The Master Of
PHILIP CLARKhas a composer-to-composer talk with Mike Westbrook and discusses an approach to music from which `there's really no turning back, even though it's such a difficult area in which to succeed'.
Don't forget that Ronnie Scott's generation came up through the dance bands. Sometimes they mightn't have playcd much jazz, but they had regular gigs through which they could develop." Mike Westbrook is defining how he slots into the history of British jazz. "My generation came out of Art Schools and the like, and we were far less 'professional musicians' as we worked out our ideas. We worked through experimentation and trial-and-error. We had a mission to play anywhere."
lt started with some tantalising glimpses of a new piece inspired by an 18th century Alpine painter, and ended with a discussion of how William Blake and 1920s jazz connect spiritually. It was a typical afternoon 'round the Westbrooks'. Mike Westbrook is a jazz composer, a pianist and a musician who views the restrictive practices of musical labels and genres with suspicion. Mirroring the ambition and scale of bis work, Westbrook is tall and commanding, a latter day Humphrey Lyttelton in physique, but instead of Humph's aristocracy, Westbrook's vibe is genteel prep-school master. His wife Kate is the singer of the outfit. She is his closest collaborator and principal lyricist, and also occasional perforrner on tenor-horn and piccolo.
Together they have created a unique body of work within British music. Their collaborative pieces such as Glad Day, London Bridge Is Broken Down and The Cortège are at once as English as Britten or Vaughan Williams, but are realised with a deliberately unstuffy attitude that nudges their work closer to the questioning and dissident world of Tippett or Finnissy.
Jazz, for Westbrook, represents creative liberation. As we sit round the dining table in his Russell Square flat, words like 'freedom' and 'imagination' are leitmotifs and it becomes clear how vigorously the lessons of jazz shook the world of this most English of men. Other recurring themes are the creative friction between high art and low culture that Westbrook sees jazz managing to embrace, and his regret at the way money-men and fashionistas now dominate public perception of what today's UK jazz scene is about. "The days when we had tons of gigs are gone. Commissions come along infrequently and opportunities for travel are nowadays very special," Westbrook muses. "Things go in phases, but our thing is to hold on as strongly as possible to what we believe in. We put everything into a gig and all we can do is concentrate on what's most important."
What's been most important lately has been a series of ambitious multi-media pieces, all created for performances in central Europe though sadly neglected on our own shores. Chanson Irresponsable, an 80-minute epic scored for a hybrid of jazz and classical players and first performed in Milan in 2001, is the only example of recent Westbrook that British audiences are likely to have heard. lt was rescued by a Radio 3 broadcast and then released on the Enja label in late 2003, but Turner In Uri (2003) remains unheard. Turner In Uri and Art Wolf are companion pieces both commissioned by Swiss arts organisations that take Swiss visual arts as their subject. The Turner piece follows the travels or the British painter J M W Turner through Switzerland in the early 19th century and employs voices, a jazz/rock group and a brass band to tell his musical travelogue. The text crosses five different languages and the whole piece is given a visual dimension by the projection on backdrops of paintings by Kate Westbrook. The Swiss visual arts scene of 200 years ago is hardly a topic favoured by the contemporary jazz scene. It's a 'thinking' piece, so unhip and non-bling as to 'X' itself out of favour, lt's unwieIdy, expensive and awkwad to mount. It's never going to win a MOBO or Mercury Music Prize nomination. Something, then, with the courage to pull the carpet away from under the feet of how jazz now is expected to behave. Westbrook is as fascinated by the corner he's painted himself into as lhe is acutely aware of its inherent problems.
"The Turner piece is vastly complex and it was nine months of extremely hard work writing an elaborate full score for this huge ensemble," he recalls. "The piece is really a meeting of all the arts, and then on the back of that we started Art Wolf which was a complete contrast. It's just four people, Kate and myself with Peter Whyman and Chris Biscoe on saxophones, and was very hastily put together. After Kate had finished her research, the music was basically written within a couple of weeks. Some pieces I agonise over for months, while others I just sit at the piano and write out. Both ways work, but the just sitting-down-and-writing-it-out method has an immediacy which i think is very valuable.
