Mike Westbrook: Art Wolf at 75

Duncan Heining BY

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You've got to mean it and you've got to be good because among musicians there's a great equality. There's a huge love of the music and a desire for a world in which it can be a really powerful force for good.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine a jazz composer who began with Duke Ellington and then moved on through Charles Mingus. He soon encompassed rock music, Kurt Weill, Rossini, the traditions of English church music and the pastoralism of Vaughan Williams and Holst, but still found a place in his music for The Beatles, European political cabaret and The Great American Songbook.

And what if his inspirations ranged from painters like Paul Nash, Caspar Wolf and J.M.W. Turner to Lorca, William Blake, Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon and Bertolt Brecht, and his subject matter took in war, life and death, the decline and fall of European culture, the Ballet Russes choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, man's fall from grace, the '69 moon landing, the Greek muses and the irresponsible song of the little Sedge Warbler. Now add that he's performed everywhere from street corners, political demonstrations, factory canteens and geriatric hospital wards to circus tents with acrobats and fire-eaters to West End theatres and some of Europe's finest concert halls.

Doesn't really sound like one guy, does it? Actually, it's two cats but that's two other stories we'll come back to later. But answer me—how does that sound to you? A bit difficult, a bit too much trouble? You need to try harder. Then maybe you're saying to yourself, "That's cool—heavy but cool," and "Who is this guy?" and you don't mind the jazz police coming around taking names. Well, I'm talking about Mike Westbrook and I'm talking about Kate Westbrook, his musical partner of nearly forty years.

It was fifty years ago today that Sergeant Westbrook taught the band to play—not quite, but not far off either. It was down in Plymouth, in glorious Devon in the early sixties that Westy started his first band. Westbrook turned 75 this year and can look back over a career that began in that miraculous era of British music that saw the creation of some of the finest pop, rock, folk, jazz and contemporary music ever. And his music was right at the cutting edge of British jazz.

Perhaps the second line from The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967) could almost apply in Westbrook's case too:

They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile.

Somewhere along the line in the music business, "cutting edge" got confused with the vagaries of fashion. Yet, for Mike and Kate Westbrook, the core of their music has remained constant in its commitment and challenge. It's time to throw ephemera aside and talk about art and, for want of a better word, politics.

In the late fifties, Mike Westbrook was teaching painting in Plymouth. A longtime jazz fan, trumpeter and would-be composer, he put together a sextet that included guitarist Keith Rowe, later a core member of AMM. It was Rowe, in fact, who recruited John Surman. The saxophonist was just sixteen, and had just graduated from clarinet to baritone sax, as he told me in 1998, "It was a bit of a shock really because I was a bit of a mouldy fig at the time and I didn't really know about modern jazz. But frankly, I don't think they did either [laughing]!"

The story goes that Surman turned up at the first rehearsal still wearing his school cap. For Westbrook, the saxophonist's arrival would prove an important opportunity, as he explained, "It really was a great day when John Surman joined the band and I then had four horns. That unleashed a whole range of possibilities and I was able to move from straight-ahead arrangements to writing original material."

Westy moved to London in '62 and was joined a year later by Rowe and Surman in forming an 11-piece band. Out of this emerged the first London-based sextet that played Ronnie Scott's Old Place every Saturday for 18 months, and provided the basis for the Westbrook Concert Band. The band at the time included Keith Rowe, Surman, Henry Lowther on trumpet (soon to be replaced by Dave Holdsworth), Mike Osborne on alto, Lou Gare (another AMM recruit later replaced in 1966 by Dave Chambers, and then George Khan) on tenor, Alan "A.J." Jackson on drums, Lawrence Sheaff on bass, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths and Tom Bennellick on French horn and tuba. Several of these, of course, became important figures in their own right. Forgetting for a moment Surman and Osborne, it's truly hard to imagine British jazz without A.J., Griff and Dave Holdsworth. Indeed, Westbrook's bands over the years have always contained some of the finest of fine talents.

