Mike and Kate Westbrook are about to release a new recording, “Paintbox Jane: Raoul Dufy Paints a Portrait” which will be available as CD and/or download from 19 August 2022. The eponymous Jane of the title is LJN writer Jane Mann. She tells her side of the story of the work’s genesis, including the role that both Jon Hiseman and Barbara Thompson played… and reflects more generally on the process of commissioning new work. Interview by Sebastian.
LondonJazz News: How did the idea to commission the work which became “Paintbox Jane” first come about?
Jane Mann: The idea came from my partner Bob Baker. We have been listening to the music of Mike and Kate Westbrook for years, and as time passed, we noticed that there we were hearing increasingly more pieces dedicated to people who had died.
Bob remarked that it was a shame that the dedicatees did not get to hear these pieces of music and proposed the idea of commissioning a piece for me as a birthday present, that I would get to enjoy in my lifetime. He approached Mike and Kate Westbrook and that’s how it began. We had phone calls and meetings in which we explored ideas and where Mike and Kate quizzed me about the things that I liked.
We talked about artists who express joy, Mingus, decorative artists like Dufy, who because they are seen as light or popular are not taken seriously, and the pleasures of the seaside. We had a series of enjoyable meetings at the Chelsea Arts Club, where we would chat about the project and about London and life in general and then Mike would sometimes slip away to play the piano in the corner of the bar. These evenings were a pleasant part of the commissioning process.
I asked Mike Westbrook recently what he and Kate remembered of this.
“As we recall Bob started it all with a commission for your birthday. Then we learned that you love Dufy’s paintings. We were not big fans but became more and more so. We became captivated by his colourful, sensual world. Kate began to research into his life and work and his relationships to his contemporaries, notably Matisse. In Paris we viewed Dufy’s vast and controversial mural “Fée d’Electricité”. Kate created a scenario and a libretto: Raoul Dufy, painting on the Promenade in Nice, is engaged by a passing troupe of actors and musicians in a lively exchange about the Nature of Art.”
LJN: How did the title “Paintbox Jane” come about?
JM: The title is entirely the idea of Kate Westbrook. One of the conceits in the piece is that Dufy paints a portrait of his friend Jane – so Jane rises from his box of paints. As an extra birthday present that year, Kate, a fine painter in her parallel career, gave me a painting in the style of Raoul Dufy. It is a version of Dufy’s Interior with Open Window but with me tucked into a corner it, reclining on a sofa to one side of the view from the artist’s studio of the bay of Nice. It is a delight.
LJN: And this is the cover art for the CD?
JM: It appears on the insert in the CD. The cover features another Kate Westbrook work, which was used as the backdrop to the performances. The cover is a photograph of actor /singer Tim Goodwin, who plays the part of Raoul Dufy in the show. He stands in front of a backcloth which is like a giant piece of Dufy fabric (Dufy was a successful textile designer too – his company provided fabrics for the couturier Poiret) Kate’s Dufy textile contains many of his favourite subjects: the old casino in Nice, flags, fish, boats, birds, palm trees – painted metre by metre onto a huge bedsheet in her studio. It works well as a backdrop, behind the band and the Café-style table and chairs where the vocalists sit when they are not singing.
LJN: What is the story of the genesis of the work?
JM: I was expecting a single song, but each time we met to discuss the commission, we would hear that Mike and Kate had been exploring another idea, another song, a bigger staging. The Westbrook theatre works and song cycles are collaborations between the two of them and Mike told me:
“… more often than not Kate’s words are the starting point. I often feel I get too much of the credit, perhaps because in the jazz world lyrics are considered as secondary to the music. In our work they are paramount and I wish it were better understood that ours is a song writing partnership in the tradition of Brecht / Eisler, Rogers and Hart, etc, where words and music are equal.”
By the time it was first performed, Paintbox Jane had grown into a thirty-minute suite performed by a seven piece band: a trio of musicians: piano, bass and saxophone, a trio of singers, one of whom also plays guitar, and an actor who also sings.
The first performance was in March 2016, at Vout-O-Reenee’s (LINK), Sophie Parkin’s arts club dedicated to her great friend Slim Gaillard . It was a joyous occasion with an audience mostly of friends and family. The show went back to Vout’s for two nights in April 2017, and on this occasion Barbara Thompson was there, with her husband Jon Hiseman. In June in his Temple Music Studios Jon recorded the music as a demo, not at that time intended for release. Tragically Jon died in 2018. Earlier this year his recording was re-mixed and mastered for CD by Ru Lemer.