Westbrook thinks that writing original songs is now the most important aspect of what himself and Kate do: "But songs as part of a wider musical experience. There's the orchestration and the consideration of how the songs fit into all the wider aspects of the piece. That's what Kate and I are about, what Germans call the gesamtkunstwerk, the 'total work of art', a term for which there isn't really an English equivalent.
And a phrase with Wagnerian overtones?
"I guess so, but once you've tasted it, there's really no turning back even though it's such a difficult area in which to succeed. It's very difficult commercially and artistically and the music business on the whole can't accommodate this sort of thing. It's a difficult area but, as I say, now I'm on this path it'd be impossible to go back to running a little jazz quintet playing 'Bye, Bye Blackbird'. There are people doing that who I have enormous respect for, and they're perfectly happy doing it. But we're interested in a different area.
"Art Wolf is based on Caspar Wolf who was an artist particularly associated with the galIery in Switzerland that commissioned the piece. He's a little-known Alpine painter of the 18th century who possibly influenced Turner, and so it grew quite naturally out of Turner In Uri. We made an absolutely marvellous trip to the gallery - they let us see all those Wolf paintings that they normally keep stacked away. At first we didn't know what to do with this material, but Kate started pondering about his rather tragic life, always struggling to make art, but through her lyrics she made lots of parallels with our own day-to-day existence and the role of the artist."
In that regard. Art Wolf fits clearly into the Westbrook canon. From his settings of William Blake collected initially as The Westbrook Blake and later expanded into Glad Day, to his theatre piece The Ass based on D H Lawrence, to poets like Lorca, Rimbaud and Goethe represented in London Bridge and The Cortège, Westbrook is inspired by writers and artists whose view of the world is transcendental and visionary, and who set themselves at right-angles to the everyday. It's often tempting to see Westbrook in the tradition of utopian Arts & Crafts/Fabian Society Socialism, a sensibility deeply rooted in the English psyche through such philosophers as Francis Bacori and David Hume, and then on into Blake and to later painters such as Stanley
Spencer. Although this tradition is deeply embedded within Westbrook, it forms only one facet of his creative persona. His love of blues, boogie-woogie, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and bebop must also be put into the equation or else he wouldn't be a jazzman at all. But the marrow of Westbrook's aesthetic has been bis ability to draw all these strands together and channel them into a unified music. It all takes a bit of explanation. so please bear with us.
"The idea of poets and artists and so on," Mike explains, "is trying to find one's own space within the profession. People have made connections back to William Morris and that Utopian Socialist thing which I don't mind, but it's possible they're putting their own constructions on what I do."
Chanson Irresponsable helps clarify matters. The starting point of the piece has nothing to do with jazz. Westbrook heard the song of the Sedge Warbler and was bowled over by its sound and instinctive creativity. He knew there was a piece in there somewhere, but only gradually did a compositional hock present itself. "I'd read this description of the Sedge Warbler's song as an 'irresponsible song'," Westbrook elucidates. I thought that was the most wonderful way of describing what I'd heard and I began thinking what is an 'irresponsible song'? I then realised it's what jazz is about, and certainly what we're about. It's that freedom thing again. It's what improvising is about, and things like responsibility and orthodoxy kill that sense of freedom."
Westbrook's linking of an abstract extramusical source with sornething rooted firmly inside jazz tradition as a creative catalyst is a central trait of his work. In The Cortège, he pins an entire two-hour composition about journeying, death and life-cycles around the model of a New Orleans funeral march. with the band only revealing the traditional New Orleans funeral hymn "Flee As A Bird" near the end. In Chanson Irresponsable it's W C Handy's composition "Careless Love" that takes a similarly pivotal role, and at the climax of Glad Day Phil Minton booms out Blake's "I see thy form" from Blake's Jerusalem - not a jazz source but a similarly planted objet trouvé that serves the same function of giving the piece a spiritual core and a bank of musical material upon which to draw.
