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Mike Westbrook Concert Band: Marching Song Volumes 1 & 2 Plus Bonus Tracks

Roger Farbey By

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It's hardly surprising that Mike Westbrook reigned supreme in the latter quarter of the 1960s and early 70s. His big band was voted top of that category in the late-lamented Melody Maker British jazz polls for 1970 (and the two years either side of that). In the same year, his third album, Marching Song, recorded a year earlier came third in the category "LP Of The Year" (the number one album that year was John McLaughlin's seminal Extrapolation so there was exceptionally strong competition).

This album, recorded and released in 1969 on Decca's Deram label, was a double LP (also sold as two separate records), and therefore quite unusual for the time, especially for jazz. It comprised a suite of compositions by Westbrook, with three tracks on Volume 2 written by John Surman, and based on the concept of the vainglorious futility of war. Volume 1's "Hooray!" begins with roaring crowd noise, years before sampling was even heard of, and not dissimilar to the opening of Weather Report's "Nubian Sundance" on Mysterious Traveller. Then come the drums, beating in unison courtesy of John Marshall and Alan Jackson. "Landscape" begins with Westbrook alone on piano but a highlight of this longish piece is the arco bass duet featuring Barre Phillips and Harry Miller sounding surprisingly like a string quartet to the unaware. "Waltz (for Joanna)" is a gorgeous piece of writing embellished by a peerless soaring soprano solo by Surman. Following a sombre short ensemble link track, "Landscape II," Paul Rutherford produces an appropriately free trombone solo on "Other World." Volume 1's concluding title track is again a stirring theme prefaced by synchronized military-style twin drum kits and coruscating solos from Nisar Ahmad Khan (aka George Khan) and Alan Skidmore, rejoined by a typically spectacular ensemble section.

Volume 2 opens with "Transition" an ensemble piece with more sombre arco bass and horns. Malcolm Griffiths trombone heralds the super-catchy melody to "Home" segueing from the previous track. Griffiths continues to solo here over the rip-roaring ensemble marking another high point of the album. Miller and Chris Laurence perform a pizzicato bass duet in the outgoing section of the number. Following "Rosie" in which Dave Holdsworth solos on trumpet, Surman's elegantly pastoral "Prelude" is a veritable quiet before the storm of the tempestuous "Tension," again written by Surman, and a tune which once heard is not easily forgotten. There's also a thrilling saxophone duet here (or maybe duel) between Surman on baritone and Skidmore on tenor followed by rumbustious soloing on trombone by Malcolm Griffiths.

The collective improvisation of "Introduction" gives way to the short "Ballad" on which Mike Osborne solos on alto. But the next surprise is the cacophonous mayhem that ensues on the appropriately titled "Conflict" reflecting the confusion and noise of battle. The short linking track "Requiem" utilises the ensemble and is followed by Surman here on soprano and Osborne again on alto soloing on the plaintive "Tarnished." The suite concludes with "Memorial," on which Alan Jackson gives a powerful drum solo whilst the horns roar and another hymn-like marching song emerges.

The third CD in the box set comprises five tracks, of which three, "Marching Song" with the Mike Westbrook Sextet, "When Young" and "But It Must Get Better, And It Will Get Better" with the Mike Westbrook Quartet are all previously unissued. The 9 minute sextet version of "Marching Song," recorded in 1966, is surprisingly powerful considering the paucity of players compared to the big band version. Surman's baritone soloing is typically strident.

The near-17 minute "When Young" (1970) begins languidly but builds inexorably, the quartet sounding bigger and bolder than might be expected. Osborne's powerful alto tears-up everything, the piece progressing through various rhythmic incarnations and at the half way point the group is really swinging, the altoist so much in his element that he even quotes the famous Woody Woodpecker theme tune. Also notable is Harry Miller's resonant double bass on which he solos at around the 11 minute mark, following which a new vamp is introduced with a permeating piano chord line, drawing the piece to a close.

On "But It Must Get Better, And It Will Get Better" (1970), Westbrook initially solos over an obligato phrase played by Osborne on alto, which gradually fades out allowing the saxophonist to offer a poignant, fluid solo. Then follows an embryonic version of the theme to "Morning Song" later found on Westbrook's eponymously titled Solid Gold Cadillac (released in 1972). The concluding two tracks on this CD, which has been labelled for this release When Young, are "Original Peter" and "Magic Garden" recorded with Mike Westbrook's Concert Band, a ten piece plus the dulcet vocals of Norma Winstone. "Original Peter" appeared as the final track on Mike Westbrook's Love Songs on which this line-up played, and also as a single, together with its much rarer "B" side "Magic Garden" included here too.

This very welcome CD reissue is a fine example of just how exceptionally innovative British jazz was back in the day. The inclusion of the third bonus CD, coupled with a 24 page booklet including extensive new sleeve notes by Duncan Heining and additional ones by Westbrook himself, make this an absolutely essential purchase for fans of British jazz or contemporary big band (or both). It is in all probability, and without fear of hyperbole, the British jazz reissue of 2017. Westbrook, along with his peers Michael Gibbs, Ian Carr, Keith Tippett, Stan Tracey, Neil Ardley and John Surman (to name just a few) produced some of the most original music to be heard in the final years of the 20th Century. But it is Westbrook, still playing with his big and small bands at age 81, who surely remains the all-time quintessential British jazz composer and band leader.

Track Listing: CD 1: Hooray!; Landscape; Waltz (for Joanna); Landscape (II); Other World; Marching Song. CD 2: Transition; Home; Rosie; Prelude; Tension; Introduction; Ballad; Conflict; Requiem; Tarnished; Memorial. CD 3: Marching Song; When Young; But It Must Get Better, And It Will Get Better; Original Peter; Magic Garden.

Personnel: CD 1-2: Mike Westbrook: piano; Dave Holdsworth, Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn, trumpet; Greg Bowen, Tony Fisher, Ronnie Hughes, Henry Lowther: trumpet; Mike Gibbs, Malcolm Griffiths, Paul Rutherford, Eddie Harvey: trombone; Tom Bennellick: French horn; Martin Fry, George Smith: tuba; John Surman: baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone; Mike Osborne, Bernie Living: alto saxophone, clarinet; Alan Skidmore: tenor saxophone, flute; Brian Smith, Nisar Ahmad Khan: tenor saxophone; John Warren: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, flute; Harry Miller, Chris Laurence, Barre Phillips: bass; John Marshall, Alan Jackson: drums. CD 3: (1) Mike Westbrook: piano; John Surman, Mike Osborne: saxophones; Malcolm Griffiths: trombone; Harry Miller: bass; Alan Jackson: drums. (2-3) Mike Westbrook: piano; Mike Osborne: saxophones; Harry Miller: bass; Alan Jackson: drums. (4-5) Mike Westbrook: piano; Dave Holdsworth: trumpet, flugelhorn; Malcolm Griffiths, Paul Rutherford: trombone; Mike Osborne: alto saxophone; George Khan (Nisar Ahmad Khan): tenor saxophone; John Warren: baritone saxophone; Chris Spedding: electric guitar; Harry Miller, bass, bass guitar; Alan Jackson: drums; Norma Winstone: vocals.

Title: Marching Song Volumes 1 & 2 Plus Bonus Tracks | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Turtle Records

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