Between 1967-1970, Westbrook cut four albums for the Deram label, Decca's pop-rock-progressive label. By the time Celebration (1967) came out both Keith Rowe and Lou Gare had departed and Harry Miller was in place of Lawrence Sheaf on bass, whilst Bernie Living was on alto and flute. Some critics felt Celebration did not convey the live experience of the Concert Band, yet its air of contained emotion is part of its beauty. Release (1968), on the other hand, benefited from producer Peter Eden's background in pop and rock music. The sound was much improved and one hears a band truly reaching out to its audience. By now trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist George Khan were on board. The whole set, including "Flying Home," "Lover Man" and "The Girl From Ipanema," is again organized as a suite.

Any irony is affectionate, as Westbrook suggested to Mike Hennessey. Noting Duke Ellington as his primary influence, he continued, "I also drew inspiration from blues and boogie as a youngster, from Jimmy Yancey and Louis Armstrong. I still love New Orleans jazz and often listen to it." Indeed, Westbrook is happy to throw in a burlesque contribution or two of his own, most notably with "A Life Of Its Own," while tenorist George Khan rips into "Flying Home." Dave Holdsworth's fluegelhorn on "Rosie" is a thing of beauty and perhaps the record's highpoint.

As for Griffiths, the service he gave to the music of both Westbrook and Surman really has to be acknowledged. The more one listens to these records the more important his contribution seems. He added to an approach derived from J.J. Johnson, the more bizarre sounds of the avant-garde and some that New Orleans-Chicago tailgate trombone. His strengths are even more evident on Westbrook's "pop-soul-jazz" Love Songs (1970), where his elegance and poise match an accuracy of articulation and a strong dramatic sensibility. One must also note the support of Harry Miller and Alan Jackson. Both give so very much to the band's unique sound. The word "gravitas" is no overstatement here.

But the weightiest album from this period has to be Marching Song (1969). When Universal issued the record on CD in the States around 2000, the publicity referred to it as "an anti-Vietnam [sic!] jazz symphony." It was, in fact, about all wars and made its point through frequent references to landscape and the alien nature inflicted by the industrial machinery of war and inflicted upon nature. It recalls two paintings by Paul Nash—"We Are Making a New World" (1918) and "The Menin Road" (1918-19), with their images of the obliteration of all life, human, animal and plant—and one by Richard Nevinson, also from the First World War, called "Column On The March."

Marching Song deserves an essay all of its own. The music, by Westbrook but with a couple of pieces by Surman, has an astonishing breadth that stretches through some of the wildest free playing—George Harmonica Smith's tuba on the penultimate track "Conflict," and trombonist Paul Rutherford's extreme, spluttering solo on "Other World"—to some exquisite Ellingtonian moments such as Osborne's achingly lovely alto on "Ballad" and some beautiful pastoral moments on "Transition" and "Home." Ironically, Decca refused to release its two volumes as a double in 1969, its integrity being finally restored by Universal thirty years later with its CD release.

Marching Song revealed an aspect to Westbrook's work that has been developed further through partner Kate's contributions of lyrics and texts to later recordings. In both the musical and supra-musical content, there is an ongoing discourse between tradition and history on the one hand, and modernity and the present on the other. This juxtaposition is to be found in Mama Chicago (RCA, 1979), Westbrook Blake (Original, 1980), London Bridge Is Broken Down (Venture, 1988), The Cortège (Enja, 1982) and Art Wolf (altrisuoni, 2003). In the first three, the issues raised might be in the broadest sense political. With regard to Art Wolf, however, the questions appear to be aesthetic in nature contrasting past and present artistic values and their relevant social contexts, while the concerns of The Cortège were perhaps more spiritual-philosophical in nature in their focus on life and death.

