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.
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