Photo Credit: Roger Thomas. All Rights Reserved
Kate and Mike Westbrook – Fine ‘n Yellow
(Spice of Life, Thursday 8 March. Review by Chris Parker)
Close followers of the music of Kate and Mike Westbrook could subscribe, from 1985 onwards, to a newsletter, Smith’s Academy Informer, detailing forthcoming projects, recordings and gigs; this quarterly publication was run, with meticulous efficiency and palpable enthusiasm, by John and Margery Styles.
John died in 1989, but Margery carried on putting out this goldmine of Westbrookiana until her death in 2008, enshrining her extraordinary commitment to Mike and Kate’s music in a bequest to them, commissioning a composition to commemorate the Styleses’ lives.
The resultant music was issued in 2010 by Gonzo (Fine ‘n Yellow, HSTJ014CD), and it formed the core of this concert, performed by three saxophones (Chris Biscoe, Andy Tweed, Chris Caldwell), an accordion (Karen Street, who doubled on tenor), bass (Steve Berry) and drums (Simon Pearson), all centred on Mike Westbrook’s characteristically economical but eloquent piano, and fronted by Kate Westbrook’s singing of her own lyrics.
Given the music’s threnodic source, a somewhat sombre evening might have been anticipated, yet the overall tone was one of celebration rather than lamenting, despite beginning with a touching account of Margery Styles’s visit to the grave of her father, killed on the Burma Railway in the Second World War: ‘No one will whistle “Blaydon Races”/For a dead Geordie lad,/The sun burns the sky …’ and continuing with a song inspired by her practice of wearing her late husband’s coat on her world travels after his death: ‘I will wear my lover’s coat/On all the great land masses and/Over all the mighty oceans/I will write “Love” as a girdle round the globe’.
Set to deceptively spare, but richly affecting melodies, these songs were genuinely uplifting, courtesy not only of Kate Westbrook’s vocals, at once dramatic and intimate, but also of the clear commitment demonstrated by the band, Biscoe in particular showing just why he has so often been at the heart of the couple’s projects over the past three decades: he is able unerringly to identify and mine the emotional heart of their music with a sureness and apparent ease that belies the relative complexity and adventurousness of his playing.
Two other Styles-inspired pieces, ‘Yellow Fig Leaf’, sparked by the sight of one remaining leaf on a fig tree (‘I will savour many snowfalls and winter days,/Remembering the fig leaf that breathed your name’) and ‘My Lover’s Heart’ (‘I will ride my Lover’s heart/To greet each day’s new morning’), were similarly emotive, but it was the concluding song, ‘What I Like’, which best encapsulated the spirit of the evening: (‘I like Guinness, I like stout,/Pour me a glass and hear me shout: “Which wine? Any wine!”‘).
Listing all the Styleses’ favourite things (everything from jazz, dancing, fireflies, snow, pine logs and travel to reading and – naturally – the colour yellow), this brought the concert to an appropriately moving climax, perfectly described by Mike Westbrook as utilising, with ‘its interplay of three/four and four/four time … two soprano saxes playing in the lower register mak[ing] a very funky combination … quick-fire exchanges by the two altos, vocal interjections by the band [and] jazz quotes’ a whole panoply of jazz effects to create a rousing final celebration that would have undoubtedly delighted its subjects, John and Margery Styles.