REVIEW: Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra at Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

The Uncommon Orchestra at the Blue Orange Theatre
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra
(Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, 17 December 2017. Review and photographs by John Watson)

What a joy it was to be able to listen to so many adventurous bands when British and UK-based jazz composers developed a tremendous sense of self-confidence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among the finest of them were the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, Graham Collier Music, the Kenny Wheeler Big Band, and the Mike Westbrook Concert Band.

The music of those ensembles - and very many smaller groups - has left a rich recorded legacy for us to enjoy. And, happily, composers Gibbs and Westbrook are still providing us with outstanding live performances of their music today.

On Sunday, Mike Westbrook brought his spectacular 20-piece Uncommon Orchestra to the Blue Orange Theatre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, for a concert presented by Birmingham Jazz.

Mike Westbrook in Birmingham
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
Since the composer recorded such powerful albums as Celebration (Deram, 1967), Marching Song (Deram,1969) and Metropolis (RCA Neon, 1971), his music has undergone constant evolution, embracing song and theatre as well as improvised and orchestrated jazz.

The lyrics for his current project A Bigger Show come, as usual, from his singer wife Kate Westbrook, who brings a strong sense of a Pinteresque theatre-of-the-absurd to Westbrook performances, with some witty words and confident communication with the audience.

I must admit, though, that I do wish that the lyrics could sometimes be ruthlessly edited. I think that the interminably repeated mantra “Gas . . dust . . . stone” (from the song of the same name) will be engraved on my brain for months to come, like some demonic earworm.

That said, the vocal side of the project was much enhanced by the presence in the ensemble of fellow singer Martine Waltier and singer-bass guitarist Billie Bottle. And the instrumental work was sheer joy, with veteran soloists including Alan Wakeman on tenor and soprano saxes and Dave Holdsworth on sousaphone and pocket trumpet, alongside promising younger players including trumpeters Sam Massey and Jon Scott, and alto saxophonist Roz Harding.

It was Westbrook’s ensemble writing, though, that brought the greatest joy. His use of orchestration achieves such extraordinary musical depth - literally so, with a line-up including bass guitar, double bass, sousaphone, bass trombone and baritone sax. In contrast to my reaction to the repetitive lyrics in some of the pieces, I really didn’t want some of the relentless, richly-harmonised ensemble riffs to end. Too marvellous for words.

The frontline of the Uncommon Orchestra, with Alan Wakeman on the left
Photo credit: John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

1 comment:

  1. Mike Westbrook: The Uncommon Orchestra concert: What a fantastic show, thank you Mike, Kate et al. I was down in Torrington last year to see A Bigger Show, so it was absolutely marvellous to see the show on my home turf in Brum on Sunday night. Please don't leave it too long before we see you all again! The Blue Orange theatre was a nice venue, but a little small for the band. I wish it could have been done at the Town Hall. Highlight for me was Roz Harding and Dave Holdsworth's blast of a duet on sax and pocket trumpet.

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