(Kings Place Hall One, 19th November 2016, EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Jane Mann)
This rare solo piano recital from British jazz legend Mike Westbrook marked his 80th birthday and the launch of Paris, only his second solo piano album in 40 years.
For 70 minutes, Westbrook improvised on pieces from his whole musical history from the 1970s big band compositions Citadel/Room 315 to the recent A Bigger Show. There were references to his music theatre works including The Ass and this year’s Paintbox Jane, and to London Bridge is Broken Down, originally written for voice, jazz and chamber orchestra. There were beautiful re-imaginings of standards from favourite composers Ellington, Strayhorn and Lennon and McCartney, and a surprise re-working of the Stylistics’ hit You make me feel brand new so full of bright chords and optimism that everybody smiled.
The beautifully structured set contained many songs written in collaboration with his wife, the artist, vocalist and librettist Kate Westbrook, and was split into four sections. The first part Westbrook referred to as The Front Page, with songs to do with big ideas: freedom and war, the world and the World Wide Web. After re-workings of recent pieces Freedom’s Crown and Propositions, Westbrook played Anthem, a work based on the Wilfred Owen poem Anthem for Doomed Youth which he recited movingly before plunging back into the music. Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, and Westbrook said he could not let it pass unmarked. After we had all looked into the abyss (at one point the music was so spare and so bleak that I momentarily imagined that we were all sitting on our chairs in an empty landscape of mud and ice), he gave us a glimpse of the moon through ragged cloud with the Beatles’ Because and then re-emergence into the light with Strayhorn’s ballad A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.
We were then transported to a Bar Room for the next section. These glorious tunes were played on the least barroomy piano in the world, and yet Westbrook still conjured up a knackered upright in a rough bar with his Ellington and Strayhorn tunes Sophisticated Lady, Solitude and Isfahan alongside his own Gaudy Bar, from Paintbox Jane.
The next section, Love Stories, included Westbrook ruminations on love, Nähe des Geliebten, View from the Drawbridge, Tender Love, and a new ballad Sound of Caress, along with three standards, a gentle, considered A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square, a delicate She Loves You and the brimming with joy You make me feel brand new, the perfect counterpoint to the dark first section. There were plenty of his trademark huge sonorous chords, with an incredible fullness of sound, and splendid resonance between pieces. The excellent sound was engineered by long time Westbrook collaborator Jon Hiseman who also produced the Paris CD. The final section was The Blues, the starting point for much of the Westbrook oeuvre – these blues comprised touching and fierce elegies for dead friends with versions of My Lovers Coat, D.T.T.M. and a snippet of Blues for Terenzi.
The playing throughout was lovely, spare, with characteristic moments of dissonance threaded with wisps of the melodies to come, and always with the possibility that the music could go on in any direction. The large audience responded very warmly to this astounding concert, and Westbrook played a brief encore – his arrangement of a popular Christmas carol In the bleak midwinter, a short crystalline jazz-infused delight, and we all took a break before the Q&A with music journalist and composer Philip Clark.
Clark asked Westbrook questions about the set, remarking that there was a concentrated mood over the whole structure, the timbre, and the harmonies. Westbrook modestly replied “It’s just the way I play.” There followed a detailed and interesting dialogue between the two, covering composition, composer-pianists, re-harmonisation, some technical details on chord expansion (with examples from Westbrook at the keyboard), dissonance and contemporary classical music (an influence), the blues “a fundamental truth in Jazz”, a story about Ornette Coleman and a Hawaiian juggler, the music of Buddy Bolden and writing for musicians you know (Westbrook “I have an architectural approach, I allow structure with space for improvisers”). Westbrook concluded that “jazz gives us all creative freedom”, and we left it at that. A brilliant afternoon.
Paris is out now on the ASC label from www.Westbrookjazz.co.uk