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Posts tagged ‘Mike Westbrook’

Lou Gare: a souvenir

Lou Gare album

There was a special magic about Lou Gare’s saxophone playing, as many people rediscovered when going back to his slender discography on hearing of his death towards the end of last year, at the age of 78. Now Mike Westbrook, in whose bands Gare played in the 1960s and again in recent years, has done us an enormous favour by assembling and releasing a CD containing nine examples of his mature playing in latter-day concert and club performances with the Uncommon Orchestra.

I don’t know what effect his years as a free-improvisation pioneer with AMM had on Gare’s approach to music, but these performances show that he could infuse what you might call a fundamentally mainstream-modern approach with freshness and substance. In his conception, an almost old-fashioned warmth was no barrier to modernity.

In Memory of Lou Gare, as the compilation is titled, begins with the 12-minute version of Westbrook’s “D.T.T.M.”, an adaptation of a section of the suite On Duke’s Birthday, that I mentioned in a post written for this blog soon after his death. It’s a compellin extended meditation on the blues, including a marvellous unaccompanied section, and the inclusion of an earlier version gives us the chance to appreciate Gare’s reluctance to repeat himself.

There are shout-ups, like the stomping arrangement of Chris McGregor’s “Manje” which Westbrook created for the Dedication Orchestra, and moments of exquisite invention, like Gare’s spellbindingly allusive treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, almost entirely unaccompanied and bearing, as Westbrook remarks, traces of the influence of Paul Gonsalves. The extract from Westbrook’s extended rearrangement of “Johnny Come Lately”, another slice of Strayhorn, features a Mingus-like bass introduction from Marcus Vergette leading to a beautifully “down” groove over which Gare wails before the rest of the saxophone section join him for an exuberant collective improvisation.

“These are not studio performances,” Westbrook writes in his sleeve note. “There are rough edges and the sound balance is not always ideal. Yet, captured in the real world, in the heat of the moment, ad hoc recordings like this… perhaps offer an insight into Lou’s instant creativity… that a more controlled studio session might never achieve.” Exactly so.

* Mike Westbrook: In Memory of Lou Gare is on the Westbrook Records label: http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk.

The uncommon tenor

Lou GareLou Gare held his tenor saxophone aslant, like Lester Young, whose light-fingered articulation and disdain for the obvious he shared. Gare was born in Rugby but it was in Plymouth in the early 1960s that he first played with the band of the young Mike Westbrook, alongside the even younger John Surman. In London in 1965 he became a founder member, with Eddie Prévost, Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, of AMM, one of the seminal groups of the first generation of British free improvisers. Lou was on their debut album, AMMMusic, recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and released by Elektra Records in 1966. Six years later, with the group reduced to a Gare-Prévost duo, they performed at Harvey Matusow’s International Carnival of Experimental Sound event in London, their set released initially in part on an Incus EP as AMM at the Roundhouse and then in full on a Matchless CD under the same title.

In the 1970s Gare moved to Devon, where he worked as a teacher of Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art. There he played with the pianist Sam Richards in the band Synchronicity; he was also reunited with Westbrook, joining the latter’s locally based Uncommon Orchestra. This piece of film is from their performance at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter in December 2014. Gare is featured throughout a 12-minute piece called “D.T.T.M.”, adapted from a section of Westbrook’s suite On Duke’s Birthday and dedicated to the trombonist Danilo Terenzi and the drummer Tony Marsh. It’s a quietly phenomenal performance, devoid of rhetoric but bursting with invention, the soloist’s thoughts unfurling at his own pace and expressed with a lovely laconic warmth. I don’t think I’ve heard a more subtly dramatic example of a tenorist working with a big band since Wayne Shorter emerged from the swirling mists of Gil Evans’ “The Barbara Song” in 1964.

Perhaps inspired by the example of Sonny Rollins, Gare was also a wonderful unaccompanied improviser, as he demonstrated on a Matchless album titled No Strings Attached in 2005 and in this clip from 2013. When he died on October 6, aged 78, British jazz lost a voice of quiet but resolute originality.

Jazz in Britain, Part 2

Jazz in Britain 2The first instalment of this two-part series dealt with new releases. This one looks at recent reissues and archive discoveries from the second half of the last century.