Westbrook came into jazz as a composer and, from the very outset of his career, form and structure have been central to his art, as he explained in an article in Avant Magazine in 1997:

In my band I had a combination of free improvisers and straight-ahead players, as well as people from the rock world. As a composer, I've always been interested in structuring music in some way. That can mean a formal arrangement or chord sequence or just a concept or even a poem. There were a lot of people around—still are thankfully—like Kenny Wheeler and Paul Rutherford who enjoyed playing in a range of settings. The ideal world is one where all these things can come together.

Though seen by some as the enfant terrible of British jazz at that time—at the Melody Maker Poll winners' Concert at the Royal Festival Hall in May 1969, a provocative Concert Band set closed the night, summoning as many catcalls and jeers as applause and cheers—atonality or abstraction were never goals but compositional tools and just one aspect of a performance ethic. For all the excitement of wild, freely improvised passages, Westbrook revels in the romantic and beautiful. And why, indeed, would any composer wish to limit himself to any narrow frame of emotion or texture? It is no accident that Westbrook later became involved in musical theatre—drama and dramatic intent have always informed his approach.

Love Songs marked the end of Westbrook's association with Decca and Peter Eden. The real successor to Marching Song was, however, Metropolis, which came out on RCA in 1971. This could be the hidden gem in Westbrook's career. Melody Maker critic Richard Williams described it as "more unified than Release" and "more compact than Marching Song," noting Westbrook's successful deployment of certain rock techniques. In fact, it was a very large ensemble using five trumpets, five trombones and five saxophones with a rhythm section of piano and electric piano (John Taylor), guitar (Gary Boyle), two drummers (Alan Jackson and John Marshall), the great Norma Winstone on vocals and two bassists (Harry Miller and Chris Laurence). It deserves to be heard, not for the sheer range of styles the composer explores, but for the bravura manner in which they are used.

Williams was spot on in his reference to "rock techniques," and the comparisons, here, would need to be George Russell, Mike Gibbs and Don Ellis. Much of the music is, in fact, quite funky with an almost danceable pulse, though Westbrook also uses a series of effective collective improvisations to link different sections. The standard of soloing is, if anything, higher than on either Celebration or Release, and just as strong as on Marching Song. Surman was now out of the picture and, if his own unique voice was still missed, the performances of Gary Boyle, Alan Skidmore, Kenny Wheeler, Malcolm Griffiths, Henry Lowther and, in the wonderfully compelling final statement, Harry Beckett, are compensation aplenty. Metropolis is a very special achievement.

Citadel/Room 315 (RCA, 1975)—another major achievement—would prove the last concerto grosso from Westbrook for some years and actually came about in the middle of a period when his career was pulling him in a number of unusual directions—for your average jazz composer, that is. In 1971, through poet Adrian Mitchell—incidentally and unarguably Britain's greatest post-war poet—Westbrook was asked to write the music for a National Theatre commission. Mitchell's play, Tyger, was a celebration of the work and life of Romantic poet and painter William Blake and had a major impact on Westy's future writing. It also began to draw him into musical theatre and a form of jazz cabaret or jazz entertainment that he and partner Kate would develop as just one mode of expression for their art.

The seventies were singularly important for Westbrook, indeed more so than the sixties. It is a personal opinion, not necessarily shared by Mike himself, that the sheer diversity of his activity in this period confused both part of his audience and some critics and promoters in the UK. Within a short space of time, Westbrook became involved with John Fox in the theatre troupe Welfare State, firstly through a strange multimedia work performed at the Mermaid Theatre called Earthrise, inspired by the moon landings and then through a joint venture, Cosmic Circus, involving actors and circus performers. By then, Westy had also formed the jazz-rock group Solid Gold Cadillac, which was an integral part of Cosmic Circus.