In the meantime, Bob and I travelled around the South and West of England in 2016 and 17, to see as many of the live performances as we could, in Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall.
LJN: How did this theatre piece evolve?
JM: In seeing the show several times, we witnessed its evolution from a handful of lovely songs, into the complete two acts and an interval 90 minute show it became. Arrangements were altered, new takes explored, and the singing and playing developed. It had become a touring theatrical show, with the musicians dressed for strolling along the Corniche in light suits and Panama hats, and the singer/ performers wearing appropriately Dufy-esque brightly coloured outfits, in front of that lovely backdrop. While ostensibly celebrating the work of artist Raoul Dufy, and being fun, it was now also making serious points about the connections between art and music, and ideas of fame and legacy. It had become a show perfect for an extended run in a London cabaret or in a small theatre the end of a pier.
LJN: You have just received the album. Describe your thoughts about it
JM: I am absolutely delighted. Six years on from that first performance in March 2016, at Vout-O-Reenee’s here is a splendid recording.
LJN: Tell us about particular pieces…
JM: In the original commission I asked for a waltz. The first piece is indeed in three and gives a vivid visual and aural impression of Nice, as seen through the eyes of Dufy, filled with colour and light.
We catch a glimpse of one of the Cote d’Azur’s famous residents, in Mike’s reworking of a Brazilian hit from 1960 called Brigitte Bardot, and there’s a tango featuring a shark.
There’s a rolling blues in which the three vocalists sing to us about painting, life and the end of the universe, while “Mingus plays ‘welcome’ at the Gaudy Bar on the sea wall.”
Other tunes are ruminations on plagiarism in art, and how art endures, whilst we all must perish. You do not get calming platitudes from the Westbrooks, even when the lyrics include moon and stars. After an evocation of nightfall by the harbour, the piece concludes optimistically.
There are some lovely tunes and intensely visual lyrics. Kate conjures up the Baie des Anges in Nice with its Prussian blue sea and cerulean blue sky, depicted so many times by Dufy. He grew up with the opal seascapes of Normandy, and was as delighted as the rest of us Northern Europeans are by his first glimpse of the incredible blues of the Mediterranean.
LJN: Tell us about the instrumentation and voices.
The musicians are Mike Westbrook himself at the keyboard, and two frequent Westbrook collaborators Marcus Vergette on double bass, and Alan Wakeman on saxophones (except for the premiere at Vouts where, for one night only, it was Chris Biscoe). The singers are Kate Westbrook, of course, and Martine Waltier and Billie Bottle. Tim Goodwin, actor, plays Raoul Dufy, a mainly speaking role but he gets a couple of songs too.
LJN: And more generally… is commissioning a worthwhile thing?
JM: Commissioning is without doubt a worthwhile thing and need not be left to wealthy patrons, festivals, Arts organisations or eccentric millionaires. There is plenty of room for small-scale commissions, and it need not be expensive. It could, like Paintbox Jane, be a present for a birthday, or indeed any other celebration where a specially composed song or instrumental would be just the thing. It could also be, despite what I said earlier, a memorial.
By engaging in the commissioning process, your favourite artists get an often much needed paid project, and many artists would enjoy the challenges of having a brief within which to work.
It is certainly appreciated by the other admirers of the musicians. At performances of Paintbox Jane, several Westbrook fans came over and told us how glad they were that we had helped to bring new compositions by their favourite composer into reality.
I have just asked Bob what he has to say about all this. He agrees that it was worthwhile, and suggests: “Why not contact your favourite living composer to discuss a commission? You may be surprised to find yourself sharing a drink with your musical hero and planning a new piece of music together.”
I would like to add that listening to a wonderful piece of music commissioned specially for you has to be the best birthday present ever.
The recording of Paintbox Jane also received support from Airshaft Trust
DETAILS/ LINKS : The album Paintbox Jane: Raoul Dufy Paints a Portrait by Westbrook & Company will be released on 19 August 2022.
The CD (Westbrook Records WR010) and download will be available from the MIKE WESTBROOK JAZZ website.