A most welcomed release…

Westbrook Records WR 011

Kate Westbrook (voice); Mike Westbrook (piano)

Mike Westbrook Orchestra

Graham Russell (trumpet, piccolo trumpet); Paul Nieman (trombone, electronics); Pete Whyman (clarinet, alto & soprano saxophones); Alan Wakeman (tenor & soprano saxophones); Chris Biscoe (baritone, alto & soprano saxophones, alto clarinet); Andy Grappa (tuba); Brian Godding (guitar); Tim Harries (bass guitar); Peter Fairclough (drums)

With Docklands Sinfonietta conducted by Rupert Bland

Recorded by SRF (Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen)
in concert at Theaterhaus Gessneralle Zűrich
Saturday 10th November 1990

One of the key figures in British jazz since the 1960s, Mike Westbrook has over his long and distinguished career produced many outstanding compositions for both large and small ensemble.

London Bridge Is Broken Down was originally commissioned by Le Temps du Jazz (Festival International de Jazz d’Amiens) in 1987 and received its premiere at La Maison de la Culture, Amiens on 26 May 1987. A further performance would take place on 22 September in Strasburg at the MUSICA 87 festival, and the original studio recording took place over four days in December ‘87.

Opportunities to perform large scale compositions with band that would feature both a jazz and classical ensemble would be few and far between Westbrook reconvened his Orchestra along with the Docklands Sinfonia for a couple of gigs in November 1990. The first was at St Anne’s Church, Limehouse as part of the Docklands Jazz Festival and a day later at the Zurich Jazz Festival on 10th November where this concert was recorded.

A large scale work indeed, the composition here is split over five distinct parts and playing time in excess of two hours. What is worth noting is, however, that time seems irrelevant when listening to the music as it is so compelling that the listener is unaware of how long each piece is.

The music is beautifully structured, and the use of Westbrook’s Orchestra and the Docklands Sinfonietta truly serves to blur the lines between the ensembles within the composer’s score flitting between the two seamlessly or blending the two to create a huge sonic palette at his disposal.

This works tremendously well on the second part of ‘Vienna’ with the composition ‘Für Sie’ that at just 23 minutes is a superb piece of writing from beginning to end. Within the structure of the music the solos come organically, each very different and coming at strategic moments from Alan Wakeman’s opening soprano solo to Biscoe’s gruff and antagonistic baritone outing and the bebop inflection of Pete Whyman on alto.

There are many such moments throughout this stunning performance with the opening compsition ‘London Bridge Is Broken Down’ featuring text by Kate Westbrook. The piece takes off with Alan Wakeman’s tenor solo to echoes in the ensemble of the melody of the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down’. As Wakeman digs in, so do the brass and sax section with some swinging accompaniment to be followed by a wailing solo from guitarist Brian Godding.

‘Wenceslas Square’ does have some longueurs with some of the ensemble passages too static, but an excellent solo from Pete Whyman and the alto duet with Chris Biscoe lift proceedings. Around the 20 minute mark, Tim Harries’s bass line kicks in with a wonderful groove fuelling Alan Wakeman’s tenor solo.

Other highlights from the first disc include ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ with a piano introduction from Westbrook followed by lovely solos from Graham Russell on trumpet, Pete Whyman’s clarinet and the Chris Biscoe’s booting baritone saxophone, and ‘Traurig aber falsch’that takes on an altogether tougher stance with a rock feel from the rhythm section.

Again, some fine solos on offer from Chris Biscoe’s forthright alto saxophone and as the piece evolves a gentle outing from Brian Godding on guitar who is sympathetically and unobtrusively supported by bass and drums.

The closing segment or suite is ‘Picardie’ depicting the horrors of war and devastation that lay in its wake. Using texts in French and English by poets Rene Arcos, Siegfried Sassoon, Andrée Chedid, and an anonymous 12th Century Picard text, all sung and chosen by Kate Westbrook, Mike’s score for the dual ensembles conveys the dark times that such conflict inevitably brings with it.

The music is bold and adventuress yet does not seek to dilute the reality of war behind soft melodies but evokes the harshness of the scenario it depicts with some hard hitting and stark writing for both his orchestra and the 35 piece string and brass ensemble that is the Dockland’s Sinfonietta.

A most welcome release that is perhaps not for the faint hearted, but nevertheless the descriptive power of the music makes for compelling listening.

Reviewed by Nick Lea