Monday, November 20, 2006

The Mike Westbrook Village Band at the Queen Elisabeth Hall, Friday, 10 November... a review...

This first night free gig in the Front Room at the Queen Elisabeth Hall on the first night of the 2006 London Jazz Festival had brought out the crowd... when I got there in what I had falsely assumed was plenty of time to grab a beer and a good seat, I realised that plan A was out the window... all the best seats had gone. So I acquired a drink and found a reasonable vantage point to lean on, at a diagonal on the sight-line from the stage. Luckily I am long-sighted... I could see the band OK and hear most of the music fine – apart from some conflicting sounds from the coffee machine forward left of me – an interesting degree of aleatoric noise which started to became irritating eventually. Mercifully the coffee drinkers were keeping their consumption down tonight. Hooray for alcohol... Also, when Kate Westbrook took vocals, I couldn't make out the words too well... but... on y va...

Mike Westbrook: One of the great composer/bandleaders, he has worked with a bewildering diversity of lineups and projects down the years. On an intersecting synchronicity, the book I had been reading on the train was Iain Sinclair's new work on John Clare, 'Edge of the Orison.' Which caused me to remember the Westbrook album 'The Cortege' and my two favourite tracks - the stunning version of Clare's 'Toper's Rant.' And the New Orleans march on the same set – 'Free as a bird.' Between those two poles – of the poet of rural England and the roots of early jazz – taking in the European influences of art song and cabaret, doubling back into the English music hall and the complex soundworlds of contemporary jazz... there you will maybe find this concert situated. Which sounds portentous – but the performance certainly was not, done with a firm but light touch. The Village Band essayed two suites – 'All that jazz' which was a celebration of jazz composition and song from Joplin to Monk, via Jelly Roll Morton, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Tadd Dameron and Bessie Smith and 'The Waxeywork Show' – an original work from the Westbrooks melding Kate's lyrics to Mike's setting, making a comparison between a Victorian fairground and the present day internet. These were split up, situating the 'Waxeywork' in the middle of the set, book-ended by the homage to jazz...

The Village Band lineup is: tenor horn, euphonium, trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor saxophones. They started with (I think) Morton's 'Dead Man Blues.' A warm deep sound – the euphonium and tenor horn giving a generous sonority and depth. No rhythm section – which allows a certain freedom to float these pieces on – albeit within certain necessary idiomatic constraints of tempo and rhythmic nuance. This makes it easier for the older pieces to work effectively – it avoids the polar risks of being too clumpy or too polyrhythmic. A clever selection – 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' leading into Charles Mingus's 'Jelly Roll Soul,' that affectionate homage to the (arguably) first great jazz composer – a doubling back which signifies the movement here in acoustic space to clear a temporary ground where these pieces can exist, the old against the new. I actually preferred this version - never having liked the Mingus original, too clumsy I always felt, despite the genuine feeling. It can be awkward to play in older idioms – if you have a wide palette of instrumental techniques available as most modern musicians obviously do, how far can you bend the older form before it breaks and the precarious balance is detroyed? The Mingus recording always comes across to me as hokum because it seems to my heretic ear that no one is exactly sure of what to play... The soloists in these pieces managed to negotiate their way through by playing well within themselves – and avoiding pastiche. (No slap-tonguing saxes...) Also, a more general point: certain jazz timbres will cut across the stylistic divides, so the more vocalised trumpet and trombone effects, for example, can work at a point where the avant-garde/contemporary concern with sound links with some older jazz techniques.

The audience was responding well and with much obvious affection... at various points I was waiting for someone to start jiving, given the age of many in the crowd... traditional jazz is embedded deep in the UK popular cultural heritage. Memories of older purist wars poked amusingly through as I had the impish yet nostalgic thought that it would be hilarious if someone suddenly unfurled a banner with 'Go home dirty bebopper' (scroll down for hilarious story) emblazoned on it when one of the saxes took a solo...

The new work being premiered was 'The Waxeywork Show.' Embedded in the middle so that the second section of 'All that jazz' took the gig out. An interesting progression – rather than a straight line, a steady circling outwards and back which seems to be the spatial metaphor that describes this performance best – into the more modern and astringent textures of 'Waxeyworks,' the knowing theatricality and ventriloquism of Kate Westbrook being featured now... the Art/Cabaret Song up front... music sharpening, becoming harmonically denser, rhythmically more complex, the soloing freer, unleashed from the constraints of more traditional jazz. Dissonance more explicit now... and seesawing rhythms to match the visions of the Victorian fairground? Missing most of the lyrics, as already mentioned, I just responded to the sound, which included a beautiful long, written section – although I caught this line: 'Welcome to the show that never ends, that leads you on and on...' This comparison between the 19th century fairground and the contemporary internet sounds intriguing. And also operates as reinforcing the linkage with of past and present, which seems to be the theme of the night... I also caught a reference to that late Victorian A-Lister Jack the Ripper... Always something contemporary about Jack, the spurious romanticising of the serial killer... Kate Westbrook uses her wide-ranging vocal technique to conjure up different characters, at one point evoking the meta-babble of the Net in channelling conversational American voices against the splendidly sonorous backdrop of her husband's orchestration. I hope to hear this work again so I can get a clearer grasp of its wider message...

