Album reviews

Mike Westbrook – ‘LONDON BRIDGE. Live in Zürich 1990’

Mike Westbrook – LONDON BRIDGE. Live in Zürich 1990
(Westbrook Records 011. Album review by Jon Turney)

Mike Westbrook’s wonderfully extended career has covered a range from big bands to small groups and, occasionally, solo piano performances. But his most lasting achievements have probably been as composer and arranger for large-scale forces. Here, newly restored, is one you may have missed.

London Bridge is Broken Down was first performed in 1987 in Amiens, a commission from the city’s jazz festival, and a studio recording appeared soon after. The whole piece, running over two and a half hours, was performed live again in Zurich a couple of years later, the day after a one-nighter in London. That final airing for the work was preserved on tape by Swiss radio and that realisation, lovingly remastered by Jay Auborn, is presented here on 2 CDs.

This is the Westbrooks – Mike and Kate – at their most expansive. A nine-piece version of the Westbrook Orchestra, including long-time associates such as Alan Wakeman and Chris Biscoe on saxes, Paul Nieman on trombone, and Brian Godding on guitar, is augmented by 35 string and woodwind players from the Docklands Sinfonietta. And like the most obvious comparison in the Westbrook oeuvre, the widescreen epic The Cortege from 1979, it is the work of roving intellects, referencing places the Westbrooks played throughout Europe, and incorporating texts in three languages.

Listening to the whole thing is quite an experience. Two sites, Prague’s Wenceslas Square and Vienna are conjured by instrumental pieces: each lasts half an hour and they are substantial works in their own right. Westbrook uses the enlarged instrumentation brilliantly to enhance his textures, and – here as elsewhere – there is bags of solo space for the regular orchestra players.

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The texts, voiced with theatrical flair by Kate Westbrook in some of her best recorded work, illuminate a section assigned to the Berlin Wall (still in place when the piece was conceived, gloriously demolished by the time of this rendition), with translations from the German in the CD liner helping the monoglot listener. And this tour of old Europe concludes in the war graves of Picardie, where Siegfried Sassoon’s scalding Blighters furnishes one of the suite’s most powerful moments.

These marvellous musical evocations of human follies and foibles date from a time when Europe looked forward to reaping the benefits of enduring peace, and of new-found liberation in the Eastern bloc. They gain poignancy in a darker climate three decades on. In both eras, London Bridge stands out as one of the most accomplished works from one who has been a remarkable creative force for more than half a century.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol: website and Twitter.

LINK: Mike Westbrook on Bandcamp

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