It is impossible to describe Welfare State adequately. It was theatre, street theatre, agit-prop, ritual, circus, a kind of 18th century Mummers Play meets 15th century Morality Play—shamanistic, cathartic and simultaneously disturbing and revelatory. Westbrook acted as the company's musical director for a couple years and also met his multitalented artist wife Kate, who worked for Welfare State. Kate would become an integral part of his music, as a singer, librettist, lyricist and musician—she plays both piccolo and tenor horn. These were incredible times, when anything seemed possible, and when popular culture and popular entertainment were perhaps less manufactured than today, as Mike recalled:

They [Welfare State] would set up happenings, theatre events in particular locations. It was alternative theatre and owed nothing to conventional theatre. It was more like a circus. We would travel in caravans that we also lived in. I was drawn in to create music for these shows. Sometimes this involved working with people who had hardly any skill on the instruments but you had to use whatever was available. We did fascinating open air shows in unusual facilities like deserted quarries in the middle of the Yorkshire moors or something like that. [Vocalist] Phil Minton got drawn into that and Kate, who was working independently with Welfare State.

That was how we met. It became more formalized when we formed Cosmic Circus. Then we actually performed in a circus tent with circus artists alongside fringe theatre performers—acrobats, magicians, fire-eaters and the incredibly exciting Solid Gold Cadillac band. It was a very lively time and a challenge to conventional theatre and conventional jazz. We did this show at the Tower Of London, featuring the "Apocalyptic High-Dive Into The Pit Of Molten Fire." How on earth John Fox managed to get permission to do this in the holy of holies, the Tower of London, I will never know. It was really subversive. We were opening things up, challenging things. It was political in every way.

But the Brass Band was arguably Westbrook's most important and lasting innovation. Many countries have their own brass band traditions and Britain is no exception. There, the history of these bands is often linked to working class communities, for example many collieries or mills had their own band. Mike's decision to form such a mobile unit was not just a matter of economy of scale, as he told me in 2006:

After doing Metropolis, probably the next thing I would have been doing was playing a valve trombone, busking on the streets with Phil Minton and [saxophonist] Lol Coxhill. Different things are appropriate at different times and that seemed a very good thing to be doing at that time. It was a political thing and musically very exciting.

And more recently, during the summer of 2011:

There was Phil, Paul Rutherford, Lol Coxhill in the early days. Then Kate joined in and [saxophonist] Dave Chambers replaced Lol and we had a five-piece band of people, all very different, with very different interests, but who came together with this philosophy of taking music away from the elitist world of a lot of jazz and a lot of art culture and out into the community but, at the same time, not making concessions. Just playing whatever one wanted to play, wherever anybody asked you to play. That was the basic thing. It seemed very simple, you know. So, a whole new adventure opened up and we stopped working so regularly with theatre groups and just did our own show.

We used to wear little uniforms and go and play anywhere. In a way, it was revolutionary to be doing that. For years we didn't do gigs in jazz clubs. It was in village halls, in the open air and in all kinds of marvelous situations. It was with the Brass Band that we began touring regularly in Europe.

The nucleus of this group, in one form or another, has formed the basis of much—though not all—of Mike and Kate's work ever since. As well as the albums Plays For The Record (1976) and Goose Sauce (Transatlantic, 1976), the Brass Band has to be credited with Mama Chicago (1978), the Westbrook Blake—Bright As Fire (Impetus, 1980) and the Westbrook-Rossini (hatOLOGY, 1988). More than that, it was the coming together of the Brass Band with the leftist, avant-rock group Henry Cow and folksinger Frankie Armstrong that led first to the formation of the Orckestra and, subsequently, the Mike Westbrook Orchestra and the recording of The Cortège (1980), On Duke's Birthday (hatOLOGy, 1985) and London Bridge Is Broken Down (Venture, 1988).

There is, however, a hint of uncertainty in Westbrook's view of Solid Gold Cadillac, as he says:

It was never really an attempt to be a bona fide pop group [laughs]! There was a lot of irony in Phil Minton singing pop songs with improvising musicians. It was that sort of period. The records maybe don't reflect the music terribly well but if you'd seen those Cosmic Circus gigs with fire-eaters, clowns and trapeze artists and all sorts of wild behavior, you'd have seen quite a show.

