Although any performance of the Westbrook Blake — as Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s words have been known for more than 40 years — is a powerful event, the emotional impact of last night’s concert by Mike and Kate Westbrook and their musicians at St James’s Church, Piccadilly was intensified by the knowledge that this Christopher Wren church, consecrated in 1684, was the place where the English poet, painter and visionary was baptised in 1757, soon after his birth in Soho.
Titled Visions and Voices: Echoes of William Blake, the evening began with Kate Westbrook delivering “London”, one of the most harrowing poems in the English language, before Phil Minton took over for “Let the Slave”, the next in the sequence of poems linked and illuminated by instrumental solos. Billy Thompson’s fiddle summoned angels and demons, Chris Biscoe’s alto saxophone spoke to the human capacity for joy, Mike Westbrook and a guest, Matthew Bourne, delivered absorbing piano solos, Steve Berry’s bass was lifted out of a solemn reverie by artful background figures, and most of all the accordion of the remarkable Karen Street transfixed the audience with a long unaccompanied improvisation that soared and dived and spun as if a flock of birds of many shapes and sizes but linked by an avian telepathy had found their way into the church. It was, I think, the most astonishing single piece of playing I’ve heard this year.
You might have seen the Westbrook Blake a few times over the years, and be familiar with the recordings, but its grip never slackens. In fact as the country collapses, hollowed out by a greed that Blake identified two centuries ago, it grows more strikingly relevant. As usual, Mike Westbrook recited passages as urgent and resonant in today’s seemingly very different circumstances as they were when first written:
Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts...
A few years years after creating his Blake settings, Mike Westbrook composed an extended work for band and orchestra titled London Bridge Is Broken Down, commissioned by and first performed at a festival in Amiens in 1987. Inspired by travels around Europe and meditations on its history at a time when an old order was falling apart, it is divided into sections titled London Bridge, Wenceslas Square, Berlin Wall, Vienna and Picardie. A much admired studio version came out on Virgin the following year. Now there’s the release of the recording of a performance in Zürich in 1990, with Westbrook’s 11-piece unit and the 35-piece Docklands Sinfonietta. Even if you already have the original release, I recommend hearing this one, too, for the exceptional spirit with which the work is played and sung (by Kate Westbrook, using texts from Goethe, Siegfried Sassoon and others).
All Westbrook’s virtues and trademarks are allowed to flower in this 80-minute performance, which stands tall among his catalogue of extended works. The 23-minute sub-section of Vienna titled “Für Sie”, with solos by Alan Wakeman on soprano saxophone, Paul Nieman on trombone, Chris Biscoe on baritone and Pete Whyman on alto, is a slowly unfolding kaleidoscope of exquisite shapes, sounds, trajectories and textures.
* Mike Westbrook’s London Bridge: Live in Zürich 1990 is released on Westbrook Records (www.westbrookjazz.com)