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Mike Westbrook Orchestra: The Cortege

Chris May By

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At its richest, pianist/composer Mike Westbrook's work is to jazz what grand opera, in the classical world, is to chamber music. The Cortege is Westbrook at his richest, leading a 17-piece orchestra through an ambitious and brilliantly realized suite, loosely themed around the idea of a funeral procession and its after-party. Thirty years after its first release on Original Records, The Cortege remains one of finest achievements of British orchestral jazz, and has been reissued as a two-CD set to celebrate Westbrook's 75th birthday, in 2011.

Like grand opera, The Cortege is big but full of detail. Ten of its 14 tracks include short, theatrically-delivered vocal passages from either Kate Westbrook or Phil Minton. The lyrics are verses by European poets—Arthur Rimbaud, Hermann Hesse, Garcia Lorca and Giusepppe Gioachino Belli—printed in the 28-page liner booklet in both their original versions and English translations. Both singers are also featured instrumentalists—Westbrook on tenor horn, piccolo and flute, Minton on trumpet—and, between them, the full company of musicians is heard on some two dozen instruments.

The music is extraordinarily transporting; at times, epic enough to get lost in, at others, diverting in its ornamentation, and packed with Westbrook's trademark, one-of-a-kind instrumental voicings. At one end of its spectrum is the turbulent grandeur of "Democratie," which addresses the processional strand of the suite—although the visions it conjures, stoked by Kate Westbrook's spine-chilling vocal, are anarchic rather than regal. The lyric is taken from Rimbaud's eponymous poem and, as Mike Westbrook has observed, suggests "a grotesque hymn to patriotism, militarism and philistinism." At the other extreme is a piece such as "Erme Estuary," fluid and velvety, an elegy to the composer's father, who died in 1981. "Democratie" includes a bassoon solo from Lindsay Cooper, "Erme Estuary" solos from clarinetist Phil Todd, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths, tenor saxophonist Chris Hunter and guitarist Brian Godding. Between solos and sung passages, on these and the other tracks, Westbrook's orchestral arrangements summon up colorful and event-laden images.

There is a cerebral quotient to Westbrook's work which has, perhaps, deterred some potential listeners. The Cortege, as he explains in his liner essay, plays with threes—rhythmically, melodically, harmonically and structurally (the 1982 release was, coincidentally yet fittingly, over three vinyl LPs). But while to penetrate the thinking behind the work adds to the enjoyment, it is not a requirement: the music coming out of the speakers speaks so vividly that it is enough by itself.

Track Listing: CD1: It Starts Here; Democratie; Berlin; Erme Estuary; Knivshult/Ash Wednesday; Ruote Che Girano; Piano; Lenador; July '79. CD2: Enfance; Cordoba; Santarcangelo; Kyrie.

Personnel: Mike Westbrook: piano, tuba; Kate Westbrook: tenor horn, piccolo, bamboo flute, voice; Phil Minton: trumpet, voice; Dave Plews: trumpet, flugelhorn; Guy Barker: trumpet, flugelhorn; Dick Pearce: trumpet, flugelhorn; Malcolm Griffiths: trombone, bass trombone; Alan Sinclair: tuba; Dave Powell: tuba; Chris Hunter: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; Phil Todd: tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, alto flute; Chris Biscoe: baritone saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto clarinet, flute; Lindsay Cooper: bassoon, oboe, sopranino saxophone; Brian Godding: guitar; Georgie Born: cello; Steve Cook: bass; Dave Berry: drums, percussion.

Title: The Cortege | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Enja Records

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