It didn't really get anywhere. We were not really serious enough doing the rock thing. It was something that we were partly interested in but the main thing was theatre really. So, I don't think it was that convincing as a rock band that you could promote heavily [laughs], though RCA did try.

The records do have something, however, and perhaps more importantly they allowed Westy to develop and integrate rock elements within his music. He had already shown how successfully he could do so with both Metropolis and Citadel, but the Westbrook Band's Beatles' tribute, Off Abbey Road (Enja, 1989), reveals how much of this he has retained. In fact, Brian Godding (ex-Blossom Toes) played with Solid Gold Cadillac and has continued to play with the Westbrook's in a number of settings. Just listen to his guitar work on "Erme Estuary" and "July '79" from The Cortège, if proof were needed.

One of Westbrook's great skills lies in an ability to integrate diverse elements into a natural, organic whole. The process that he describes in discussing the late sixties and early seventies continues to be the case today:

We were all finding our wings, so to speak. From a composing point of view , having had all the resources of a big band and then the rock group, then just to be reduced two horns or one horn and a voice or whatever was a wonderful education really. Because you had to get a good sound with whatever you had available.

The connection between the Westbrooks and Henry Cow might not sound like a marriage made in heaven, as Mike acknowledges:

Musically, we were completely different but there was a lot of mutual respect and we just decided to do something together and form ourselves into The Orckestra, which had a brief but rather glorious period of activity and did some major gigs in various places, where we each played our own thing and quite a lot of material together— always rather under-rehearsed.

Westbrook retained cellist Georgie Born and multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Cooper, from Henry Cow, for the incarnation of the Westbrook Orchestra that recorded The Cortège. Reissued by Enja in 2011, this is certainly one of the high spots of Westy's career as a composer, with its bravura settings of poems from Blake, Lorca, Rimbaud and "ploughboy poet" John Clare. But the canvas of London Bridge is even broader, and grew from, as Westbrook puts it, "a rather unique period with the trio with Kate, Chris and I, when we were crisscrossing from Vienna to Berlin to Athens to wherever, and just got this kind of snapshot of Europe in all its suffering, its history, its culture."

This sense of jazz existing within a broader social and political context is clear to Westbrook, as he says, with a certain wry humor,

Over the years I've had a band and been travelling around, we're like a sort of Everyman troupe. Somehow we carry on like Mother Courage and her wagon. Whatever battle's going on, we're there and we're affected by what's happening, surviving somehow on the fringes, going through all these different political changes.

From the night of François Mitterand's election in France—where Westbrook's band came out of a concert hall in La Rochelle to play alongside other French bands in the Town Square—to factories in Eastern Europe and left wing festivals in Italy with the Brass Band and Henry Cow, his vision encompasses and reflects all these experiences:

The Left in France and Italy has always allied themselves with progressive ideas in the Arts. The Brass Band used to tour with Henry Cow, playing these enormous popular events promoted by Communist councils. Here, we never had that alliance between the Left and progressive artists.

The political dimension of Mike and Kate's work is important but it is equally necessary to point out there is nothing propagandist about it. Values, aesthetical and ethical, are an organic part of the creative process, just as Mike's compositions for large and small ensembles arise from the same musical imagination. The Westbrooks are driven by love and joy—of jazz, of art of literature, of theater, of life—not by ideology. And it is this that unifies works as diverse as Marching Song, Mama Chicago and Art Wolf. That and a desire to communicate or maybe even commune with their audience, as Mike explains:

For over thirty years we've always been concerned with communication as part of the Art. I think we've been proved right. The music follows it's own course and it's not geared to commercial success. Some of the stuff is difficult—for us and everybody else as well. But within that one can do something in terms of presentation or context for the work.

