REVIEW: Mike Westbrook and Jonathan Gee at Pizza Express Dean Street

Jonathan Gee and Mike Westbrook
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

Mike Westbrook and Jonathan Gee
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London. Wednesday 15th March 2017. Review by Jane Mann)

Mike Westbrook and Jonathan Gee were an interesting pairing at this year’s Steinway 2 Piano Festival 2017 at the Pizza Express.

These two very different pianists took to the stage together and played by turns solos and duets. Mike Westbrook played several excerpts from his recent solo piano album Paris (2016) over the evening. He began with Sonnet for Stephen, an extended blues full of sadness and anger featuring his trademark massive chords and plenty of Debussy twinkling in the upper register. Propositions, a loud almost cubist improvisation, full of dissonance and conflict followed. The notes to the Paris album say that this tune “conjures up a vision of the Universe and the boundless possibilities, for good and ill, of the Web”. Jonathan Gee joined in, and the two men clearly relished the joint improvisation, and the sheer noise of these two powerful pianos. Out of this turmoil, the strains of Strayhorn’s A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing emerged, and harmony and melody returned.

Then it was Gee’s turn. He started with three compositions from his 2011 CD Dragonfly. The first was about a Cicada, and the next a mythical beast the Tortadilla. Both were lively with complicated South American rhythms, with tiny hints of Ravel, Gee singing along as he played. Then came the Barnes wetlands-inspired pastoral Dragonfly. I began to hear Westbrook influences, similarly expansive chords, and a penchant for modulating up towards the end of a tune, to cheering effect.

They then played some Ellington songs together which clearly delighted them both as well as the audience, with Gee bursting into song when they got to Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.

In Gee’s next solo set he played the Westbrook tune Brazilian Love Songs from the 2013 album three into wonderfull, sympathetically and beautifully, then his deconstructed reworking of the Beatles’ Michelle. Gee, who has spent years working on various Monk projects, both in jazz and contemporary classical music, finished his set with an effortless Crepuscule with Nelly and a pretty Light Blue.

Westbrook then explored some love songs from the Paris CD: tantalising glimpses of the Beatles’ Because, the beautiful 1974 Stylistics tune You Make Me Feel Brand New, finishing with a minimalist and touching interpretation of She Loves You. The final duets were two more Westbrook compositions. The first was D.T.T.M. – a piece in memory of two band members and friends. This was a blues but full of unexpected chords, played with sensitivity and vigour. Next came a riotous Rooster Rabelais, the pair grinning at each other as they traded big chords and extravagant trills. As an encore: Gaudy Bar, a Mingus tinged bar-room blues from Paintbox Jane, Westbrook providing a thunderous rolling blues undercurrent and Gee scat singing, and energetically decorating the melody. This tune, though new, felt like a jazz standard, and was an exciting way to end the evening.

-  Jonathan Gee is off touring the West Country for most of March and will be back in London at The Archduke, Waterloo on the 31st. He will also be performing at Ronnie Scott’s on the 24th April 2017. 

- Mike Westbrook is touring his masterpiece The Westbrook Blake, and then he will be back in London with Westbrook & Company, for performances of the new show Paintbox Jane at Vout-O-Reenees, Prescot Street, E1 on 28th and 29th April 2017.

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