Thursday, 10 November 2011

MIKE WESTBROOK - The Emancipator of British Jazz

This is a piece about British jazz. It's about it's rise between two falls and it's about a composer responsible, as one musicologist put it, "for the emancipation of British jazz from American slavery"

In the mid 1960's the jazz movement was struggling for survival in the UK. London club owner Ronnie Scott was providing work for long-suffering British musicians backing the visiting US stars, but the arrangement was proving less than harmonious for their egos. With audiences dwindling, musicians were facing the prospect of a steady job outside music or chancing their hands in the burgeoning R&B movement.

Into this depressed atmosphere a new generation of musicians suddenly emerged, including a handful of innovative composers determined to present their work through larger ensembles. They included Michael Gibbs, Graham Collier, Neil Ardley and a pianist from somewhere between High Wycombe and Devon, Mike Westbrook.

Brought up by a Duke Ellington obsessed father, Westbrook would synthesise the music of Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, to create an orchestra with a sound and vision very much it's own. Signed to the progressive arm of Decca Records, Westbrook's first release on Deram was the aptly named "Celebration", a record that leaps out with a controlled confidence and verve quite incongruous to it's fledgling status. At times the band plays in a quasi-R&B style as on the swinging and joyous "A Greeting", whilst elsewhere Westbrook strikes his piano in homage to the "Mingus Plays Piano" LP, with abstract dashes along the keyboard sending cues to his assembled charges.

The Mingus influence is strong. A fellow Ellington devotee, Mingus shook new life into the music with passages of anarchic yet arranged collective improvisation, and it would give Westbrook a template to build upon for his subsequent albums. On this and the following year's "Release" saxophonists Mike Osborne and John Surman would signal their emergence with assertive soloing adding the colossal influence of Coltrane to the centre of the mix. Both would soon emerge as heavyweight players under their own steam. On this LP Westbrook revealed his idiosyncratic style, creating side-long suites which interspersed Ellington pastiches and cover tunes, alongside tuneful originals that verged towards pop music. Indeed "A Life of It's Own/Can't Get It Out of My Mind" was even promoted as single, presumably in the hope for radio play. But despite individual moments of brilliance (including the aforementioned 45), "Release" sounds like a diversion from the real creative energies which were being dedicated to that year's commission for the Camden Arts Festival.

The anti-war themed "Marching Song" was put down on tape by an expanded ensemble of 26 in 1969 and marked Westbrook's first extended masterpiece. It was released as two separate albums, running over 2 hours in length. A rich, intense recording, it brims with ideas and superb playing which rewards the listener with repeated plays.

The concept opens with soldiers caught up in an insanely euphoric march before cheering crowds, then shifts to the desolated landscape of the battlefield. A long piano solo denotes the restlessness and ennuie of the pre-battle period followed by the chaotic theme of the title track. The original side 3 of the package plays like a concept in itself, suggesting the continued frustration of non-action with "Transition", "Home", "Rosie", "Prelude" and the track "Tension" sounding like something from Miles Davis' "ESP" period. A mood of reflection is suddenly broken with the cataclysmic screams of a saxophone announcing the inevitable "Conflict". The music is both stunningly beautiful and disconcerting, but the temptation to overfill the piece with discordant free jazz is resisted and the moments of spontaneous disharmony are used to fit appropriate moments in the narrative. The band is augmented by John Warren, Alan Skidmore, Kenny Wheeler and John Marshall, then working on sessions with Jack Bruce.

Westbrook followed the album with another diversion, cutting the understated "Love Songs" in the Spring of 1970. It was a beautifully relaxed break from the increasingly intense sound of the big band and is a good starting point for anyone in search of an introduction to his music. The recordings were built around Westbrook's rolling piano, strummed guitar of Chris Spedding and decidedly funky bass and drum rhythms, making it the band's most pop-sounding record to date. The album also featured a prominent new member in Norma Winstone, a singer who would contribute to most of the significant British jazz records produced in this period. She sings three poetic songs but also contributes wordless vocals, sounding at times like an additional wind instrument.

The music is close to soul-jazz as in the tuneful "Love Song #2" and it's close cousin, the infectious "Original Peter" (re-recorded for a single) sampled here:

The band now included George Khan a musician with a stronger rock/pop sensibility and the Deram LP's were produced by Peter Eden, an important catalyst for introducing pop to jazz and vice versa. (members of Westbrook's band would contribute to pop-hymn writer Bill Fay's 1970 Deram LP, produced by Eden). The cross-over in musical genres was however done more out of necessity than anything else and with the artists largely semi-professional, many were happy to pick up any available work. It was a period of greater respectability for jazz but it was still very much a secondary musical genre. "Love Songs" for example had been recorded at the independent Tangerine Studios on the Kingsland Road in East London which despite boasting an 8-track facility also had a bingo hall next door and recordings there were prone to a certain amount of sound leakage. Club dates were undertaken in a circuit of public houses dotted around the country, but mainly in London and the culture was still dictated by the rough and tumble of the saloon bar. In reality the larger the band, the more incoherent a piece could conceivably start, with band members returning from the bar glass in hand.