Sometimes, Mike and Kate use visual means of getting information across to the audience. Art Wolf, a recent project based on the paintings of Caspar Wolf, uses just four musicians—Mike, Kate and saxophonists Pete Whyman and Chris Biscoe—with back projection of Wolf's canvases adding a whole new dimension to the performance. Playing abroad Kate makes a point of singing songs in translation. At other times, the group might perform with dancers or, as in their theater piece Platterback, as actor/musicians in costume. Westbrook uses the word "appropriate" a lot, meaning that sense of what is right and what works for the occasion, whether it's something musical or some visual adjunct.

Art Wolf, from left: Mike Westbrook, Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman, Kate Westbrook

Westy offers a lovely image of the travelling musician, when he says, "We're like the canaries they send into mines to see what the atmosphere's like [laughs]. We flutter around just trying to do our gig but, in the course of that, we experience all these different things and our music has been very much affected by them." From London Bridge, and its picture of Europe through its cycles of war and renewal, to Chanson Irresponsable (Enja, 2002) and its championing of the beauty of nature and the environment, from the portraits of troubled artists like Caspar Wolf in Art Wolf or D.H. Lawrence in The Ass (Voiceprint, 1985), Mike and Kate present a music that is so much more than notes to be played. The texts, poems, voices and images aid the music in telling a much broader tale of humanity—sometimes suffering but more often transcendent—and they do so without cynicism or dejection.

There has been and continues to be so much music. Westy recently formed a new big band in the South-West, where they live. As well as musicians they have played with in recent Brass Band incarnation The Village Band, Lou Gare is once again playing tenor and Dave Holdsworth is once more there on trumpet. Such musical relationships persist over decades like those with Chris Biscoe, who plays with the couple in the Westbrook Trio (it celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012), or with saxophonist and accordionist Karen Street, who plays in the current Blake band and who made the remarkable Nijinska Chamber (Voiceprint) with Kate in 2006. Imagine that—a jazz album with just voice and accordion. But then in Karen's hands the accordion is orchestra enough.

There's no retirement beckoning, no pension plans in jazz. And there will be no letup. Two new works surfaced in 2011, The Serpent Hit, which takes a wonderfully wry look at "man's fall from grace" and all that has followed. Featuring voice, saxophones and drums, it utilizes both improvisation and virtuoso ensemble playing, while Kate's lyrics are upfront, and confrontational, dealing as they do with political, cultural and religious themes. Or as Mike describes it, "like someone declaiming on a street corner accompanied by a bebop marching band.'" English Soup is still harder to define but, like its subject, results in a confection so much greater than its apparent ingredients. A DVD is promised in 2012.

For Mike and Kate music and jazz is a fulltime thing. Something he said to me a few years ago applies now as much as it ever did:

The best people in the world are the ones we meet—both the lovers of jazz and the players. It's a world where there's quite a lot of idealism and honesty. You've got to mean it and you've got to be good because among musicians there's a great equality. It's not stars and groundlings. We're all in it together. And there's a huge love of the music and a desire for a world in which it can be a really powerful force for good. People are committed to the music and that still goes on generation after generation, thank God.

Selected Discography
Mike Westbrook, The Westbrook Blake—Bright As Fire (Impetus, 1980)
Mike Westbrook Kate Westbrook, Art Wolf (altrisuoni, 2003)
The New Mike Westbrook Orchestra, Chanson Irresponsable (Enja, 2003)
Mike Westbrook Band, Off Abbey Road (Enja, 1990)
Mike Westbrook / Kate Westbrook, London Bridge Is Broken Down (BGO, 1988)
Westbrook-Rossini Westbrook-Rossini (hatOLOGY, 1986)
Mike Westbrook Orchestra, The Cortège (Enja, 1982)
Mike Westbrook The Westbrook Blake —Bright As Fire (Impetus, 1980)
Mike Westbrook Mama Chicago (Jazzprint, 1979)
Mike Westbrook, Metropolis (BGO, 1971)
Mike Westbrook Concert Band, Marching Song Volumes 1 & 2 (Righteous Psalm, 1969)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Kate Mount

Page 6: Frank Eichler
Pages 2, 3: Joss Reiver Ban

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