With Chanson Irresponsable I wanted to find something earthy and rather basic to work on, Westbrook reveals. "The thing is rooted in nature and the countryside. It wasn't an urban piece, and my source needed to have something of the earth about it, and not to be polite. I started going through early jazz pieces, trying to find something that related to irresponsibility, and gradually came up with a collection of these old jazz pieces. I wasn't interested in the smarter, more 'sophisticated' Tin-Pan Alley thing Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen - but rougher, more down to earth Bessie Smith songs or material that Armstrong played.
Out of this collection of numbers and I started exploring the chords, and became fascinated by the sequences of early Dixieland numbers like 'That's A Plenty', 'At The Jazz Band Ball' and 'Careless Love', things like how the first step in the sequence goes down but actually manages to lift the chord sequence. These chords generally work in simple blocks and I very much liked the simplicity of their structures, and they were entirely appropriate to what I was trying to express.
I can play this sort of stuff for hours, and got obsessed with 'Careless Love' which runs through most of the piece, but 'At The Jazz Band Ball' is there too. These chord sequences are like simple truths. However complex our musical ideas become there are certain things which are undeniable, and these cadences and harmonies comniunicate to people. I think that people can feel them, and that's why the traditional jazz stuff remains so central."
Chanson Irresponsable had a long gestation period. It was originally commissioned by the Frerich new music ensemble Alternance (a London Sinfonietta-style group), and when that fell through the project was taken up by a festival in Milan. I rethought the piece at that stage and formed my own chamber-like ensemble with jazz and classical players. But then it became the typical Italian experience. Was it on or off? People went on holiday for three months and I heard nothing. Then, after an orgy of writing on my part, they suddenly pulled the plug on the whole festival. I'd booked the band and had scraps of music everywhere, but it was possibly a good thing because it would have been ridiculously rushed."
The premiere eventually did take place the following year in Milan, and Chanson Irresponsable represents one of Westbrook's most cohesive and seasoned scores, perhaps suggesting that the extended run-in period wasn't such a bad thing. The piece opens with "Careless Love" harmonies re-cast as whimsical string music, and climaxes an hour later with an extraordinary extended clarinet cadenza played by Peter Whyman, coloured by the hectic chatter an microtonal sliding of birdsong. It's a 'scene' piece, with Kate Westbrook's lyrics structured into songs that are then commented upon by instrumental interludes.
"To me it has everything and I can't offer anylhing much better," Westbrook reflects. "After the Milan premiere the question arose of how to do it here, and fortunately Steve Sheppard got some Radio 3 money and the CD we put out is ihe BBC broadcast. It was written in 2001. broadcast 2002 and released on CD end of 2003 - being a composer is a slow and frustrating process! We now want to tour it, but it's not an easy process and festivals aren't exactly queueing up to book it. It's an orchestra that I'm very proud of, with free players, standard players and classical players who cross the generations, and I've never heard a combination of operatic voice with jazz vocal improvising done like this. The use of voices to suggest more complex relationships between music and text than the norm is something we're obsessed with. I think we are pushing the barriers a bit, and I'm obviously out of kilter with the requirements of the modern British jazz festival scene."
* * * * *
Mike, now 68, was brought up in Torquay during the Second World War. His father worked for a bank but his main passion in life was ihe theatre and his mother was a piano teacher. "I think my father always regretted that he never went into the theatre professionally," Westbrook ponders, "but he was always putting on plays and it meant that art and creativity was always a part of family life. My mother taught piano, like my grandmother before her, but I really couldn't take to the instrument. I came away with a basic knowledge of where the notes are, but little else. Perhaps had someone else taught me I might have learnt and been a better musician than I am now!
