CD REVIEW: Mike Westbrook and the Uncommon Orchestra - A Bigger Show

Mike Westbrook and the Uncommon Orchestra - A Bigger Show
(ASC Records. ascd162163. CD Review by Patrick Hadfield)

This double CD records Mike and Kate Westbrook's recent large scale theatrical project. Using an orchestra of twenty one, incorporating actors and a dramaturge (a rare credit on a jazz CD) and musicians from a variety of traditions, it builds on themes that the Westbrooks have been working on for several years. Several of the songs appear in shorter versions on the Village Band's CD “The Waxeywork Show”, and other tracks have been developed from pieces in the Art Wolf project. But this is a bigger band – a bigger show.

Sung in Kate Westbrook's distinctive, stylised voice, the songs tell tales of the Waxeyworks, a composite of a fairground, a freak show, Bartholomew Fair, a seaside music hall, and today's internet-driven celebrity culture. The cast of characters would fit right in to Brecht's The Beggars Opera or a Shakespearean bawdy house. They serve to emphasise the absurdity of our hectic, networked modern lives.

Most tracks are based around relatively simple riffs, but Mike Westbrook's luscious orchestrations and arrangements create complex musical structures which, together with some excellent soloists, hold one's attention across both CDs. Several tracks last around fifteen minutes, and Propositions, at over thirty minutes, could form a suite of its own as it moves through several different sections, but the music flies along. Kate Westbrook's words come across with more pathos and irony than in their previous incarnation. There are several new songs, too, and the older ones have been extended and reworked for the Uncommon Orchestra's broader canvas. The interplay between the three singers allows for a varied characterisation as they take different on different roles.

The whole has been described as an oratorio, in which the Westbrooks have created a compelling if sometimes repellant world. Taking from jazz, rock and folk musics, something unique emerges. Building on his large body of work, Mike Westbrook has produced music that is by turns exciting, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Let's hope it really is “the show that never ends”!

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield

LINKS: Review by John Turney of the Westbrook Blake from the Bath Festival in 2015
Reviewby Chris Parker  of Glad Day in London in 2014
Interview with Mike and Kate Westbrook about Glad Day
CD Review: The Serpent Hit by Chris Parker

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