REVIEW: Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra at Ronnie Scott's

The Uncommon Orchestra in Birmingham in 2017
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
Mike Westbrook Uncommon Orchestra
(Ronnie Scott’s, 12 February 2019. Review by Richard Lee)

First, let’s clear the air: i) this is going to be one of those jazz reviews that finds no fault; ii) Mike Westbrook is our greatest living composer/arranger. Don’t even begin to discuss. Because in this scintillating but all-too-rare metropolitan performance by the Uncommon Orchestra, revisiting key moments in the Westbrook catalogue, we heard a lifetime project to take the thing called jazz and make it a truly English thing. Mike has taken the American tradition, melding it with European influences from cabaret, folk song, rock (more XTC than R’n’B), Victorian poetry and Dada. His arrangements of Ellington, Rossini and Weill have a peculiarly English sound, which manifests itself most powerfully in his settings of William Blake. But he also gathers round him English musicians that deliver world-class playing. Most of the Orchestra are gathered from Mike & Kate’s home area in the South West, and while they may not be household names, they are clearly among England’s Finest. What was clear from the start was how at home this massive band was on the Frith Street stage. (24 must be one of the biggest line-ups at the Club). I saw them at King’s Place when they launched A Bigger Show and, spectacular though that was, a real buzz and energy were palpable tonight.

Commencing with a pair of “roll-up, roll-up” pieces from 2016’s A Bigger Show, the Uncommon Orchestra announced itself with gusto. The ever dependable Kate Westbrook, John Winfield, Martine Waltier and Billie Bottle drove the powerful choral presence in Gizzards All Gory, enjoining us as “Friends!” but finding a darker tone in the following Juxtapositions with its “disasters yet to come”.

Winfield led on Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell which sure has developed from its first outings, here gaining even more poignancy with Dominique Pifarély’s plangent violin. The most English of arrangers then gave us Brazilian Love Songs layered in Mingus-like arrangements giving way to the most Latin Latin I’ve heard in ages from non-Latin players, followed by the first of Jesse Molins’ tremendous guitar solos, and then to a Surabya-esque vocal outro from Kate: a veritable world tour in one number. The beautiful Tender Love & Bebop de Rigeur from Citadel/Room 315 featured the phenomenal Roz Harding on alto. She is such a powerful, confident player, easily holding her own with regular Westbrook reeds Alan Wakeman & Pete Whyman who themselves played magnificently throughout. I really enjoyed the use of Marcus Vergette’s stand-up and Billie Bottle’s electric bass in unison, and while Mike focused on conducting tonight, was equally impressed with Billie’s terrific work, depping at the keys. The first set closed with Lu Me Sceccu, because Mike was “determined we’d play some Italian folk songs” on last year’s tour to revisit Catania, the release of which eponymous album (recorded in 1992) was what we were celebrating tonight. Quite right too…

A re-working of Ellington’s Tulip or Turnip gave one of the younger members of the band, trombonist Samuel Chamberlain-Keen, an opening to shine. And then came Alabama Song, versions of which I’ve enjoyed in a variety of forms from Kate & Mike over many years; but I think we reached peak-Weill here. Perhaps it was Graham Russell’s horn solo, followed by stalwart Dave Holdsworth’s sprightly pocket trumpet (all the more theatrical while he’s entwined in his sousaphone); perhaps it was the arrangement, the most sumptuous ever; or was it Kate out-Lotte-ing Lenya? Whatever: it felt like a whole musical in itself, demonstrating that Mike is one of the finest theatre arrangers.

OK, so in this most English of bands, there’s one French musician here and violinist Dominique Pifarély took centre-stage in D.T.T.M, a number re-worked by Mike from On Duke’s Birthday for his beautiful Paris solo album. How delightful to hear it here in Dominique’s sensitive hands. His slow blues propelled by that ever-powerful choir was deeply moving, hugely appreciated by a really warm, thankfully entirely non-corporate audience. Billie Bottle took the lead on another Bigger Show number, the textually bleak but musically fulsome Gas, Dust, Stone, notable for another time-splintering solo from Roz Harding while Coach York fearlessly drove the 12/8 from the kit.  As Ellington’s messenger on earth, Mike gave Alan Wakeman room to stretch out on tenor in Strayhorn’s Something To Live For, while Pete Whyman’s alto & Dick Pearce’s trumpet led the charge in a thundering Graffiti from The Cortège.

The evening ended with “a couple of English pieces” as Mike termed McCartney’s Golden Slumbers, John Clare’s The Toper’s Rant and I See Thy Form from the 1982 Westbrook Blake. In between, they took the William Tell Gallop at a heady pace which even had the usually indifferent waiters bopping behind the bar. But the English pieces were each, in their own way, the kind of anthems we need right now, delivered with such depth of emotion. A wonderful uplifting way to end a unique show.

Why on earth, in the 50th anniversary year of Abbey Road a major concert hall isn’t snapping up the Westbrook Off Abbey Road beggars belief. England’s Finest? I think my use of “English” throughout is too restrictive. The Westbrook Project travels the world for its sources (see The Cortège) and, in that, is a truly European one: outward-facing, co-operative, collaborative - and before you @ me – audiences for this band last year mustered thousands, not hundreds, in Sicily & Italy. Of course Ronnie’s was completely packed but where are the UK audiences for jazz in their thousands…? Mike is a prophet in his own land, shamefully ignored, hugely treasured by those who know.

The evening started with an uncomfortable apology for not presenting Mike at Ronnie’s more; Mike in his turn generously ended the evening saying what a joy it was to play the club, and how ever grateful he was to Ronnie who gave him his first gig. So we went home thinking of "yesterday", but like the upcoming movie of that name, where a musician finds himself in a world that never knew the Beatles, I imagine a world where we all wake up after a power-cut and whenever you type “jazz” or “music” into your web-browser, it comes back with “Mike Westbrook” as its first hit.

UNCOMMON ORCHESTRA

Mike Westbrook - piano
Kate Westbrook, John Winfield, Martine Waltier, Billie Bottle - vocalists
Coach York - drums
Marcus Vergette - double bass
Alan Wakeman, Pete Whyman, Rosalind Harding, Sarah Dean, Ian Wellens - saxes
Stuart Brooks, Graham Russell, Dave Holdsworth, Dick Pearce, Sam Massey - trumpets
Stewart Stunell, Joe Carnell, Ashley Nayler, Samuel Chamberlain-Keen- trombones
Jesse Molins, Matt North - guitars
Dominique Pifarély - violin

7 comments:

  1. An excellent review on a truly excellent evening!

    The band were superb!

    And I completely agree with Richard's comments about Westbrook's place in jazz. This show felt very much like a retrospective, a body of work that I feel like I am only just discovering.

    Mike Westbrook seemed very humble, and movingly gave tribute to his former collaborators, notably Jon Hiseman who had produced much of Westbrook's recent releases and reissues, including the newly released Catania.

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  2. Thank you Patrick. It was a stupendous evening.

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  3. Great review Richard. Glad to see that you were able to get a ticket after all.

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  4. Absolutely spot on. Spine tingling stuff

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