Album review

Chris Biscoe – ‘Music Is: Chris Biscoe plays Mike Westbrook’

Chris Biscoe – Music Is: Chris Biscoe plays Mike Westbrook
(Trio Records tr607. Album review by Jane Mann)

This new release is the first that I have come across devoted entirely to arrangements of the music of English composer and jazz giant Mike Westbrook. And who better for such an endeavour than saxophonist Chris Biscoe, who occupies a unique place in the history of Mike Westbrook’s music. He has played with Mike and his wife Kate every year since 1979 (except for 2020/21). He knows the Westbrook oeuvre inside out, having been part of many of his groups, ranging from trio to jazz orchestra, via a variety of combos: marching bands; jazz cabaret troupes; big bands and chamber ensembles. Clearly Westbrook and Biscoe have a special musical relationship. Back in 1985, Richard Williams wrote in a Westbrook record review for The Times, that Biscoe’s solos “seem to enjoy a particularly intimate relationship with the composer’s inner motives.” I know what he means.

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Biscoe has previously successfully explored the music of American jazz greats Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus among others. I have enjoyed these, so was pleased to hear that he would be reimagining Westbrook music too. He explains: “The idea behind Music Is is a simple one: take some of these great pieces out of their context and play them with a small jazz group as you might an Ellington, Monk or Gershwin song.”

The quintet here is ideal for the task – they are experienced, versatile and inventive players all. Like Biscoe, they have played across a broad spectrum of jazz and other musical genres.

On piano is Kate Williams, winner of Best Album in the 2020 Parliamentary Jazz Awards, and long-time Biscoe collaborator.  Her contributions are thoughtful and understated. Virtuoso Mike Outram is on guitar. The rhythm section are Jon Scott on drums – who now plays with GoGo Penguin – and Dave Whitford on bass, who has played with so many greats from Bobby Wellins to Bill Frisell. These two are sensitive foils throughout. This is a truly empathetic ensemble .

When one goes back to the original Westbrook recordings after listening to Music Is, what is very striking is how simple Biscoe keeps his arrangements. He chooses just a theme or two from the dense and complex pieces he is revisiting. Some of the arrangements were created in the studio collaboratively, and two are unaccompanied saxophone tracks. The album begins and ends with the title track Music Is, taken from On Duke’s Birthday, a glorious Westbrook melody played first in its original tempo, and reprised for the final track as an endearing waltz.

My favourite is View From The Drawbridge. The quintet had an initial run-through of this beautiful tune – a couple of them had not played it before – which fortunately was recorded.  This is the version that appears here, and it is perfect. 

Wasteground and Weeds is a lovely tune which really should be a jazz standard by now.  I have only heard one other version, by a classical soprano at Trinity Laban – where the Westbrook Collection of music scores is held – it worked well because it’s a great song. Biscoe’s take is a delight – he plays solo baritone, improvising and embellishing, finding new facets in the music while still maintaining the wistful yet joyful mood of the original.

I love this album. It is a pleasure to hear these great Westbrook tunes being treated by Biscoe as the standards they deserve to be.  

A special recommendation to buy the physical CD – Biscoe, like Westbrook, is articulate about his art, and also about the life of the touring musician.  The liner notes are informative and amusing and illustrated with a couple of photo portraits and some lovely pictures by Kate Westbrook, a fine painter as well as musician, who always travels with sketchbook and watercolours. 

LINKS: Album launch at Café Posk on 13 January 2023

Buy or download the album from Chris Biscoe’s website

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