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Mike Westbrook – ‘Band of Bands’

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    Posted: 22 Jun 2024 at 2:47pm
Mike Westbrook – Band of Bands

(Westbrook Records. Album review by Phil Johnson)MIKE WESTBROOK - Band of Bands cover

No one could say that the great English composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook has settled into pipe-and-slippers mode for his late career. Although he was 87 when this was recorded and is 88 now, his latest ensemble Band of Bands is a fiercely Westbrookian outfit that shares the same passionate commitment and many of the same gifted personnel as his prolific musical past. As an arranger, he also gets an unfeasibly brassy big band sound from a smallish six piece instrumental line-up that swings like the clappers all the way.

The combination of Karen Street’s accordion with the twin alto-doubling-soprano saxes of Chris Biscoe and Pete Whyman is a masterstroke of casting. Each of them has been with the master for thirty years plus – almost fifty in Biscoe’s case, evidently – but their of necessity exposed front-line is wickedly effective, coaxing a bold and gloriously bluesy sound from relatively slender means. Street is particularly essential at conjuring up a thick, horn-chorus feel that somehow creates the illusion that there’s a trumpet in the line-up hidden somewhere, and maybe a trombone too. The rhythm team of Marcus Vergette on bass and Coach York on drums enhances the intensity of the front-line by grounding the gospelly wails and bluesy ornaments of Whyman and Biscoe with emphatic, rock solid time and driving momentum. It’s all a bit like Mingus, where the airy architecture of the written themes has to share house-room with the very earthy contributions of free-flowing and occasionally impolite-sounding soloists.

Recorded in concert last year at Ashburton Arts Centre in Devon – Westbrook’s home county – by engineer Matthew North and produced by Jay Auburn, the very live mix is superbly up-front and in your face. It’s also an almost indecently good value single CD that clocks in at around 80 minutes. The opening instrumental tunes set the tone, with the overture-like ‘Glad Day’ – from Westbrook’s popular William Blake-related suite of half a century ago, re-recorded and regularly re-presented since then – followed closely by the hard-blowing ‘Blues for Terenzi’ and a rollicking version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Johnny Come Lately’. All three sound absolutely on the money, with great ensemble passages and spirited individual solos, all guided by Westbrook’s steady hand on the piano-tiller.

The blues theme continues with the entry of singer Kate Westbrook on ‘Yellow Dog’, and she fronts the rest of the set from then on. It’s fair to say that Kate’s contributions divide Westbrook fans. Her unfailing intelligence and far-reaching range of reference – she began her career as a painter – have greatly broadened Westbrook’s vision over the years, helping to create a genuinely international aesthetic that is very rare in British jazz. But I found her expressionist version of Friedrich Hollander’s ‘Black Market’, complete with growls and whistling, seven minutes of pure torture. Then again, on the lovely closing number, ‘What I Like’, as she and the band exchange breezy call and response badinage, she sounds perfect, and perfectly Westbrookian. The song, which unpretentiously celebrates drink and fraternity, among many other things, is like an emblem of the composer. It’s the humanity, the unwavering left-of-centre commitment, and the sheer good fellowship of his music and personality that have helped to make Mike Westbrook the closest thing to an English version of Duke Ellington that we have. ‘Band of Bands’ certainly does enough to celebrate that. The recording was supported by the Airshaft Trust and the patrons of Band of Bands.

from https://londonjazznews.com

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