I N C L A S S I C A L mythology the name Pierides is applied not just to the Muses, but to the nine Thessalian girls who challenge them to a singing contest. and. losing. are turned into guttural magpies. If great artists thieve, rather than merely cravenly borrow, Mike Westbrook can legitimately be called a magpie.
So his use. on the astonishing Westbrook-Rossini (hat ART 6002 CD, 1986), of Rossini's "La Gazza Ladra" (a theme that had re-entered popular consciousness via A Clockwork Orange and the Lone Ranger theme) may have touched a chord of ironic self-awareness. Pitting himself against the greatest role-models (with Ellington only the most obvious, celebrated without false modesty in the original themes of On Duke's Birthday (hat ART 6021 CD, 1984) he seems content ro rob from the rich and pass on the spoils. Like Ellington his skills as an improvisor are not primarily those of an instrumentalist. Westbrook's piano playing is functional, a combination of Ellington's broad-brush approach and Monk's faux-naif manner - it can seem unadventurous relative to the scope and ambition of his compositional work. If it's become a cliché to say that Ellington's instrument was the whole jazz orchestra. Westbrook requires a more abstract and ironic variation: he improvises also with genre and with the boundaries of genre. If Ellington lies behind the early and mid-period bigband Westbrook compositions (such as the still-to-be reissued Metropolis and Citadel/Room 315, Novus ND 74987, which has been putting out valuable material from a little considered but highly inventive decade in jazz) - with "Creole Love Call" also covered on Love/Dream and Variations (Transatlantic/Line TACD 9.00788 CD, 1976) - purely musical debts are offset by Westbrook's developing interest in the boundaries of music and verse, theatre, the plastic arts and agit-prop, which has led him to reconsider the work, of Brecht and Weill and The Beatles.
W E S T B R O O K B E L O N G S to a long-standing English musical tradition - most closely associated (though Westbrook is from semi-rural High Wycombe) with the Lancashire Catholic background out of which John Lennon emerged - under whose wry -,whimsicaility, lies a dark thread of social romanticism and protest. - Westbrook's Blake settings on Bright as Fire (Impetus IMP 18013 CD/LP/MC, 1980) are exemplary, sternly avoiding both the diatonic, folksy banality, and the OTT "visionary" mannerisms that creep into the work of other composers seduced and wrong-footed by Blake's apparent "simplicity." Though most light in touch, the Beatles arrangements on OffAbbey Road (TipToe 888805 CD, 1989) are highly ambiguous in import; "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" and "Come Together" carry, an impact out of all reasonable proportion to their actual content, and even "Mean Mr Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" acquire an impressive stature.
It's a remarkable gift and one which Westbrook has sustained throughout his recording career. His regular groups - the early Concert Band, which included John Surman, the mixed-media Cosmic Circus, which paved the way, for much of his later theatrical work, the jazz-rock Solid Gold Cadillac, and more recently the Brass Band - have drawn on a startling range of- musical and performance backgrounds. The only one of Westbrook's earlier large-scale compositions for band still surviving is the marvellous Citadel/Room 315, so named for the room in Leeds Polytechnic where much of the music was written. The piece is a typical mixture of bright, brassy themes, stretched over a hard rock beat, but with considerable rhythmic and harmonic variation. Surmian is the featured soloist, on all three of his horns. Westbrook himself performs very little, leaving piano duties to the New Zealander Dave MacRae. There are hints of later developments in Westbrook's use of a children's skipping chant on -"View From The Drawbridge". At the heart of the piece are two tender love songs (one called just that, "Love Song"), a blowIng piece called "Pastorale" and, as on Metropolis, two collective improvisations: "Bebop De Rigueur"- and the magnificent "SleeperAwaking In Sunlight", scored mainly for clarinets and baritone saxophone.
O F T H E regular groups the Brass Band has been the most personal and the most problematic. Westbrook, together with Kate Barnard (now also Westbrook) has devised a remarkable series of performances/entertainments which blend elements of jazz, popular song, verse and theatre. The finest of these are The Cortège (to be re-issued later this year by Enja) and its dark thematic twin London Bridge Is Broken Down (Venture VED 13, CD, 1987), which presents broadly the same drama of life-in-death-in-life. Perhaps the purest and most straightforward, though (in the absence of the underrated and currently unavailable Mama Chicago is the trio Love For Sale (hat ART 6061 CD, 1985), which weaves a remarkable range of sources (including Blake again) into a coherent performance that balances social anger, sentiment and purely formal control.
The unifying factor, as in much of Westbrook's work, is Kate Westbrook's remarkable voice. "England Have My Bones" features it at its most Grand Guignol, but she is equally capable of aromanticism, as on "Lush Life", and of a husky purity reminiscent of the classical contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Her own overdue solo debut, Goodbye,. Peter Lorre (Line FECD 9.01060 CD, 1991 ), overdoes the vocal costume-changing a little, but is still undeniably effective. The only item in the catalogue that is a thumping disappointment is the early, For The Record (Transatlantic/Line 9.00785 CD, 1975). Westbrook contributes typically simple, thought-out accompaniments, but too much of the drama is left to the voices.
The instrumental recipe works rather better on Pierides (Core/Line COCD 9.00377 CD, 1986). This was originally conceived as a dance/theatre piece and known as Pier Rides, a stroke of wry anglicizarion that brings the mythological singing contest within the compass of a coastal talent show. Westbrook's later orchestral works have been tighter and less detailed than the beautiful abstract impressionism of Metropolis , which, along with the classic early Marching Song, is his best non-vocal work. Two of the later pieces afford an interesting comparative exercise. Unlike Westbrook-Rossini, which treats the "LaGazza Ladra" theme almost as if it were a show-tune standard featuring solo improvisations, On Duke's Birthday is a set of original scores which reflect the spirit of Ellington's compositions and arrangements, but which refer to them only subliminally. Neither approach is that of a pasticheur. Westbrook's arrangements are clean-Iimbed and his big bands have a simplicity and directness of detail very little different from the vocal trios and quartets. The studio CD of Westbrook-Rossini replaces an earlier double album live set of the same material; some of the solos, from Lindsay Cooper's snaker-charmer sopranino in particular, lack the spontaneity of the live set, but the sound is very much better.
The long London Bridge set derives something from T.S. Eliot's aural soundscapes in "TheWaste Land", drawing together musical elements from Berlin, Prague and Vienna with a logic that recalls Ellington's unfussy, theme-by-theme approach to suites and which is recalled in Lindsay Cooper's own recent Oh, Moscow. The final "Picardie" section is one of Westbrook's most successful and moving settings, a pastoral contrast to the urban modernism celebrated in earlier part. As with all his music, the arrangements are spare, imaginative and unobtrusive.
Westbrook has been substantially documented on record. The results are by. no means as consistent as the quality, of his imagination might suggest- In some cases, as on parts of Pierides and the Rossini, they don't quite repay the sheer sense of risk; in others, as in parts of Love For Sale, there it a drift toward pastiche. However, collectively they establish Westbrook as one of the most significant jazz composers of his generation, a figure whose reputation even now is more substantial abroad than at home.
The Wire, Issue 104, October 1992