"I first heard jazz when I was at school. There was the 1940s iazz revival going on, and a friend at school got hold of a list of second-hand records from Dobells. and we'd order them up mainly because the titles and artists sounded so exotic. Titles like 'Cornet Chop Suey' and the sound of names like 'Fats Waller' and 'Bix Beiderbecke' were very exotic to us at that time."
After dabbling in music throughout bis teenage years, Westbrook eventuallv found himself studying art at Plymouth Art School and then at the Hornsey School of Art, but he was finding the pull of music increasingly irresistible. His early fumblings in skiffle and mainstream bands ("the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions were the thing at the time") eventually led to the formation of a workshop band that included another fledgling Plymouth jazzer, saxophonist John Surrnan. It's quite a thought that within a mere eight years Westbrook would be producing such fine albunis as Release and Metropolis and playing the Montreux Jazz Festival. though he remains dismissive of his very earliest efforts.
"We were ämateurs who were just trying things out." he recalls. "I'd write little tunes very much in a mainstream style, and that started me having to think about things like musical structure and how to write for instruments. It was all very crude in those days, but I was lucky to come up when I did. It's unimaginable now. but this was a world before 'Rock Around The Clock'. There was a whole scene of traditional jazz clubs, touring big-bands and a very healthy modern jazz scene too. There was real interest and much debate about who'd got it right - was it Ken Colyer, or others who wanted to be more innovative? lt was a good time to develop because you could get a real grounding in musical culture and I didn't have to take modern jazz on board all in one go. I was led through from Armstrong and Morton, and bop arrived when I was more or less ready for it. The early Jazz is important because it's the basis of our music and I regret that it's becoming a geriatric interest. lt contains the essence of what we do as Jazz musicians. and a vision of music as being at the heart of a community rather than commercial wallpaper."
Westbrook made Ihe inevitable move for an aspiring jazz musician to London in 1962 and taught art during the day to pay the rent, but at night became a gigging bandleader. His central focus was a sextet (sadly unrecorded) that featured John Surman, and he began dipping bis toe into the fraught world of wiiting extended compositions for big-bands. Celebration (1967) and Release, recorded a year later, are both remarkable for the boldness of Westbrook's experiments with the accepted norms of jazz formats and with its stylistic assumptions. In Celebration, Westbrook attempted not only to compose individual numbers with their own compositional integrity but an entire extended set that functioned as a through-composed piece. "I was always interested in the theatrical aspects of performing music," Westbrook explains. "Inevitably there's theatre involved with any type of performance art, and Celebration was an attempt to organise that. We all know the formats by which jazz normally operates -ballads leading to a double-time section, or else there's a head and then solos by trumpet, piano and bass, then the theme again. But why not have one person soloing on one number and somebody else on another, and some pieces where there are aren't any solos? I was working with simple ideas like that. and trying to make imaginative use of the resources."
Release pushes such embryonic ideas further, and suggests that Westbrook was already looking to create pieces where different elements collided and commented on each other, if not yet the 'total work of art' then certainly tie total work of.jazz. Westbrook organises Release so that his original compositions and torrents of collective improvisation are sharply juxtaposed with swing-era relics like "Flying Home", "Sugar" and "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You". A sardonic arrangement of-The Girl From Ipanema" is gatecrashed by a barrage of free improvisafion, all these various strands contained within a continuously unfolding 50-minute structure. The result is not so far removed from Sun Ra, and the band (including Surman, Mike Osborne, Paul Rutherford and Harry Miller) play with a comparable sense of musical exploration unleashing creative.joy.
Westbrook remembers that "I was interested in how Pop Art manipulated images from advertising in an abstract way. and how a player like Archie Shepp in the middle of an hour-long blast of improvisation would suddenly Iaunch into 'The Shadow Of Your Smile' or something. Especially with some of the free players I'd heard in London, there was this almost Dadaist approach at work, where they'd drop into a march in the middle of something crazy. With Release I was responding to lots of things that seerned to be in the air."
