Often regarded as Westbrook’s most ambitious work, The Cortege is only one of the many over-the-edge oeuvres he’s done, but this early-80’s piece dos walk away with the gold medal. Indeed, we’re often fairly far away from the jazz medium, and the best way Cortege could be pigeonholed is progressive jazz-fusion. Among the cast of musicians, you’ll find rock-alumni Brian Godding (guitar) and Steve Cook (bass), RIO-crowd Phil Minton (vocals and trumpet), Lindsey Cooper (bassoon), Georgie Born (cello) and pure-jazz personnel (Malcolm Griffiths (trombone), Guy Barker, Dick Pearce and Dave Plew (trumpet), etc… The project was assembled when Westbrook composed the piece and it was performed twice in the UK and twice in Italy in 79, then in Germany in 80, then recorded for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast. The “piece” continued to evolve until it was finally set to disc in early 82 and release as a triple vinyl album. The works were then performed throughout France and Switzerland (Montreux Festival), and performed for the last time in Italy mid-84.
The vocals, courtesy of Mike’s wife Kate Westbrook (also on flutes) and Phil Minton have a semi-operatic feel, often mixed in with RIO-like vocals (Henry Cow and Art Bears’ Dagmar Krause comes to mind) with lyrics taken from different poet legends like Garcia-Lorca, Arthur Rimbaud, Herman Hesse, William Blake, Belli and a few more, mostly sung in French (credibly enough), Spanish, English or Swedish. 15 tracks, ranging from 3 to 17 minutes, sung in around six European languages for a total of two hours plus of challenging music… quite a programme and quite a few hours of intense listening in sight, really!!
Opening on an almost hard-rock riff (reminiscent of what Rush could do), It Starts Here features the moods change quite often, veering from JR/F to RIO in less time than it takes to type it down, sometimes featuring a shredder guitar solo (Godding). The same Godding is also quite present in the following track Democratie (with Rimbaud lyrics), sharing the spotlight with Cooper’s bassoon. The mood does settle down (sometimes too much) and become classical with the following two tracks, the moods alternating between the slow and boring to the haunting clarinet-dominated. Erme Estuary (dedicated to Westbrook’s father, who died during the creation protest), while Girano seems to go for an intermediate position between red-hot fusion and jazzier moments, especially with plenty of steaming horns. You’ll easily guess the album-shortest track Piano features Westbrook himself and solo. Georgie Born’s cello opens Lenador, where Kat’s vocals near the sombre, if not sinister or downright funeral, but Barker’s outstanding trumpet pulls it back from the dead.
Most of the second part (meaning the last three sides of vinyl, but second disc of the CD Enja label reissue) is much of the same impressive ilk, but the classical genre dominates the debate in a much more convincing fashion. Well, The Cortege is definitely not an easy oeuvre to digest, hardly helped by its duration well over two hours and a diversity and complexity that can baffle even the most demanding progressive-minded aficionados. To make the absorption easier, the album comes with an extensive booklet, where Westbrook takes great care to explain the individual pieces, even if the infos given are easily accessible for non-musicians. Certainly an out-of-the-ordinary release, and most likely Westbrook’s crowing achievement in his composing career.