TYGER 1971 & LIVE 1972
Jazz was fighting for it's place in the culture and despite his growing status Westbrook would find himself promoting his music through increasingly diverse mediums. In 1971 his band provided the background music to Adrian Mitchell's National Theatre adaptation of William Blake poems (sung by a cast including Norman Beaton, Peter Duncan and a very groovy Maureen Lipman). The band also gigged with a multi-media company known as the Welfare State Travelling Circus, featuring acrobats and fire-eaters. At the City of London Festival in July 1972, a spectacular performance of "The Apocalyptic High Diver And The Pit of Molten Fire" culminated in one performer making a leap from the Tower of London battlements into the moat! It was a direction Westbrook would further develop into the early 1970's with his experimental jazz-rock outfit, Solid Gold Cadillac.

However Westbrook was primarily a composer and all other projects were merely works in progress towards his large scale compositions. In late 1968-1969 the big-band, with the assistance of an Arts Council bursary developed the follow-up to "Marching Song". Presented by the London Jazz Centre Society, the new work titled "Metropolis" received it's première at the Mermaid Theatre in the City of London. The performance was put on tape in the summer of 1971 and appeared on RCA Records new progressine imprint Neon, appearing alongside other low-selling jazz albums by Brotherhood of Breath and Keith Tippett's monstrous Centipede project. Featuring a 23 piece ensemble the album would be Westbrook's most ambitious and rewarding achievement to date. It would also reflect a greater degree of professionalism with Westbrook now released from his job as art teacher. This time around the core of the band were augmented by Henry Lowther, Malcolm Griffiths, Ray Warleigh, John Taylor, Gary Boyle and Harry Beckett; a veritable who's who of British jazz heavyweights. Of the album's nine movements three featured rock drumming and each side on the individual album concluded with elegiac trumpet solos by Lowther and Beckett respectively.

The album gently erupts with the sound of a city of horn instruments individually waking and shaking themselves out of slumber. Before long the city bursts into life with streets throbbing to funky electric bass and drums. Norma Winstone reappears as part of a lengthy collective improvisation that develops from a tentative and abstract opening towards a stunning melodic crescendo. Elsewhere Kenny Wheeler plays trumpet in a "Bitches Brew" style, whilst Westbrook himself features on a brief piano solo. Ex-Soft Machine guitarist Gary Boyle locks the LP into a jazz-rock groove with the massed horns of the dawn chorus, squawking their way towards the metaphorical day's end. John Marshall and Alan Jackson providing the heavy, driving rhythm in the drums. The track re-imagined as "Pleasure City", would feature in the Sold Gold Cadillac repertoire the following year, with the rock credentials emphasised by the band slipping into the "Satisfaction" riff.

                                                               METROPOLIS 1971
This period reached it's conclusion with another mighty big band composition, Citadel/Room 315 commissioned by Swedish radio in 1974. It would re-unite Westbrook with West Country saxophonist John Surman and return to the structured approach of  "Celebration" but with every piece written out in advance. Gone was the ragged collective improvisation of the previous years with players feeding off each others energy and spontaneity. In its place was an immaculately performed multi-layered composition which took British jazz to even higher levels. The album version featured ex-Blossom Toes guitarist Brian Godding on guitar, whilst Alan Jackson once again gave the LP an undercurrent of jazz-rock drumming. Co-producer John Surman dominates the LP's highlights including the complex "View From a Drawbridge" and the concluding "Outgoing Song", whilst Henry Lowther again excells on the nearly 12 minute "Pastorale" . Westbrook is pictured on the sleeve gazing out of rehearsal room 315 at Leeds Polytechnic seemingly in search of his next move. This would include an offshoot Brass Band and even greater theatrical collaboration with wife Kate Westbrook culminating in another huge work, 1979's "Cortege".

But the music industry's mainstream flirtation with jazz was over for good and the players retreated to the cellars of pubs and more receptive audiences on the Continent. The record labels passed over even the most established names and the Colliers, Ardleys, Gibbs and Westbrooks would find their music focussed towards a hardcore following with recordings increasingly distributed through small circulation labels. For many of them it was a return to the road and to the endless gigging that had set them on the path back in the early 60's. For many others it was a new life in the Post Office and Civil Service.

I leave you with the appropriately mournful conclusion to1971's "Metropolis" played by the late great Harry Beckett. It evokes the big city closing down, the last trains pulling away and the sound of a generation of superb musicians temporarily falling down between the cracks..

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