Live reviews

Mike Westbrook Band of Bands at Pizza Express Dean Street

Mike Westbrook Band of Bands
(Pizza Express, Dean Street. 23 September 2023. Live Review by Patrick Hadfield)

Mike and Kate Westbrook, London 2023. Photo credit Robert Crowley

This gig closed in a way that summed up the whole event: with a joyous, witty, song, What I Like, sung with passion and glee by Kate Westbrook, backed by a new septet playing the music of Mike Westbrook, his Band of Bands. “What swing do I like?”, she sang, “All swing! … What Ellington do I like? All Ellington!” And so say all of us.

The Band of Bands features members from throughout Mike Westbrook’s career – he reckoned he’d been playing with saxophonist Chris Biscoe for fifty years, and others for not much less, though this was the first gig in which they had all played together. Across two sets on Sunday lunchtime, they played music from several projects in Westbrook’s prodigious output.

The blues was never far away – quoting Duke Ellington, Westbrook said “when times are hard, I write another blues”. He quoted Ellington musically too. The band played a fine version of Billy Strayhorn’s Johnny Come Lately, and Westbrook’s piano style is itself a nod in Ellington’s direction, as with a chord here and a chord there, he nudges the music along.

Karen Street and Chris Biscoe. Photo credit Robert Crowley

It didn’t take much to keep the band on track. Marcus Vergette‘s bass playing did the job perfectly, driving when it needed it but relaxing when it suited the music. Similarly, Coach York on drums pushed things forward urgently when needed and held back when not. Together, they kept things swinging along.

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The front line consisted of Biscoe on alto and Pete Whyman on alto, soprano and clarinet, on which he provided some beautiful, rich solos. They duetted on several numbers, their altos weaving together intricate patterns. Each provided eminent solos, too.

Filling the space between the piano and reeds was Karen Street‘s accordion. The instrument provided variety and depth, giving the band a more orchestral feel. In the second set, Street have us some excellent solos, too, clearly making the case for more accordions in jazz.

Many of the pieces played were songs, highlighting Kate Westbrook’s words and voice. On South of Toulouse, she growled and whistled whilst the band conjured the sounds of Camargue. My Lovers Coat, like What I Like from the suite Fine ‘N Yellow, was heartbreakingly moving, as she described the grief of losing a loved one.

L-R: Mike Westbrook, Kate Westbrook, Karen Street, Marcus Vergette, Pete Whyman, Coach York, Chris Biscoe

There were songs too from the Westbrook’s Art Wolf project, Unsigned Panorama and Art Wolf Sketches, as well as Dolls House, which described the artistic process.

The tour de force was Gas Dust Stone, most memorably featured on A Bigger Show. Despite the Band of Bands’ small size relative to the Westbrooks’ big big band The Uncommon Orchestra, their sound seemed to expand to fill the size of the music.

It was a tremendous couple of hours. Even those pieces written to commemorate the dead were full of life, music from hard times suffused with joy and vitality. The audience who seemed to have gathered from across the country applauded rapturously. Which Westbrook do we like? they seemed to say, “All of it!”

Mike and Kate Westbrook. Photo credit Robert Crowley

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

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