Mike Westbrook – Paris
(ASC. asccd166. CD Review by Patrick Hadfield)
To someone familiar with Mike Westbrook as composer and arranger of, for instance, last year’s excellent A Bigger Show, this solo piano CD was a revelation.Recorded live in Paris last year as part of Westbrook’s 80th birthday celebrations, it features tunes associated with various projects throughout his career. What comes across most strongly is his strength as an improviser.
With barely a pause, he moves from one tune to another, weaving together twenty pieces into one, flowing with imagination and emotion. The original melodies may be referred to only obliquely – Westbrook hints here and there – until the tune becomes apparent, sometimes close to its end, and he moves on to the next.
Organised in four sections, with a coda, the collection features tunes Lennon & McCartney, Ellington, Strayhorn, and a couple of others, together with several by Westbrook and his wife and collaborator, Kate, to whom the CD is dedicated.
The different sections – The Front Page, Bar-Room Piano, Love Stories, and The Blues – loosely bind together the tunes by theme. The majority of the pieces are by Westbrook, alone or in collaboration. Three of the collaborators are dead poets (*), Westbrook having set their verses at different times for specific projects; others are settings of words by Kate Westbrook. His love of song, in both high and low, popular form, is evident. He treats them both the same: something special, a springboard for improvisation.
The two pieces by the Beatles exemplify Westbrook’s approach. She Loves You, an early Beatles’ hit from 1963, is re-imagined as a slow jazz ballad, almost unrecognisable from the original. Westbrook imparts a bluesy quality as he explores the tune obliquely, certain phrases teasing memories of the Fab Four. Westbrook’s version is full of longing, reflecting Lennon & McCartney’s tale of broken hearts.
Because comes from much later in the Beatles’ career, 1969. Again, Westbrook takes the basic theme and makes it his own: contemplative, exploring. From a piece of 1960s psychedelia comes something that’s timeless.
The two pieces attributed to Duke Ellington, Sophisticated Lady and Solitude, appear in Bar–Room Piano, and sandwich the Westbrooks’ Gaudy Bar. Westbrook’s notes (available online, but not included with the CD itself) explain how “I often enjoy playing the piano in a crowded room where people are talking. Though almost no one is paying any attention to the music, it nevertheless affects the general atmosphere.” He does himself a disservice: this music deserves one’s full attention. And despite this being a live recording, there is no audience sound: no applause, no shuffling, no glasses clinking. I imagine the audience spellbound.
(*) DH Lawrence, Goethe, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.