Mike Westbrook’s ‘Citadel / Room 315’
One day in 1974 Mike Westbrook came into the Island offices in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, to play me a tape of a concert he’d given in Södertälje with the 16-piece Swedish Radio Jazz Group. He’d been commissioned to write an extended work for the ensemble, with John Surman as a featured soloist. He called the piece Citadel / Room 315.
I was keen, and we started to make plans. Then something got in the way, and it didn’t happen. So instead of releasing the live version, several months later Mike went into the studios with a band of UK-based musicians including Kenny Wheeler and Henry Lowther on trumpets and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone, as well as Surman, to record a version that was released the following year by RCA, who’d put up the money.
That recording is now rare, which makes it even better news that the Swedish concert is now being released for the first time, with Westbrook’s blessing, under the title Love and Understanding, borrowing the name of one of the suite’s 11 sections. Hearing it for the first time in 46 years, I was delighted to find it every bit as exceptional as I’d thought back then.
In a manner typical of Westbrook, it ranges through a variety of approaches and moods, from the meditative to the wildly exultant, engaging the emotions all the way. The long “Love and Understanding” might be described as an essay on boogaloo moods, evolving from a slinky funk to a streetwise strut, taking in the “Oh Happy Day” riff and brassy TV detective-series brass fanfares en route. “Pastorale” begins in the way its title suggests before mutating into solos over the “Grazing in the Grass” motif, played by Westbrook on electric piano — another kind of pastorality, I guess. From the gentler passages, Surman’s soprano on “Tender Love” is particularly exquisite.
What also distinguishes the recording is the quality of the Swedish musicians. The solos from Jan Allan and Bertil Lövgren (trumpets), Arne Domnérus (alto and clarinet), Lennart Åberg (soprano and tenor), Lars Olofsson (trombone), Rune Gustafsson (guitar), Bengt Hallberg (piano) and Georg Riedel (bass) is exceptional, as is the drumming of Egil Johansen. They don’t go in for the sort of free-for-all shout-ups to which Westbrook’s British bands were prone, but I can’t imagine anything more invigorating than Åberg’s soprano wailing over the last section of “Love and Understanding”, immediately followed by Allan’s beautifully control of diminuendo as the section ends, or Lövgren’s gloriously lyrical delivery throughout “Pastorale”. The acapella trio for Domnérus’s clarinet and the bass clarinets of Surman and Erik Nilsson that opens the long “Sleepwalker Awaking in Sunlight” is a complete joy, as is Gustaffson’s liquid bebop guitar solo which follows it.
This makes it even more extraordinary that the reason for the cancellation of the proposed Island release was that a couple of the Swedish musicians were unhappy with their solos, didn’t want them preserved for posterity, and wouldn’t sign clearance forms. Listen, and try to guess who they might have been. It’s impossible.
In all, then, this is definitely one to add to the list of the great recordings of Westbrook’s important extended works of the past half-century, from Celebration through Marching Song and Metropolis to On Duke’s Birthday and The Cortège and many more. And in this case, to say the least, better late than never.
* Love and Understanding is released as a vinyl double album and a single CD the My Only Desire label (myonlydesirerecords.com). The photograph of Mike Westbrook is from the sleeve of the RCA version of Citadel and was taken by Eric Blum.