Live reviews

Mike Westbrook’s Rossini Re-loaded at Ronnie Scott’s

Rossini Re-loaded – Mike Westbrook & The Uncommon Orchestra

(Ronnie Scott’s . 13 June 2023.  Live review by Richard Lee)

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The Uncommon Orchestra. Photo credit Robert Crowley

Actually…no.  I’m not going to review this wonderful gig.  It’s already had the best possible review it could have, here on London Jazz News 9 months ago. I swear that Mike and the band read Duncan Heining’s excellent description of the Uncommon Orchestra’s vivacity and musicianship at West Road and decided they should do it again at Ronnie’s.  And they did.  Perfectly.   

Ben Cottrell. Photo credit Robert Crowley

With nineteen musicians on stage, it was a slightly smaller group than the 27 or so that spilled out at the Uncommon’s 2019 debut at Ronnies, but it was still a joy to be up close to this.  There’s a real sense of the audience and band sharing the space rather than being at concert-arm’s length. We get the jokes, albeit in a flashed smile or a thumbs-up from the terrifically adept MD/conductor Ben Cottrell when the sax section do the alpenhorns in one of the William Tell sections; and then there’s that stillness when you can hear a pin drop in an acapella moment during Kate’s Otello aria, or enjoying the relatively unfamiliar sound of a Frank Schaefer’s plangent cello in a jazz club. 

Kate and Mike Westbrook. Photo credit: Robert Crowley

Of course, a regular fixture at Frith Street is now totally appropriate for the Westbrooks, whatever their incarnation, as small band or a hurtling orchestra. They represent the best in British jazz composition, showmanship and support for longtime collaborators such as Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman, Alan Wakeman, Frank Schaefer & Karen Street.  Latterly, they have surrounded themselves with up & coming players such as trombonist Joe Carnell, trumpeter Sam Massey and hugely talented alumni from their south-western base, such as tonight’s rhythm section of Coach York & Marcus Vergette, plus saxes Sarah Dean & Ian Wellens.  

They continue to commit to the widest possible notions of what jazz can be, neither slavish adherence to specific forms nor modish experiment, but revelling in their collaborators’ skills and the theatricality of performance.  The enjoyment of each other’s work was genuine, and a delight. Two takeaways: a pair of solos from Mike reminded us what a singular piano-voicing he has; and every big band in the country should stop trying to play Caravan and adopt Mike’s arrangement of The Barber of Seville overture: that sent us bouncing out into a warm Soho night. 

But it was while listening to the penultimate number, the Hymn for Liberty (Tutto Cangia) from William Tell, a stirring agit prop recalling the days of The Cortège, that set me thinking.  Rossini Re-loaded first saw the light of day as a European commission – prophets in their own land have always a hard time, jazz prophets, doubly so – and the increased hardships of recent years that musicians have to bear make touring this kind of work, even over a year, unbelievably difficult. So, all praise to everyone concerned for ensuring we can hear it again.  But also reminding myself that it was first heard at the Proms in 1992, it struck me that this extraordinary music-making deserves the exposure that festivals command.  The Proms missed a trick in not celebrating the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road with Mike’s Off Abbey Road setting; it could correct that by commissioning a reworked London Bridge (which I understand is in the Westbrook-works) or even a new Cortège to rouse us.  Like Rossini Re-loaded both explore our uneasy place in the world but at least do so with headlong arrangements & vertiginous soloing, courtesy of England’s finest living jazz composer. Wouldn’t it be good not to miss this trick? 

Kate and Mike Westbrook. Photo credit Robert Crowley


The Uncommon Orchestra 

Saxophones: Chris Biscoe, Peter Whyman, Sarah Dean, Alan Wakeman, Ian Wellens;  

Trumpets: Graham Russell, Robin Pengilly, Andy Hague, Sam Massey;   

Trombones: Joe Carnell, Sam Chamberlain-Keen, Stewart Stunell, Ashley Nayler;   

Karen Street: Accordion; Frank Schaefer: Cello; Marcus Vergette: Bass; Coach York: Drums; Kate Westbrook: Voice; Mike Westbrook: Piano; Benjamin Cottrell: Conductor  

NOTE: Originally commissioned by the NDR Band in Hamburg in 1990 and subsequently toured by the Mike Westbrook Orchestra, “Big Band Rossini” has been played at Festivals all over Europe, and performed with big bands in Scandinavia, Canada and Australia. It was the first jazz work ever to be featured in the BBC Proms in 1992. Revived with The Uncommon Orchestra in 2018, Rossini Re-Loaded scored a hit at the annual Rossini Festival in Pesaro, the composer’s birthplace. The Orchestra returns to Ronnie Scott’s fresh from a triumphant appearance at the Rossini Open International Music Festival in Lugo, in the opera house where the teenage prodigy Rossini first performed in 1806. 

“In the city where Gioacchino Rossini lived, and in the theatre where he actually played, Mike Westbrook breathes new life into the immortal magic of the Italian maestro’s compositions”. Giancarlo Spezia Musica Jazz 

LINKS: From 2021. 85th Birthday Greetings for Mike Westbrook

Westbrook Jazz website

Categories: Live reviews, Reviews

6 replies »

  1. The trumpet section deserves a mention with wonderful solos by Robin Pengilly, Andy Hague and Sam Massey and led superbly by Graham Russell who also supplies the some of the stratospheric trumpet notes. Brilliant solos too from Alan Wakeman, Chris Biscoe, Peter Whyman, Joe Carnell, Frank Schaefer and some jaw dropping moments from Karen Street. What a superb band.

  2. Just a quick message to echo Chris Topley’s description of Karen Street’s contribution on accordion. I saw the Uncommon Orchestra at Ronnie’s on the first of their two evenings there and ‘jaw dropping’ is entirely accurate. There was one moment in particular where Kate Westbrook sang a piece – sorry, can’t remember the title – throughout which Karen’s playing provided a spellbinding backdrop; Kate’s whispered, but audible, aside to Karen as she left the stage suggested that she was as moved by her playing as the audience.

      • Exactly! The cavatina also widely known as ‘Una volta c’era un re’, from the opening act of ‘La Cenerentola’… Kate sang singingly, and Karen played accordion accordingly. Beautifully, that is…

        “Una volta c’era un re,
        Che a star solo, che a star solo s’ annoiò,
        Cerca, cerca, ritrovò:
        Ma il volean sposare in tre.
        Cosa fa?
        Sprezza il fasto e la beltà.
        E alla fin scelse per sé
        L’ innocenza e la bontà.
        Là là là là, lì lì lì lì, là là là là.”

  3. Thanks Sergio…. I can hear it as I read it.

    Big Band Meets Opera.

    Readers, If you see it’s being performed anywhere don’t miss it as it’s Superb Big Band Entertainment.

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