Viewed from the other side of the Atlantic, Mike Westbrook is probably Britain's best kept secret. A composer, pianist and tubaistabove all, composerWestbrook's recording career began in the late 1960s. Since then he has released upwards of fifty albums, spanning jazz rock through jazz and contemporary-classical fusions such as the 2 x CD London Bridge Live In Zurich 1990. Westbrook's albums have been performed by lineups ranging in size from trios through to, in this case, an eleven-piece jazz orchestra augmented by a thirty-five piece chamber orchestra (London's Docklands Ensemble) and the vocalist Kate Westbrook, his wife.
Five gets you ten, however, that a straw poll of audience members in the Village Vanguard any night of the week would result in minimal if not zero recognition of Westbrook's name. This is not to belittle New York audiences, for Westbrook has never made an attempt to break his music in America. Moreover, in Britain and Europe, where he has a following, he remains niche. The simple fact is that much of his music is serious, art not entertainment, though entertaining art, and is uncompromised by ambitions for commercial success. At age 86, Westbrook remains, as the French expression goes, a succès d'estime, revered by cognoscenti, unknown to the wider audience.
The cognoscenti know London Bridge well: a studio version, recorded in Paris, was released in 1988 (check the extract on the YouTube below). The album to hand was recorded at the Zurich International Jazz Festival two years later. It is hard to imagine anyone but the Swiss, bless them, reaching into their pockets to fly close on fifty musicians, their freight and support team out from London for a one-night stand, pay them a decent fee and accomodate them in comfortable hotels, which Westbrook confirms they did do.
The two-and-a-half hour suite, which is among Westbrook's finest, grew out of tours the Westbrooks made in Europe in 1986-87. It was a tumultuous time on the continent. After the upheavals in Western Europe of the 1960s and 1970s, pressure for change was building in the East. Places the pair visited, such as Prague's Wenceslas Square and the Berlin Wall, would soon take on new historical resonances. In October 1989, demonstrations in Wenceslas Square led to democratic elections in Czechoslovakia. On November 9, 1989, the demolition of the Berlin Wall began. A year and a day later, London Bridge Live In Zurich 1990 was recorded.
Mike Westbrook wrote the suite in five parts: "London Bridge," "Wenceslas Square," "Berlin Wall," "Vienna" and "Picardie." The music is monumental, in the best sense, its vibe spanning gentle intimacy on to the cruelty of autocracy and (in "Picardie") the horror of war. It never descends into cheap sentimentality. The standard of musicianship, like that of the material, is of the highest calibre. Among the soloists, saxophonists Chris Biscoe and Alan Wakeman, trombonist Paul Nieman and guitarist Brian Godding are particularly delightful. Kate Westbrook's sung/spoken word vocals are integral to the piece and are featured on eight of the twelve tracks. She recites texts by writers and poets including Goethe and the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served in and survived the trenches in the First World War.
London Bridge Live In Zurich 1990 is spread over two CDs and is a digital reconstruction and remaster of the original stereo recording made by Swiss radio. The package comes with a booklet which includes original language and English translations of the texts Kate Westbrook delivers.
Postscript: Look out for the exquisitely lovely Music Is: Chris Biscoe Plays Mike Westbrook, coming out on Trio Records towards the end of November 2022. Biscoe, who has played with the Westbrooks every year since 1979 (pandemic excepted), has taken seven Westbrook pieces out of their original, mostly big band, settings and arranged them for an A-list quintet completed by bassist Dave Whitford, drummer Jon Scott, guitarist Mike Outram and pianist Kate Williams.
CD1: LONDON BRIDGE: London Bridge Is Broken Down. WENCESLAS SQUARE: Wenceslas Square. BERLIN WALL: Nahe Des Geliebten; Traurig Aber Falsch. CD2: Ein Vogel. VIENNA: Viennese Waltz; Fur Sie; Blighters; Les Morts. PICARDIE: Picardie; Une Fenetre; Aucassin Et Nicolette.
Graham Russell: trumpet, piccolo trumpet; Paul Nieman: trombone, electronics; Pete Whyman: clarinet, alto and soprano saxophones;
Alan Wakeman: tenor and soprano saxophones;
Chris Biscoe: baritone, alto and soprano saxophones, alto clarinet;
Docklands Sinfonietta: strings, woodwinds; Rupert Bond: conductor.
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In addition to writing and editing for All About Jazz, Chris is editor of the British style/culture/history magazine Jocks&Nerds and consultant Afrobeat historian for Google Arts & Culture and Partisan/Knitting Factory Records.