Harry South: The Songbook (Rhythm and Blues Records). Some readers of this blog will most readily associate the name of Harry South with the big-band arrangements for Sound Venture, the 1965 album with which Georgie Fame demonstrated his jazz chops. Others will know that South, a Londoner who died in 1990, aged 60, had a distinguished career as a pianist, bandleader and composer. This four-CD set, lovingly compiled by Nick Duckett and Simon Spillett, brings together a wealth of music from the mid-’50s onwards, much of it by South’s big band but also featuring him with the small groups of Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Ross, Joe Harriott and others. “Hall Hears the Blues”, a 14-minute down-tempo blues recorded for Tempo by Hayes’s quintet in 1956, is almost worth the price of admission by itself, as is the gorgeously swinging “Minor Incident” by the Dick Morrissey Quartet, from 1963. Of the wide range of big-band material, much of its previously unissued, I’d pick out an unnamed and undated piece (disc 3, track 15) which sounds like a lost Gil Evans chart, and “The Rainy Season”, from 1970, which shows South integrating exotic elements into his music very interestingly. Solos throughout, although individually unidentified, are by the likes of Kenny Wheeler and Tony Coe. There’s also the theme tune to The Sweeney, which presumably made South some money. Taken together, these 64 tracks represent an exemplary tribute to an unjustly neglected figure.

Mike Westbrook Concert Band: Marching Song (Turtle). Of all the many fine British modern jazz records made in the last 50 years, the ones that probably most deserve to survive another half-century are Mike Westbrook’s large-scale pieces, including Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315 and The Cortège. In a sense, Marching Song is where it all began: released in its entirety as two LPs on the Deram label in 1969, representing a statement of scale and intent. And of moral purpose, too: this is every bit as much a portrait of the pity and horror of war as Picasso’s Guernica, making a similarly startling use of modernist techniques. This reissue also contains a third disc of previously unheard material including a nine-minute sketch of the piece recorded in 1966 by a sextet including Mike Osborne, John Surman, Malcolm Griffiths, Harry Miller and Alan Jackson — its approach very heavily influenced by Mingus — and two wonderful extended quartet tracks by Osborne with the rhythm section, making this just about an essential purchase.

Neil Ardley / New Jazz Orchestra: On the Radio: BBC Sessions 1971 (BBC Records). Much of this album is taken up by six tracks from a Jazz Club session by the 19-piece NJO, conducted by the gifted Neil Ardley and including pieces by Mike Taylor, Barbara Thompson and Jack Bruce, with solos from Ian Carr, Harry Beckett, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Don Rendell and others. It’s good stuff. But the special interest comes in “The Time Flowers”, an extended piece written by Ardley and the electronic composer Keith Winter and recorded for Jazz in Britain with the quintet of Carr, Rendell, Frank Ricotti (vibes), Barry Guy (amplified bass) and Winter, plus the London Studio Strings. Inspired by a J. G. Ballard story, it evolves from a Vaughan Williamsesque pastorale into a futuristic soundscape, settings that provoke fine solos from Carr on flugelhorn and Rendell, unusually, on alto rather than soprano or tenor. The two broadcasts are introduced by Humphrey Lyttelton and Brian Priestley — another contrast of styles, to say the least…

Daryl Runswick: The Jazz Years (ASC Records). There were some pretty handy bass players on the London jazz scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and Daryl Runswick was up there with Jeff Clyne, Ron Mathewson, Harry Miller and others. He left the jazz world towards the end of the ’70s, preferring studio employment and regular work with Electric Phoenix, the King’s Singers and other ensembles. This two-CD set of mostly live recordings is a reminder of how good he was, whether in the London Jazz Quartet (with Jim Philip, Mike McNaught and Mike Travis, a really wonderful drummer) on extended versions of Jim Webb and Harry Nilsson songs or playing his own compositions in his quartet with the likes of Stan Sulzmann, Tony Hymas, Don Rendell, Alan Branscombe and Harold Fisher. There’s also a very funny solo bass-and-vocal recording, from a gig in 1967, of “The Song of the Double Bass Player”, with a lyric written for him by Clive James, a fellow member of the Cambridge Footlights: “It isn’t cute, it isn’t sweet, it isn’t small, it isn’t skinny / It needs flags on it when you tie it to the roof rack of the Mini…”

Billy Jenkins / Voice of God Collective: Scratches of Spain (VOTP Records, download only). On its first appearance in 1987 this album caused my sense of humour to fail: the point of Jenkins pastiching the cover of a Miles Davis classic for his collection of British-eccentric jazz, with a heavy brass-band and circus influence, escaped me. It seemed disrespectful, and it made me angry. Maybe I was being a bit po-faced. But I’ve listened to again, 30 years later, and I still feel the same way — except for one thing. Near the end there’s a track called “Cooking Oil” that breaks the prevailing mood. It’s an adagio for cello (Jo Westcott) and vibes (Jimmy Haycraft) over a bowed-bass pedal point (Steve Watts, possibly with a little electronic treatment), and it’s spellbinding in its restrained melodic beauty. If I were a film director, I’d use it for something or other, and people would notice. And then, after five absolutely celestial minutes, it’s back to the circus.

