Album reviews

Two versions of Mike Westbrook’s ‘Says the Duke’ from 2021 and 2023

Says The Duke
a) The Westbrooks’ Granite Band , 2021, Westbrook Records WR 007.
b) with Uncommon Orchestra (2023).
Available from Bandcamp. Review by Richard Lee

Mike Westbrook at Ronnie Scott’s 2022. Photo by Robert Crowley

How do you keep hope alive in dark times? During lockdown, the Westbrooks turned to Ellington’s salve, to “write another blues”. It was his way of dealing with racism, and theirs to deal with solitude. Having had the anniversary performance of On Duke’s Birthday cancelled at Ronnie’s, Kate & Mike (with support from Jazz South) drew on thoughts and words and themes that first arose over 40 years ago with that momentous opus and remotely recorded “another blues” with The Granite Band, their core collaborators in the south-west.

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It begins with a sound-and-word cloud of Ellington-related names and titles giving way to Coach York’s distinctive percussion-lope and Billy Bottle’s rolling bass-walk, underpinning Roz Harding’s alto lines beneath Kate’s extended version of a lyric blessing Paul Gonsalves & co. That original version was first seen among the liner notes on the 1984 recording of On Duke’s Birthday and now, heard here perfectly complements Mike’s ducal setting, which is full of allusions but avoiding direct musical quotes. Rather, his setting gives full reign to the soloists, with the acute inventiveness of Roz’s sax and Jesse Molins’ guitar reminding us of how well Mike’s work straddles and revels in the century of jazz styles: while there’s much of Ellington here, he’s being driven to the gig in a Solid Gold Cadillac. I’m not sure if there’s some double-tracking going on, but either way it’s a pretty mighty sound for 6 instrumentalists.

Released online in 2021, it’s also available as a CD single, complementing the orchestral version from the rescheduled Birthday gig which finally came to Ronnie’s in April 2022 with The Uncommon Orchestra, whose 23-strong lineup (twice the size of the 1984 original) included all the above Graniteers, but with Marus Vergette taking the bass stand. Running at just 10 minutes (little over half the length of the Granite version) this online track packs even more of a punch, not least through the heft of its 15-strong brass/woodwind cohort, which widens the palette enormously. Inevitably sounding more Ellingtonian, the live performance heightens both the edge of cabaret and a certain joyfulness in Kate’s vocalising (literally, with “Joy! Joy!”) while going for broke in her lower register, relishing more swoops than whoops. Regular Westbrook alumni Alan Wakeman and Pete Whyman provide crackling tenor and haunting clarinet solos to top and tail the solo sections, and once again, there’s welcome alto bravura from Roz Harding, while Sam Massey & Graham Russell’s trumpets bring even more colour to this most exemplary-sounding big band. Again, it’s a measure of Mike’s own unassuming genius that gives his soloists the space that his idol did, and that he creates a sound that’s both a tribute and has his own inimitable stamp on it.

This single is only a glimpse into what was, by all accounts, a marvelous gig (See review link below) and I can only hope it presages the full album release of the 2022 On Duke’s Birthday which, 40 years on from the original, still lives, still rejoices in its potential, and which I still love, madly.

“Everybody: look handsome!”

  1. Says The Duke (2023) The Uncommon Orchestra LINK

from the suite On Duke’s Birthday dedicated to Duke Ellington
music Mike Westbrook words Kate Westbrook
with quotes from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Released April 29, 2023

The Uncommon Orchestra
voice Kate Westbrook piano Mike Westbrook
saxophones Chris Biscoe, Roz Harding, Sarah Dean, Alan Wakeman, Ian Wellens clarinet/saxophone Pete Whyman
trumpets Graham Russell Robin Pengilley Andy Hague Sam Massey
trombones Joe Carnell Sam Chamberlain-Keen Stewart Stunell Ashley Nayler
violin Dominique Pifarely cello Frank Schaefer guitars Jesse Molins Matthew North
bass Marcus Vergette drums Coach York
directed from the piano by Matthew Bourne

engineered by Miles Ashton, mixed by Matthew North and produced for Westbrook Records by Mike Westbrook, Matthew North and Chris Topley, courtesy of Ronnie Scott’s Club.

LINK: Patrick Hadfield’s review of the Ronnie’s gig

2. Says The Duke(2021) The Granite Band LINK

Recorded October 2020, released January 18, 2021

A single-track release, 18 minutes long.

The Granite Band

music by Mike Westbrook / words by Kate Westbrook / with quotes from Duke Ellington

Kate Westbrook voice, Roz Harding alto saxophone. Jesse Molins guitar, Matthew North guitar soundscape. Mike Westbrook keyboard. Billie Bottle bass guitar, Coach York drums

Recording Engineered, mixed & mastered by Matthew North

Produced by Matthew North in collaboration with Billie Bottle

October 2020 / Recorded in Devonshire / Commissioned by Jazz South / Westbrook Records WR 007

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