CD reviews

CD REVIEW: The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – The Last Night at the Old Place

The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – The Last Night at the Old Place
(Cadillac SGCCD016. CD review by Olie Brice)

This release is both a fascinating document of a really exciting point in the history of London’s jazz scene, and a loving tribute to a true hero of that scene.  The Old Place was a venue in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street, the original site of Ronnie Scotts.  When Ronnies moved into their new venue on Frith Street in 1967, there were still 18 months left on the lease. Pete King, seemingly on the spur of the moment, handed John Jack the keys and he ran the venue 7 nights a week for the remainder of the lease.  Free from commercial pressure, the venue was a vital home for younger jazz musicians focusing on original material and free improvisation – the site of regular gigs by bands including the Blue Notes (Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo)  and Mike Westbrook’s Sextet.  Musicians playing at Ronnies around the corner would also sometimes show up and sit in – John Surman tells of jamming at the Old Place with Sonny Rollins on one memorable occasion!

This recording, as the name suggests is from the very last night at the Old Place. Mike Westbrook had put together a band combining his sextet with musicians he was working with in a group he called ‘The Other Band’.  One of the heaviest rhythm sections on the scene – Harry Miller on bass and Alan Jackson on drums, along with Westbrook on piano – combining with a horn section that included such legends as John Surman (baritone), Mike Osborne (alto) and Paul Rutherford and Malcolm Griffiths (trombones), as well as great players we’ve maybe had less opportunities to hear – Dave Holdsworth (trumpet), Bernie Living (alto) and George Kahn (tenor).

The music is wonderful – catchy, singable tunes, exciting improvising, sections of adventurous freedom and driving swing.  The material will be familiar to Westbrook fans from the album Release recorded shortly afterwards, although the live context allows for more extended improvisation and the likes of Osborne, Rutherford and Surman really stretch out.  Highlights include a gorgeous Mike Osborne solo linking Lover Man (the one non-original) and For Ever and a Day, a long Rutherford improvisation on Folk Song and some skronking Surman baritone playing on Flying Home but the whole thing is great.  The sound is excellent, despite being recorded from the audience by pianist George Smith.

John Jack went on to play several more roles in the world of creative jazz, including running the label Cadillac, which released albums by Westbrook, Mike Osborne, Joe Harriott, Stan Tracey, Frank Lowe and David Murray, among others.  He continued to be an incredibly regular face, along with his partner Shirley Thompson, at jazz, blues and improv gigs across London right up to his death in September 2017.  As a musician playing in London many decades after the Old Place shut its doors, it was wonderful getting to know him, hearing incredible stories and feeling that his presence and encouragement really contributed to a sense of being part of the lineage of this music.

This release is the first from a re-vamped Cadillac Records, now run by Mike Gavin.  The release is dedicated to John Jack’s memory, and has been lovingly put together great photos and extensive and informative notes from Richard Williams and Mike Westbrook, as well as a few lines from John Jack himself.

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