Album review

Mike Westbrook – ‘The Piano and Me’

Mike Westbrook – The Piano and Me

(Download only; album review by Patrick Hadfield)

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The Piano and Me is Mike Westbrook’s third album of solo piano music in recent years, following Paris and Starcross Bridge. Like these, it was recorded live, this time at Dartington Hall in Devon.

Writing on his website in 2021, Westbrook said that he was no longer convinced that his solo piano playing had anything new to say: he had to be talked into performing by his wife and collaborator, Kate Westbrook, and the producer of the earlier records, the late drummer, Jon Hiseman.

The music he creates here gives the lie to that: he has a great deal to say, and does so with grace and beauty. Like its predecessors, The Piano and Me is full of emotional, engrossing music.

The pieces come from four sources: Westbrook’s own compositions, jazz standards, gospel-spirituals, and classic pop tunes. Thus, compositions by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington sit cheek by jowl with hits from the Beatles and the Stylistics. Whatever the source, his approach seems to be to break down the tunes into their most fundamental elements and use those as the basis for improvisation.

At times the original composition may only be barely recognisable: he takes Lennon & McCartney’s She Loves You and creates something that scarcely hints at this 1964 pop classic. John Lennon’s Because is maybe closer to the Beatles’ version, but is no less moving for that. Westbrook’s interpretations may appear minimal at first listen, but they go on to prove that less really can be more.

On The Piano and Me, Westbrook has grouped his improvisations in keys. Thus, in F, She Loves You segues into L’Amoroso e Sincero, which originally appeared on Westbrook-Rossini; and in D, Billie Holiday’s Lover Man leads into a moving reading of Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count. The order in which these sections appear in the performance was decided by members of the audience picking cards beforehand to determine which key should follow which.

Westbrook moves seamlessly between the tunes in each key; and sometimes there is no gap between the different keys either, just a subtle change in mood. His oblique references to his sources mean that the tunes themselves may be obscured, announced only by a familiar chord sequence. But that’s fine: this is music to be lost in.

The result is a very personal record: it feels like Westbrook is playing just for the listener. Apart from at the beginning and end, there is not a sound from the audience; whether this is because they were disciplined and similarly lost in the music, one cannot know. But the result is an emotional and intimate recording of a master at work.

(Many thanks to Mike Westbrook for answering my questions about this recording.)

LINK: The Piano and Me on Bandcamp

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. He is on Mastodon.

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