The reason Release remains compelling is the incongruous mix of styles that Westbrook manages to make coexist under the same roof. The methodology of Release not only foreshadows the direction a later Westbrook project like Big Band Rossini would follow, but also anticipates the work of Iater British jazz composers like Django Bates and more recently Malthew Bourne. lt's a very British obsession that sees these well-known references placed in the 'wrong' context, like Monty Python's gangs of old ladies who go round beating up teenage lads and Lindsay Anderson's surreal imagery set against the traditionalist backdrop of a public school in If. Likewise, Westbrook is lashing out at conformity and blind acceptance, suggesting through the manipulation of musical structure that art might be a route out of pre-ordained modes of thinking and day-to-day drudgery.
Westbrook's next big-band projects Metropolis (1968-69) and Citadel/Room 315 (1974), mark a shift in aesthetic emphasis and the increasingly refined and confident use of orchestral resources. The rather modish delployment of elements of.jazz/rock don't feel as internalised as other aspects of Westbrook's compositional palette, but both albums are a strikingly honest retort to the intense stylistic tensions that existed in 1970s British jazz. Metropolis is a busy and frenetic portrayal of urban existence (a polar opposite of Chanson Irresponsable), meaty and weighy in its broad colouristic splashes and the sheer amount of material Westbrook crams in. It opens with a wide-angle view of a city-space provided by two trombones and two saxophones The mood is slightly mournful and elegiac, curiousiy reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and then the prevailing free pulse gets jammed into a fully-frontal rock rhythrn anchored by Nucleus drummier John Marshall, as though Westbrook is sending all his material for a trip down the Piecadilly Line.
The album's stops-and-starts between the 'no-pulse' sections of collective improvisation and rigid rock rhythms are not as integrated as they might be, and it's noticeable that by the time of Citadel/Room 315 Westbrook again becomes a champion of the bar-line, although he was certainly not comfortable with the jazz/rock thing either. "By the time of Citadel/Room 315. jazz/rock had petered out but I can't honesty say I ever took it that seriously. Out of the blue I got a commission from the Swedish Radio Jazz Orchestra, and with Citadel I got into the craft of arranging and orchestration properly. Even in Metropolis I didn't exploit the full line-up available to me, and that piece is essentially an extension of my small group. People tend to use the big band just because it's there which is why it's become such a fossilised thing. But the question should be 'what do I need for the music I want to write?'. With Citadel I think I got it right for the first time."
One of the happiest moments in Citadel is on "Be Bop De Rigueur". where the saxophone section suddenly lock into a bop-inflected soli chorus, perhaps inspired by Ellington's boppish saxophone introduction to "Perdido". Westbrook was looking back to iconic moments in the history of jazz to move forward, a telling snapshot into the way his music and ideas were evolving.
* * * * *
With the British scene of the 1970s split into factions of jazz/rock musicians and Free jazz/imptovisation players, Mike Webtbrook's characteristic instinct was to avoid being associated with either camp. His compositions became an ever more personal reflection of his interests and influences, and the further Westbrook stepped outside of.jazz for literal and dramatic sources the more he stepped back inside the music for compositional models and inspiration. This was the period of the Westbrook Brass Band and the composition of The Cortège gave him a first taste of writing extended music involving text. Westbrook's music was on the move. He effectively parted company with any pre-existing notion of how or where jazz should be performed, and reworked what he'd learnt from the jazz tradition in progressively ingenious and inventive ways.
"EIlington remained my main influence." Westbrook reflects as we talk about the influences at work on him through this era. I used to see the free improvisers play and I found that world incredibly humourless. These guys were often terribly funny people in the flesh, but when they were on stage there was never any of that. I like the jokes in Ellington, or the corn in the Gillespie big-band for exampie. I loved how Gillespie would tell the audience. 'And now we introduce our charming vocalist', and run off stage and a moment Iater traipse back on. Having a sense of humour - but on the other hand jokiness or cuteness on its own is not enough."
