Jane Mann previews a joyful gig down in Devon:
Torquay residents are in for a real treat on Sunday afternoon the 25 August. The great English jazz composer and band leader Mike Westbrook is putting on a show in the splendid Town Hall. His extraordinary 22-piece band The Uncommon Orchestra will be playing a mixed programme of Westbrook compositions, and a scattering of pieces by Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie arranged specially for the orchestra.
The lucky audience can expect a thrilling show, full of beautiful tunes, powerful harmonies and inventive improvisation. Westbrook is a giant on the European jazz scene, and his compositions are full of surprises. It’s jazz, and yes it swings like billy-o, but it’s also redolent of smoky Weimar cabaret clubs, esoteric Art music, and there are rocky elements too. You can hear the influence of Mingus and Ellington, and it’s all rooted firmly in the blues but there are echoes of Music Hall, and Poulenc and Schoenberg and the Beatles.
The Uncommon Orchestra are a multi-generational troupe. The youngest, trombonist Sam Chamberlain-Keen, is still at school, and some of his fellows on the trombone section are college students. The older members include trumpeter/sousaphonist Dave Holdsworth who first played with Westbrook in the 1960s. From a younger generation are saxophonists Alan Wakeman and Pete Whyman who have performed in various Westbrook bands over many years, and younger still, the saxophonist Roz Harding and vocalist Martine Waltier. Some of the musicians live in Devon, where the Westbrooks are based. Others travel in from the further reaches of Cornwall, from the Midlands, from Yorkshire and from London for the opportunity to experience Westbrooks’s astonishing music with this wonderful big band.
The band have just returned from an Italian tour which went down a storm. That show included numbers from A Bigger Show, a recent Westbrook piece, with lyrics by his wife Kate Westbrook, and some excerpts from the Westbrook Rossini, Ellington reinventions, some Westbrook Blake and a little Lennon & McCartney. I think we can expect a similarly broad cross section of their repertoire in Torquay, plus new arrangements, because the Westbrooks never stop writing and arranging.
I see the Westbrooks perform live as often as possible, because, as you have probably noticed – I am a fan. One of the aspects I love about these live performances is the emotional power of their work. I have found find myself literally holding onto my seat in some of their bleaker pieces. I have seen audience members moved to tears at their Blake concerts. But what I really go for is the joy. Joy is something I actively seek in all art forms, and artists who can convey joy are rarer than you would think. The Westbrooks have it. They can transport you with their magnificent sound, and these uplifting moments counteract the shock of occasionally being obliged to peer into the abyss. One of my favourites of their pieces is a good example. It’s from their recent musical theatre piece Paintbox Jane, as yet unrecorded. It includes the line: “‘Til star collapse and moon frenzy bring death to us all…” Ostensibly, this is a grim reminder that we all perish, but the musical setting – a beautiful Mingus tinged blues makes it an absolute joy to listen to. This is essential Westbrook.
Here’s some interesting historical background to the Torquay concert: Mike Westbrook grew up in Torquay, which was at that time a famously glamorous holiday resort on the English Riviera. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, when Westbrook was a boy, jazz of course was the popular music of the day and Torquay Town Hall was a significant music venue. It’s a splendid Edwardian Baroque building with an imposing clock tower, and, crucially, a grand hall. Every summer season, hundreds came to dance to the big bands of Ted Heath, Geraldo and Jack Parnell, here, at the grand hotels in town and at the now defunct Spa Ballroom. The local RAF Association ran weekly sessions at Torquay Town Hall, both of New Orleans Jazz and Modern Jazz, and it was here that a very young Mike, nervously clutching a half pint of light ale, first heard jazz and was intrigued by it. Unsurprisingly, it was progressive jazz which really grabbed Westbrook. Ronnie Scott and his nine-piece band played frequently, and when Westbrook moved to London in 1962, Ronnie Scott gave him a big break, by offering him a Saturday All Nighter at his club (the “Old Place” in Gerrard Street, not to be confused with the Frith Street club which Scott opened in the mid ’60s). As an additional historical footnote Ronnie Scott himself had played with Ted Heath and with Jack Parnell, before forming his own combo, and trumpeters Ronnie Hughes and Greg Bowen, who were also with the Ted Heath Big Band, played on Westbrook’s third album Marching Band of 1969.
Later, Westbrook went on to share the role of house band at Ronnie Scott’s with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. In a neat completion of a circle, Westbrook and The Uncommon Orchestra played Ronnie Scott’s in an acclaimed sell-out show this year (enthusiastically reviewed here by Richard Lee) almost 60 years after that first gig.
This Torquay concert is definitely not some nostalgic exercise though. The Westbrooks continue to compose and create and perform, indeed they’re experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment. They took the Westbrook Blake to Moscow recently. The Italian tour with The Uncommon Orchestra, concluding with the gig at Ronnie’s was a great success. Kate Westbrook has a new outfit, The Granite Band – they released a CD, played in Germany, the West Country and London’s prestigious Kings Place, and they have just recorded their second CD, to be launched in the new year. They will be performing at the Teignmouth Jazz Festival on 20 October 2019. There’s also a delightful music theatre piece, from 2016 about the painter Raoul Dufy which has been performed by Westbrook & Company around the country over the last couple of years, called Paintbox Jane. If you add in the re-released CDs from the Mike’s back catalogue, two new solo piano albums and the recently rediscovered Catania concert tapes which are now out on CD, there is a lot going on. The Westbrooks have a very helpful website here www.westbrookjazz.co.uk where you can read about the myriad projects and peruse the lengthy discography.
Mike reflected recently, a propos the music of his youth:
But the incorrigible spirit of Bop lives on where there are musicians who prize freedom of expression above fame or fortune, and where there are listeners hungry for a rich, deep musical experience and what [jazz critic] Whitney Balliett called “The Sound of Surprise”. Moreover, in Jazz a perfect balance between improvisation and structure, between the individual and the collective, is always possible. That much at least hasn’t changed in the last sixty years, or the last hundred. To me Jazz is still the Music of Hope.
Mike Westbrook and The Uncommon Orchestra at Torquay Town Hall, Castle Circus, Torquay, Devon TQ1 3DR – Sunday 25th August 2019, doors 3.30pm, concert 4pm. You can buy tickets here
The Uncommon Orchestra:
Saxophones – Pete Whyman, Roz Harding, Sarah Dean, Alan Wakeman, Ian Wellens
Trumpets – Robin Pengilley, Tim Rabbitt, Sam Massey, Andy Hague
Trombones – Joe Carnell, Sam Chamberlain-Keen, Stewart Stunell, Ashley Nayler
Trumpet and Sousaphone – Dave Holdsworth
Keyboards – Matthew Bourne
Guitars – Jesse Molins, Matthew North
Bass – Marcus Vergette
Voices – Kate Westbrook, Martine Waltier
Drums – Coach York
MD – Mike Westbrook
LINK: Short promo film