Maybe the economics of the business dictate small ensembles – I love to hear the really BIG band sounds of Westbrook – but this can also facilitate much cunning and invention. An old jazz pastime – writing for a band to make it seem bigger than its parts... so, into the last third...

... 'All that jazz' redux... more looping through jazz time – going from Tadd Dameron's 'If you could see me now' sung in more conventional jazz style now by Kate to her roaring version of an old Bessie Smith blues via Monk – a superb version of 'Monk's Mood' which could almost have been written for this lineup (with a faint echo perhaps of 'Abide with me' scored for horns only on 'Monk's Music' – that would have been an interesting hymnal segue), Duke Ellington, of course, going out on the stately gait of Scott Joplin. Where much of the music came from originally...

Last thoughts – a great gig. An ensemble evening, but all the solists acquitted themselves well and within the spirit of their material. This was warm music, warmly received by the crowd. 'All that Jazz' referenced the wide spectrum from ragtime to Monk - but intelligently – this wasn't some trad/mainstream 'Tribute to ...' warhorse... the new work was firmly in the long-established Westbrook tradition of going out beyond jazz to bring in elements of variety/music hall and European art/cabaret song spiced with political astringencies – featuring Kate Westbrook's lyrics and her unique voice, not always loved by all, an acquired taste, perhaps (which I acquired a long time back) that has a range encompassing early classic blues to the concert hall and beyond via the jazz vocal mainstream. Just good fun for the opening night? Much more, I think... The Village Band conceit is subtle – using a rural English metaphor and the brass band sound to give American jazz a local setting without compromising the performance via misplaced pastiche and placing old favourites into a new orientation. Both strange and familiar at the same time and a process that is possibly more experimental than it seems on the surface... playing games with time to displace the linear in favour of the loop and the circle? I had another attack of whimsy later on, when an image of some West Coutry summer fete came into mind complete with bandstand and Westbrooks riffing away as the Morris dancers got it on and some retainer coming to the bandstand for a request: 'Squire presents his compliments, Mr W, and asks if you know any Ornette Coleman?' 'No problem, Mr Hudson – “Lonely Woman” in B flat, lads, easy on the harmolodics, Squire's good lady is a bit delicate... one two three...'

But it's getting late... Enough...



The lineup of the Village Band:
Mike Brewer - trumpet
Kate Westbrook - tenor horn/vocals
Sam Smith - trombone
Mike Westbrook - euphonium
Stan Willis - alto saxophone
Gary Bayley - tenor saxophone

6 comments:

Frank said...

Thanks Rod for this review. I couldn't make it to the LJF this year, but was fortunate enough to see this show earlier in the year in Devon. - There was also a BBC broadcast of the "Waxeywork Show" live from the Pizza Express, the same night as the QEH concert, which I gladly lapped up.
The broadcast also helped in clearing up some of the lyrics for me:
Jack the Ripper and Chairman Mao (and some others) find themselves cheek by jowl on the internet.
Powercut! Databases gone and the backups are old ...
These are two, just off the top of my head, don't hold me down to the exact wording though.

Rod... said...

... thanks for kind comment... re radio 3 jazz programme, the one week I didn't surf over to their site happened to be - last week when the Westbrook gig was up! Very annoying as I'd like to have heard it again and got some of the lyrics a little clearer...missed it by a day - and also the session with EP playing with Henry Grimes and co

Earling (Esteban) Garvie said...

Great review Rod. Made me feel as if I had been at the QEH. I had listened to the Radio 3 set though. I think that Mike's idea of the Village Band was to use local musicians. A creative concept in itself. I admire Westbrook´s attitude as he is used to playing with highly qualified artists.

Rod... said...

... hadn't thought about the local but it makes sense... and as a dedicated provincial whose served his time in London and more, I say: all power to him... lots of good things going on out here in the darkness!

Chris said...

How nice to read a glowingly positive review for Kate & Mike Westbrook's Waxeywork Show and "All That Jazz" at the QEH. I have passed on the link to Kate & Mike to read for themselves.

Molly Bloom said...

What a brilliant post and lovely comments Rod. Great feedback Rod. Really enjoyed reading this.