"EIlington was able to juggle the conflicting expectations of art and entertainment like nobody else. He knew it was audiences who paid bis way, and if the audience wanted a medley of hits he'd happily give it to them. But then, like he did at the 1948 Carnegie Hall which covers about every area of music possible from R&B to popular songs, he'd stick in a tough extended piece like The Tattooed Bride. This is an essential truth about jazz - it has always fulfilled a dual role of being an entertainment or dance music, while at the same time being creative, modern music. The last time I saw Ellingion in 1973 at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park the band was evidently falling apart. They were constantly on the road doing dance gigs, and not playing as many concerts as they should. Harry Carney, Cootie Williams and Paul Gonsalves were there and the rnusic was of such beauty, but then the lead trumpeter did "Hello Dolly" as a Louis Armstrong impersonation, probably simply because Eilington thought it would go down well with the crowd. Ellington understood the reality of the composer's situation, and however advanced his writing became he never wanted us to forget where the music came from. The idea for Ellington that there was 'high art' and then some really quite crass entertainment became all bound up together, and sometimes within the same number. There could be a joke vocal and then the most sublime bit of orchestration. This is something - although not consciously - that Kate and I try and do. All life has to be there.
"When we formed the Brass Band we really took this idea to extremes, and it was a major change of direction from the days of Metropolis and Citadel. The Brass Band was a littie five-piece group. We all played brass instruments and wore brass-band umfornis and we walked around playing tunes for whoever wanted to listen. There'd be tunes that were there just for fun, and then we'd go into free improvising or a bit of Thelonious Monk, and I think that this was an amazingly radical thing to be doing. We'd go on the streel corner and play for passers by. Phil Minton loved to sing no matter what, and if we were playing for an audience of old people he'd sing 'Bless This House'. Paul Rutherford would play 'Onward Christian Soldiers', but then the people would have a chance to sit and listen to Paul do some improvising. lf was an attempt to put all these different ideas together, and it was years before we started doing indoor gigs and concerts again."
So he was experimenting with the social conditions of music-making?
"Yes. I felt that music should be a more spontaneous act. When you get into the complications of running a big band or a jazz/rock line-up, it can take ages to set a gig up just so you can play a bit of music. The delight of the Brass Band was that we could pick up our instrument cases and pop into the pub and see if they wanted us to play a few numbers. It was a sense of freedom. There was lots of street theatre going on in those days, and there were small grants you could get to put something on at a festival. We could be there for a week and get carte blanche to play wherever we wanted. Things eventually opened out and we'd find ourselves working alongside other groups. In France, for example, we functioned as a sort of circus band for a while within a fringe theatre group."
The politics of this suggests Westbrook was aiming for a similar, 'anti-bourgeois art' stance to the free improvisers, but approaching it frorn a radically different perspective.
"Jazz should be in the centre of life, and if you're truly free then it's not a question of saying 'this is what I do and I don't do anything else'. People tend to specialise and get noticed for doing one particular thing, normally a variation on the same basic idea. There are some artists who we really admire for their singleness of vision. An example might be Rollins, who has progressed steadily over the years, and there's a single traceabie line going through his work. Players like Sonny Rollins resemble folk artists who travel around and play, but basically the format of their playing never changes. The detail might change, but you can predict the elements that are going to occur every time that person plays. The one thing Rollins would never do is suddenly start playing Chopin, or stepping outside of bis own parameters. I've got enormous respect for Rollins, incidentally. but I'm just not built like that. Kate and I move from one thing to the next and respond to particular types of situations. I've been very interested in dense orchestral textures and writing freer harmonically, but sometimes I love playing a conventional tune with absolutely no illegal notes in it at all! I really enjoyed doing all those Beatles songs on OffAbbey Road, for instance. It's important to be open enough to take what ever comes along and make something of it."
