Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra
(Ronnie Scott’s, 12 April 2022. Live review by Patrick Hadfield)
Ronnie Scott’s was full of anticipation ahead of this long awaited show, originally scheduled for April 2020 (it had sold out months before that) and postponed no fewer than three times due to the covid pandemic. And the stage was so full of musicians that they had to queue to get to their places, and couldn’t be accommodated all at once; others had to leave the stage to allow vocalists Phil Minton and Kate Westbrook on to perform. A truly big band.
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But then the music deserved it. A tribute to Duke Ellington, the centrepiece of the evening was Mike Westbrook‘s arrangement for his Uncommon Orchestra of his work for a ten-piece band, On Duke’s Birthday. He explained how the piece had come about after he’d been performing in New York over Duke Ellington’s birthday and everywhere he went he could hear Ellington’s music.
The title piece comes in two parts, which featured in a set each side of the break; other pieces were merged together as the band moved effortlessly from one to another. Mike Westbrook’s arrangements were full of Ellingtonian flourishes and richness whilst maintaining his own unique voice. He had a broad palette to play with – he remarked with almost childlike glee that for the first time he had six saxophones in the band – as many as Ellington had at his high point.
There were many high points here. Early in the evening, Kate Westbrook and Chris Biscoe duetted on whistle and alto respectively. Phil Minton’s improvised vocalese on IDMAT (Mike Westbrook’s extended rearrangement of It Don’t Mean A Thing) was dexterous and humorous. Roz Harding (alto) and Alan Wakeman (tenor) contributed several excellent solos, and Jesse Molins and Matthew North played some searing, bluesy solos on electric guitar. Dominique Pifarély‘s violin added much to the distinctive sound.
Mike Westbrook’s participation was somewhat limited during the performance itself, although he was a commanding presence on the stage; he only played a few bars at the piano early in the second set. For the most part, Matthew Bourne skillfully took on the piano duties and directed the band.
But the Uncommon Orchestra is very much Westbrook’s vehicle: unique and enjoyable – much like Ellington. What a sound!
Categories: Live reviews