Red Price etc: Groovin’ High (Acrobat Music). This is a recording from a night at the Hopbine pub in North Wembley in 1965, featuring Red Price on tenor, Ray Warleigh on alto, Chris Pyne on trombone, John Burch on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass and Alan “Buzz” Green on drums. Four long blowing vehicles, including “Billie’s Bounce” and “Groovin’ High”, and a chance in particular to get some extra helpings of Warleigh and Burch, both under-recorded throughout their careers. Price, a veteran of the Squadronaires and the bands of Jack Parnell and Ted Heath, takes “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” for himself, displaying a Hawkins/Byas tendency that makes a good contrast with Warleigh’s approach, still heavily under the Parker influence. Simon Spillett’s exhaustive sleeve note provides all the context you could need.

Alan Skidmore: After the Rain (Miles Music). First I’ll declare an interest, albeit a mild and non-financial one. When this album first appeared, almost 20 years ago, I was invited to write the sleeve note. I agreed because I thought, and still do, that Alan Skidmore’s decision to devote an album to a set of standard ballads associated with John Coltrane, with orchestral accompaniment from the Hannover Radio Philharmonic on 10 tracks and Colin Towns’ Mask Symphonic on three others, was a good one. The arrangements of things like “Nature Boy”, “My One and Only Love”, “In a Sentimental Mood” and Coltrane’s “Naima” and “Central Park West” are not ground-breaking — much closer to Nelson Riddle than Eric Dolphy, you might say — but they suit the songs, and Skidmore responds to the harps and violins with some beautifully mature and gently heartfelt playing. It’s good to see it back in circulation.

Mike Westbrook at the piano

mike-westbrook-kp2In the days leading up to Mike Westbrook’s solo recital at Kings Place on Saturday afternoon, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, I’d attended a run of performances by several younger pianists — Kit Downes, Michael Wollny, Giovanni Guidi and Jason Moran — of great reputation and achievement. Spending just over an hour listening to Westbrook as he stitched together songs that have meant much to him over the years provided a useful reminder of what age can bring.

Westbrook turned 80 this year. Afterwards, in conversation with Philip Clark, he spoke of the way a prolonged examination can change the material: “a deep process”, he called it, and one which he applied with equal success to songs by Duke Ellington (“Sophisticated Lady”) and Thom Bell (“You Make Me Feel Brand New”) and to pieces from his own pen, including some from his works inspired by Blake, Goethe and Lawrence.

“You don’t have too much respect for the material,” he observed. “You use it. You find harmonies that interest you more than the original. You layer one chord on top of another to make it more magical, or more beautiful, or even to throw a spanner in the works. But it’s not random. It’s logical.” The reharmonisation of some of these pieces was striking. “It’s no secret,” Westbrook said, “that when you’re writing arrangements at the piano, you become a master at holding down chords while you reach for a pen to write them down. I’ve developed a piano style almost out of that.”

It’s his version of what used to be called “arranger’s piano”, the spare approach associated with Tadd Dameron and Gil Evans, among others. And you could hear very specifically what he meant when he struck thick, dark chords and allowed them to resonate and bounce off the lid of the 7ft Steinway Model B in the silence between “You Make Me Feel Brand New” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”.

The mood was reflective, sometimes elegiac, particularly when he included a First World War poem in the first of the long, loosely themed sequences into which the recital was divided. Throughout the hour I loved the sense of a man playing these pieces for the thousandth time but still searching for new angles, new shapes, and new combinations of notes with which to deepen his investigation of their wordless essence. There was not a wasted note, not a superfluous gesture, not the tiniest hint of display for its own sake.

Much of the programme reflected the structure of his new solo album, which is titled Paris and was recorded earlier this year in an art gallery and performance space near the Porte d’Orléans. In his online notes to the album (to be found at http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk), he says this while introducing the sequence of pieces grouped under the heading of Bar Room Music: “I often enjoy playing the piano in a crowded room where people are talking. Though almost no one is paying any attention to the music, it nevertheless affects the general atmosphere.”

