all play with the Uncommon Orchestra, but it is their own individual qualities that really determines their sympathetic and empathic contributions here.

And there is contrast too offered by quieter numbers such as "Winter," a duet between Kate Westbrook and Harding or the lovely ballad "Yearning Bird." Pacing is another important feature here. For example, as the record comes to its conclusion, the chugging rhythms of "Æons Old" are followed by the soundscape of "Exile," which in turn leads into the rock "Quarry Workers and Instrumentalists," with some excellent rhythm playing from Billie Bottle and Coach York. The two ballads "Reckless, Reckless" and "Yearning Bird" bring a sense of closure before Kate Westbrook signs off whistling Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music."

GRANITE is a fine conceit—witty, charming, surprising and elemental by turns. It's beautifully executed by Westbrook's team of musicians. What more can I say?

Kate Westbrook recently spoke to author Duncan Heining about GRANITE.

All About Jazz: I am enjoying GRANITE a great deal. Tell Mike the music is fantastic. Can I ask what made you decide to form a band at this point in your career?

Kate Westbrook: I wonder if the implication in your question is that seventy-eight is quite an age at which to form a new band. But why not?

Anyway, I'm glad you are enjoying the CD and I do tell Mike the music is fantastic, often. The commission for a new piece came to me from Frank Eichler, who has followed our music for some years. A citizen of Stuttgart, he spends his summer holidays in this country around the South West and, like Mike and me, he is drawn particularly to Dartmoor. I did form a band back in 1994/95, The Skirmishers, an umbrella name for a band which could involve any musician needed for a specific piece. The album Cuff Clout centered around my texts set by eight composers from different areas of music,-rock, jazz, 'pop,' contemporary.

I had wondered about reviving the Skirmishers but found that, in the intervening years, it had been taken up by another band. So, when we settled on the title GRANITE for the project, the name of the band simply had to be The GRANITE Band.

AAJ: One of the many interesting aspects of GRANITE is the way you repeat the lyrics but place them in different musical contexts. This was something you and Mike also did with the lovely Chanson Irresponsable. It's a practice common in classical music and opera but not in jazz. Is this something that relates to the way painters view their subjects, constantly re-examining them from fresh angles?

KW: When Frank commissioned the new piece, his brief was that Dartmoor should be the subject and that it should use my full emotional range as a vocalist. Initially, I thought of my 'creature' and then, with a tip of the hat to Hamlet and Molly Bloom, of a soliloquy. The soliloquy allows one to move freely between threads of thought and images. The structure and patterns of the text initially, and subsequently in the music, determined the varied idioms and their reappearances.

AAJ: That's right. As you say, the main theme of the lyrics involves a personification of the Dartmoor landscape close to your home. I wondered how far your work as a painter informed the ideas and lyrics on GRANITE?

KW: As you know, I have been painting and drawing on Dartmoor over many years. I am drawn to that landscape as to no other. Mike and I go up to Haytor whenever we have the chance and visit the quarry with our paints and pens in all seasons to spend hours drawing there. A couple of times, we have been treated to the song of the willow warbler. Painting always informs the music, thinking in terms of composition, texture, colour, line. And the same applies in the other direction: painting informs the words, as well. Synaesthesia, though I don't have an extreme form of the condition.

AAJ: Dartmoor is also a place of work and this is a secondary theme on the record. In a way, the album juxtaposes the permanent/landscape against the temporary/human. How would you respond to this suggestion?

KW: Yes, you have it absolutely. I wanted to keep an ambiguity about humankind's engagement with Nature. Personification and Animism quite appeal to me. So, we have a mythical Quarry-worker who is both human and part of the landscape itself. But I want to emphasise that the ambiguous nature of this creature is an essential element. There is an underlying (I hope not didactic) concern with the relationship between humankind and the earth, between our responsibility for the planet and the death of both the Quarry-worker and the earth itself, between the environment and mortality.

AAJ: How did you arrive at the decision to use rock rhythms (given the subject an appropriate and witty choice) and how much input did you have to the music that Mike has created?

KW: The words and initial structure are mine, thereafter the music is Mike's and he created the musical ideas that run though the piece. (You can see in the album booklet the grid structure that has been our bible). Having said that, we work so closely together that I will ask him to change a note or a phrase to suit the expressiveness of the words, or my vocal range. I may suggest a particular mood for a section. He will come back with a request for more words or a change of words. Ours is a continuing dialogue. For instance, with the section entitled "Exile," I asked Mike to make this Hymn-like. In fact, there are Christian references throughout GRANITE.

AAJ: You use two guitars and a saxophonist along with piano, bass guitar and drums. What was it about this line-up that attracted you?

KW: This relates back to your first question. As you know all the members of The GRANITE Band are also in Mike's Uncommon Orchestra. The stage plan for the Orchestra had me Stage Right in front of the two guitarists. My heart sank and my ears began to ring when I realised this was so. But, in truth, it has been a great pleasure in performances of A Bigger Show to be near the two of them on stage, bang inside their sound.

After Mike, Jesse and Matt were the first members of the new band. Coach is a fine musician and a potent presence on stage, so he was essential to the GRANITE venture. Roz is a saxophonist whose playing I admire and I like her very much. Also, in The Uncommon Orchestra is the exceptional multi-instrumentalist Billie Bottle, and here she plays bass guitar. Billie and Coach have developed a good rapport. As the French say—the band is good both musically and humanly.

Since moving to Devon, it has proved a fine thing to have a pool of musicians living in the area who are keen to rehearse regularly. Over recent years, for Mike I know, the way in which compositions evolve is helped enormously by frequent sessions of experimentation with the musicians involved. This has been very true with GRANITE too.

Track Listing: Tracks of Desire; Years of Rotation; Spread-eagled; Glacial Flood; Helpless, Helpless; Curlew Cry; Architects and Pornographers; Sun and Moon; Raw Creation; Rain-soaked Summer; Sun-Warmed Soil; Story; Wordless, Wordless; Bathing Belles and Philosophers; Late Autumn; My Barricade; Salvation; Winter; Æons Old; Exile; Quarry Workers and Instrumentalists; Reckless, Reckless; Yearning Bird; Let’s Face the Music.

Personnel: Kate Westbrook: voice, text; Mike Westbrook: piano, composer; Roz Harding: alto sax; Jesse Molins: guitar; Matthew North: guitar; Billie Bottle: bass guitar; Coach York: drums.

Title: GRANITE | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Westbrook Records

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