Mike Westbrook’s writing for ensembles of any size is still as potent and satisfying as ever.

Westbrook Records WR014

Kate Westbrook (voice); Chris Biscoe (alto & soprano saxophones); Pete Whyman (alto & soprano saxophones, clarinet); Karen Street (accordion); Mike Westbrook (piano); Marcus Vergette (bass); Coach York (drums)
Recorded 25th November 2023

Mike Westbrook’s music never ceases to surprise, shock and delight in equal measures. I remember the first time I encountered Mike and Kate’s music when hearing the Westbrook Trio in Cardiff more than thirty years ago, and leaving the concert unsure as to whether I had actually enjoyed the music but convinced that I had been listening to something that was not only different but vital and alive.

Since then, I have become a firm Westbrook fan having persevered in trying to understand the music and have enjoyed the big band as well as smaller ensembles; and yes, having a particular affection for the Trio.

The axis of Westbrook’s lean and economical piano and Biscoe’s acerbic saxophone playing combined with Kate’s libretto have been at the heart of Mike’s music, and with Band of Bands we have the trio augmented by other Westbrook regulars to combine forces in a fiery septet.

Unusual for a small ensemble of seven or eight pieces to work without brass, but the combination of saxophones and accordion creates a wonderous sound that can whisper of fill out the music to give the impression of a much larger outfit. To this end, much credit must be given to Westbrook’s ingenious arrangements and Karen Street’s adaptability and virtuosity on the accordion, an instrument not to everyone’s taste but brilliantly deployed here.

The band pack some punch, and deliver from the outset with a swinging ‘Glad Day’ led first by soprano saxophone. The ensemble race along, powered by the superb drumming of Coach York before leading into ‘Blues for Terenzi’ that features some lovely touches in the intro from Westbrook on piano and the alto saxophones of Biscoe and Whyman.

This tremendous slow blues is followed by the last of a trio of instrumental pieces in Mike’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Johnny Come Lately’ in which both saxophonists acquit themselves with aplomb. The rhythm section is right on the money, and yet it is Karen Street that steals the honours with both her accompaniment and exceptionally fine solo.

For the remainder of the album Kate Westbrook’s lyrics and voice are brought into play, with Kate working with the ensemble rather than the arrangements taking a diversion to accommodate the voice. Those familiar with Kate’s libretto style delivery will find much to enjoy, and the soloists are allowed plenty of opportunity to stretch out maintaining the momentum built up in the opening numbers.

Particularly effective is the rhythmic groove laid down by bassist Marcus Vergette and drummer York for Kate’s voice on ‘Gas, Dust, Stone’ that brought to mind the motifs that were used to bring Kate and Mike’s Art Wolf music to life some twenty years ago. Indeed, Kate quotes from the composition ‘Oil Paint On Canvas’ from the Art Wolf album on ‘Doll’s House’ that is performed here. Rather less successful is ‘My Lover’s Coat’ that opens with some fine piano from Mike, and some excellent playing from the band, but I must confess to being quite happy to have dispensed with the vocals here leaving the ensemble to do their thing.

For the most part, however, this is an enjoyable and engaging performance from the Band of Bands. ‘Yellow Dog’ features some more wonderful ensemble writing as Kate intones the text, and Whyman’s clarinet on ‘My Pale Parasol’ is a delight in the dialogue with piano.

‘What I Like’ is a fun way to close this live concert with Street once again taking a superb solo and a dialogue for alto and drums generating much interest. On the evidence presented here, Mike Westbrook’s writing for ensembles of any size is still as potent and satisfying as ever.