|Mike Westbrook and Phil Minton in 2008
Photo credit: Andy Newcombe (Creative Commons)
The Westbrook Blake
(Bath International Music Festival, 23rd May 2015. Review by Jon Turney)
Great to see a good helping of jazz back at the long-running Bath Festival after a bit of a lull, and really wonderful to have a chance to hear William Blake’s simple, powerful words set to music by Mike Westbrook.
As Chris Parker explained in a review of a London gig last year, these songs have been evolving since Westbrook worked on some of them with the late Adrian Mitchell in 1971. Nowadays, their occasional airings feature a well-established small band, led by the composer at the piano, and Paul Ayres comes along to direct a local choir.
The musicians and the performing solo singers – Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton – know every possible nuance of these pieces: Mike Westbrook himself says they have been “part of our lives for as long as we can remember”. Yet they seem fresh each time. The unusual instrumentation helps. Karen Street conjures a full orchestra from the accordion. Billy Thompson lays on lashings of virtuoso violin. Bassist Steve Berry anchors the ensemble, and provides a remarkable impetus to Tyger, Tyger. The quality of the choir, tonight the splendid 17-strong Bath Camerata, adds another essential ingredient, and the setting, the fine old church of St Mary’s Bathwick, makes the evening even more special.
It is a well worked out performance – the same songs are played in the same order each time. Yet there is spontaneity in the solos, and passion aplenty in the vocal delivery. Berry’s bass opening to Tyger stretches out considerably tonight, and involves Thompson in a percussive commentary that makes his violin sound like a bodhran. Street is inventive and eloquent, Thompson fiery and free, the composer quietly considered at the piano. A reliable magic occurs. The timeless words gather power from the music, and vice versa. The effect is thrilling, and genuinely uplifting, as much now as it must have been in 1971.
Of all the work in an extraordinary career, you can hear why Westbrook – who turns 80 next year – keeps these pieces alive on stage. Don’t think he and Kate are not still creating anew. His next date after this Bath concert, in Falmouth on Bank Holiday Monday, was the first in a Summer itinerary that sees his current big band play throughout the South West, presenting a new show, with a live recording along the way. But whatever pleasures that brings, the Westbrook Blake stands as one of the great achievements of modern English music-making.