Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra – A Bigger Show (Hen & Chicken, Sunday July 6)
Mike Westbrook was in his early 20s when he first became a bandleader and his career over the subsequent 55 years has shown that he fully deserved the title. Like the great US bandleaders, he has continually gathered together powerful combinations of playing talent that have brought his often ambitious compositions to vigorous life. His biggest and most impressive achievements have been collaborations with lyricist and vocalist Kate Westbrook, usually highly stylised jazz oratorios, often with a political edge and always staged on a grand scale that defies the economic logic of jazz.
So at one level A Bigger Show came as no surprise: a 20-strong big band, three vocalists, a libretto full of conspicuous vocabulary (juxtaposition! miasma! resuscitation fairy!) and a commitment to ‘liberty, fraternity, equality and jokes’. Yes, all the Westbrooks’ trademark boxes ticked, and very well, too. But who-on-earth-else would even consider a project like this, let alone embark on it? And who else could have made it work so satisfyingly? Bristol’s jazz-loving community had packed out the Hen & Chicken in anticipation of all this and were not disappointed.
As ever there was some theatricality – the Uncommon Orchestra slowly assembled as the score required, ambling on throughout Gizzards All Gory until a massive sound had built up thanks to two drummers, five sax players, five horns, two guitars and the potentially tectonic combination of double bass, bass guitar and sousaphone. Kate Westbrook’s declamatory address had all the ‘roll up, roll up!’ of a circus ringmaster, promising ‘the show that never ends’. Two and a half hours later (including the interval) it did, in fact, end – but nobody was wishing it to happen any sooner.
As ever, this was superbly composed music that used the resources at Westbrook’s disposal to create ever-changing moods and textures – Juxtapositions, for instance, which began rockishly as a bass/guitar/drums riff supporting a Chet Baker-style muted trumpet solo before shimmering carpets of thick trombone harmony swept it up and away. Freedom’s Crown (dedicated to Bristol’s great planning guru Stephen J Hewitt) set up the brass, rhythm section and vocals in benign contradiction, the filmic swoop of the voices set against Roz Harding’s perversely squally alto saxophone. She was the discovery of the night – a powerful and distinctive player who blossomed across the evening, delivering terse slashes or tumultuous cascades with perfect judgement. Less surprising, but equally delightful, was the forthright tenor of Lou Gare, free jazz veteran and one of Westbrook’s first musical partners, whose shapely solos also punctuated the evening.
The vocal team of Kate Westbrook, Martine Waltier and bass guitarist Billy Bottle (looking remarkably like the fourth Walker Brother – Zeppo? – circa 1967) were crucial, moving easily around the packed stage and delivering Kate’s Brechtian lyrics with crisp articulation, fine harmonies and theatrical flourishes. It all came together in the rocky final number Lovers Galore, a defiantly positive blast against the bleak universe and hollow cyberspace previously outlined, with soaring electric guitars and a rolling riff plus a final blistering alto solo from Roz Harding.
It was all both fresh and retrospective, a fitting statement of Mike Westbrook’s unique career to date and confirmation of his status as one of the greatest jazz composers this country has ever produced. This show deserves to be seen at the Barbican – and hopefully one day it will be – but that we could see this remarkable performance above a pub is also a fine tribute to promoter Ian Storrer and his three decades of commitment to bringing the country’s best jazz to Bristol.