Those words reinforce his strong sense of the social function of music, made explicit in the past in the work he and his wife Kate have done with street theatre groups and with their brass band. But the Kings Hall recital was at the opposite end of the spectrum: a carefully focused performance in an optimum listening environment, in front of a rapt full house. As always with Westbrook, a massive authority was lightly worn– but its presence was never in doubt, and the result was unforgettable.

* Paris is out now on the ASC label.

Mike Westbrook’s Bigger Show

The Uncommon Orchestra image 1The great English jazz composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook turns 80 next month — on March 21, to be exact. His long career is studded with extended works of great ambition and achievement: Marching Song, Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315, The Westbrook BlakeThe Cortège (his masterpiece, for my money), On Duke’s Birthday, London Bridge Is Broken Down, Mama Chicago, and others. What began in the late 1960s as a distinctively Westbrookian conception of jazz — with undertones of the approach Ellington and Mingus took to blending composition and improvisation — was broadened by an engagement with street theatre and brass bands, and by a collaboration with his wife, the singer and librettist Kate Westbrook, on pieces that reflected the influence of Berlin theatre song and British music hall.

And now there’s another magnum opus to celebrate. A Bigger Show is a piece in eight sections, lasting almost two hours, performed by Westbrook’s latest large ensemble, the Uncommon Orchestra, a 21-piece unit based around his home in Devon. Due to its size, it doesn’t often show its face. But last summer a recording of the piece was made at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre, and the results — produced by Jon Hiseman — are out now on a 2CD set.

The suite was inspired by the old St Bartholomew’s Day fair, which took place in Smithfield, in the City of London, continuously between the 12th and 19th centuries until it was closed down in 1855 on the grounds of excessive rowdiness and debauchery. Back in 1975 Westbrook’s Brass Band took part in a production of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair, and the idea grew into its present incarnation.

Once again the Westbrooks’ vision of modern life finds powerful expression in a work featuring rousing and often turbulent ensemble work with instrumental solos of real substance from such familiar figures as Alan Wakeman on soprano and tenor saxophones and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet and Sousaphone, and newer names like the altoist Roz Harding, the trumpeter Sam Massey and the tenorist Gary Bayley. As has been the case with Mike Westbrook since the beginning of his career, the improvisations emerge from the arrangements in an organic and dramatically satisfying way — the work of composer who has paid close (but never imitative) attention to the lessons handed out by Ellington, Mingus and Gil Evans.

The tone is variously raucous and tender, celebratory and scathing. Kate Westbrook’s lyrics, sung by herself, Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, are etched in acid (particularly in a song satirising the social media). Human nature and human behaviour, they suggest, are little altered since the days of Blake and Hogarth: in an era when the gap between affluence and poverty is widening rapidly, only the superficial symptoms of excess and deprivation differ.

All this is achieved with a courage, a vigour and a generosity of spirit always characteristic of Mike Westbrook’s work. A Bigger Show is ambitious, thought-provoking, and exhilarating; when it ends, you feel as though you’ve been on a journey. Perhaps one day his extended pieces will be acclaimed as belonging among the most acutely relevant cultural artefacts of our time. Until then, here’s a new one to treasure.

* A Bigger Show is released on ASC Records. Westbrook and the Uncommon Orchestra will perform the piece at the Brewhouse Theatre in Taunton on April 1, Kings Place in London on May 20, and the Plough Arts Centre in Torrington on June 10.

Westbrook’s Blake

Mike Westbrook 3The parish church of St Giles-in-the-Fields turned out to be the perfect place for last night’s performance of Glad Day, Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s poetry. Situated close to the modern junction of Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, and known as the Poets’ Church, the present building was completed in 1733 on the site where first a monastery and chapel and then earlier churches had ministered to lepers (St Giles is their patron saint) since the 12th century. The first victims of the Great Plague of 1665 were buried in its garden.

Blake was born in nearby Soho and in his time the church stood next to the warren of dwellings known as the Rookery, London’s most notorious haunt of thieves and prostitutes, immortalised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane drawings and Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. It’s a gentler place now, although had Blake, Hogarth and Dickens been living today they might have been interested to leave the church, turn left down Denmark Street, cross Charing Cross Road and witness the sights of 21st century Soho on a Saturday night.

The concert was in aid of the Simon Community, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its work with London’s homeless population. In the church’s soft yellow light Westbrook was joined by two solo singers — his wife, Kate, and Phil Minton — and the 30-voice Queldryk Choral Ensemble, conducted by Paul Ayres, plus the violinist Billy Thompson, the accordionist Karen Street and the double bassist Steve Berry.

