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Mike Westbrook: Paris

Duncan Heining By

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Listen to any number of Mike Westbrook records and you might want to ask, "Why doesn't he take a solo?" Aside from the occasional piano cadenza, Westbrook seems to prefer to let his compositions do the talking, ably aided by trustworthy musical confederates.

Westbrook celebrated his 80th birthday in March 2016 and Paris is a perfect way of acknowledging that noble event. Produced and recorded live by Jon Hiseman, the album is a feast for the ears. Hiseman has succeeded in capturing both the immediacy and intimacy of live performance so exceptionally, that it is as if one were present in the room. It has been forty years since Piano, Westbrook's only other solo outing, and Paris is even better than its fine predecessor. Imagine as you listen wandering into an empty hotel bar. At the grand piano, a man plays, almost oblivious that someone else might be present. The music is that personal in its selection and execution.

Both Duke Ellington—"Sophisticated Lady" and "Solitude"—and Billy Strayhorn—"A Flower is a Lovesome Thing"—make their entrances and exits, while Westbrook delves deep into his own back catalogue. The pianist's affection for Ellington is well-known but to my ears there is also an affinity born of respect and study. The two Ellington pieces bracket Westbrook's own "Gaudy Bar," which succeeds in its 2½ minutes in referencing both the great man's lyricism and romanticism and his debt to the blues. "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," on the other hand, is rich in those French Impressionistic musical colours that its composer loved.

At the record's centre lies the long "View from the Drawbridge," taken from Westbrook's Citadel/Room 315 suite from 1975. It is fed by the limpid "Nahe des Geliebten" from London Bridge is Broken Down. More than four decades later, "View from the Drawbridge," is refashioned as a series of themes and variations that demonstrate a master at work.

Some listeners may be surprised at Westbrook's inclusion here of Lennon & McCartney's "Because" and, strangest of all, "She Loves You" but will then recall the man's marvellous Off Abbey Road tribute. "Because" becomes a beautiful ballad but "She Loves You" is barely recognisable, as the Westbrook turns this trifle into a triumphant king of puddings. The presence of Bell and Creed's "You Make Me Feel Brand New" goes beyond surprise but it works beautifully and after "Drawbridge," is the album's second highlight.

The music unfolds with such grace and elegance that the listener becomes one with its natural flow. Mention must be made of "My Lover's Coat," "D.T.T.M." and "Blues for Terenzi." Each one references late friends of Mike and Kate Westbrook, the first a friend and supporter and the second both Italian trombonist Danilo Terenzi and British drummer Tony Marsh. The third is again for Terenzi, who contributed so beautifully to Westbrook's On Duke's Birthday. "Blues for Terenzi" is given here a very different but equally affecting reading to that of its other recording (by the Steve Martland Band on the composer's The Orchestra of Smith's Academy). It illustrates one of the many joys of this record—works of grander scale work just as well as exquisite miniatures.

At eighty years old, Westbrook's creative juices run as strongly as ever. You will need to look far indeed to find a more lovely jazz record this year.

Track Listing: Front Page: Freedom’s Crown; Propositions; Because; The Triumphant Entry; A Flower is a Lovesome Thing. Bar-Room Piano: Sophisticated Lady; Gaudy Bar; Solitude. Love Stories: Nahe des Geliebten; View from the Drawbridge; Tender Love; You Make Me Feel Brand New; A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; The Sound of Caress; She Loves You. The Blues: My Lover’s Coat; D.T.T.M.; Good Old Wagon; Blues for Terenzi. If Thou Must Love Me.

Personnel: Mike Westbrook piano

Title: Paris | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: ASC Records

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