They began, appropriately enough, with the searing images of “London”, sung by Kate, before Minton delivered “Let the Slave” and Mike Westbrook himself recited “The Price of Experience” above a lulling choral vamp: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun / And in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn. / It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted, / To speak of the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer…”

“Holy Thursday”, “The Tyger and the Lamb” and “Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell” were among the texts, most of them arranged by the late Adrian Mitchell and the others by Kate Westbrook. The audience remained silent between the individual pieces, reluctant to disturb the mood, but the dramatic conclusion of “The Poison Tree”, on which tango rhythms propelled Kate’s bitter vocal and Thompson’s dazzling fiddle solo, provoked spontaneous cheering.

The musicians were given plenty of space for unaccompanied solos, each one relevant to Westbrook’s overall structure while ensuring a constant variety of texture. They all shone, with Berry’s dark-toned bass outstanding throughout, and particularly when he launched “The Human Abstract” with an improvisation located somewhere between Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, which is not a bad place to be. But nothing was more quietly electrifying than the transition from Minton’s open-hearted vocal to Thompson’s spirit-possessed violin which led from “The Fields” to the concluding “I See Thy Form”.

Westbrook has been working on this material for many years, and it is among his several masterpieces. Like his fellow pianist/composer Keith Tippett and his old associate John Surman, he came out of the jazz ferment of the 1960s and found his way to a music in which he can employ everything he has learnt while making profound use of his indigenous heritage. For his admirers who couldn’t make it to last night’s concert, there’s a new DVD and CD, called Glad Day Live, of a performance by the same singers and musicians, filmed at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel five years ago. Highly recommended, of course.

Blake’s London

Blake 1In a pair of parallel alleyways under the railway line that runs through Lambeth from Waterloo station, parallel with the river, you will find two dozen panels like the one above, created by Southbank Mosaics, a non-profit community enterprise, to commemorate the work of the great English visionary William Blake. A few yards away is the housing estate that occupies the site on which stood the house where Blake and his wife lived between 1790 and 1800, and in which he composed and printed his Songs of Experience. One of those poems is called “London”, and this is how begins: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe…” In the late 18th century, it needs to be said, the term “charter’d” could be taken to mean “in private ownership”. It’s a shattering poem, born of the conditions to which Blake bore witness every day of his life amid the teeming riverine streets, and it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its force or relevance.

Hercules Road, on which Blake’s house stood until it was demolished in 1912, is not a place to attract tourists in search of his traces. The anonymous postwar council estate — which bears the poet’s name and an appropriate plaque — occupies one side; the railway arches line the other. It takes some imagination to link it to the music composed by John Zorn for In Lambeth, an album inspired by the time Blake spent there.

This is Zorn’s second attempt to capture the poet’s spirit. The first, released in 2012 (also on the composer’s Tzadik label), was called Vision in Blakelight and was written for a sextet of keyboards, harp, vibes, bass, drums and percussion; its 10 sprightly, occasionally almost ecstatic pieces featured particularly fine playing by John Medeski on organ and Trevor Dunn on double bass.

In Lambeth, subtitled “Visions from the Walled Garden of William Blake”, filters that mood through a finer mesh. The group here is Zorn’s Gnostic Trio, in which two members of the Blakelight group, the harpist Carol Emanuel and Kenny Wolleson on vibes and bells, are joined by the guitar of Bill Frisell. The music is no less lively and active, often based on arpeggiated figurations reminiscent of the ostinatos of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, but its glistening instrumental timbres and the intimacy of the interplay between these brilliant musicians give it a character of its own. Here’s a track called “The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy”, referring to a female figure used by Blake to signify beauty and poetry (and possibly inspired by his wife, Catherine).

It’s as distinctive, in its own way, as the Jimmy Giuffre Trio of “The Train and the River”, as close as that to jazz — in fact impossible without it — yet breathing quite different air. Beyond category, and highly seductive.

In related Blake-and-jazz news: on Saturday, February 8, at the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields at the end of Denmark Street (once London’s Tin Pan Alley), Mike Westbrook and his musicians, including the Queldryk Choral Ensemble, will perform Glad Day, his celebrated settings of Blake’s poems, to promote the release of the music on a CD recorded live at the Toynbee Hall in London five years ago. This latest concert is dedicated to the memory of the poet Adrian Mitchell, with whom Westbrook worked on Tyger, the Blake-inspired musical performed at the National Theatre in 1971. Not to be missed, I’d say.