It was during an extended European tour that the Westbrooks first conceived the concept of The Cortège, and plunged thernselves back into a world of big-bands, concert halls and Arts Council grants. The idea, both metaphorical and literal, of a journey is at the heart of The Cortège and metaphysical journeys remained an obsession throughout nearly all Westbrook's extended pieces from this time. London Bridge, After Smith's Hotel and the Blake settings included. The compositional trigger for The Cortège was cocked when the Brass Band played at a festival in the Italian town of Santarcangelo amid the profusion of street music connected in Westbrook's imagination with New Orleans. The work subsequently took shape as a loose assernblage of scenes, each one based around the dual themes of literal journeying and all our ultimate journeys towards death. Glad Day and London Bridge are again loose narratives based around a central subject, and these pieces are like latter-day oratorios where the correlation between art and life takes over from explicitly religious subject matter.
The band Westbrook assembled for The Cortège reflected his benevolent magpie status on the UK scene. An unrecognisably moustached Guy Barker, then at the start of bis career, sits alongside Phil Minton in the trumpets, while the reed section manages to mingle a 'free' player like Lindsay Cooper with the man who would eventually become Westbrook's Johnny Hodges, Chris Biscoe. Like Ellington, Westbrook manages to make all these individuals sing frorn the same hymn sheet: Phil Minton sounds nothing like he does in his free improvisation activities with the likes of Roger Turner, but Westbrook doesn't compromise his creativity, instead drawing out other sides of his musical personality.
For a musician who'd spent the previous few years railing against musical institutionalism with a travelling brass band, committing himself to the ritual of being a composer again might seem like a retrograde step. However, Westbrook manages to remain determitiately non-institutional, and his fastidious notation liberates bis players rather than boxing them in. The proletarian manifesto of the Brass Band carried on, and Westbrook's perception of what music should be about allows him to look beyond style and find within New Orleans jazz and William Blake a similar artistic credo.
"The importance of New Orleans to me is the idea that there could be creative music going on at the heart of a community and fulfilling its role socially and artistically," Mike observes. "This is something that we strive for even if we don't necessarily achieve it. The fascinating thing about Blake - and this is something we explore in the piece - is the extent to which he was at odds with the art establishnient of his time and unappreciated, but how that didn't stop him from crealing and discovering the sublime.
"The idea Blake worked on so many different levels is important to me. The Songs Of Innocence And Experience and the London Song have a very clear social message. The more spiritual and difficult side of Blake is to do with creative freedom and what he refers to constantly is 'energy', 'imagitiation' and 'vision'. Imagination is the centre of Blake's world - he's walking around the village of St. Pancras and sees pillars of gold and God looking down. The energy in Blake is pure energy like in Mingus or Coltrane - it's dangerous and it's frightening. It even manages to transcend questions of whether it's good or bad because this energy and striving just exists. It sits very awkwardly with notions of a career because it's subversive and undermines the very thing that you 'ought' to be trying to do. It's risky and might become embarrassing, but art must be prepared to be that too, else you end up bending over backwards to please."
This heady period of big-band Westbrook peaked in 1987 with the completion of the masterful London Bridge Is Broken Down and the premiere at the BBC Proms of Big Band Rossini. The classical heritage of Big Band Rossini is obvious and Westbrook's treatment bottles the fizz of Rossim while doing away with operatic stylisation. London Bridge combines a dassical charnber orchestra with jazz group and is post-Ivesian in its terse layering of distinct orchestral groups. It's another journey piece, this time dropping in on scenes from European history with London Bridge acting as a gateway to Europe. Central to the work's technical basis, and indeed to much of Westbrook's harnionic thinking of this era, is the so-called 'Smith's Hotel chord', a scrunchy bi-tonal chord that he discovered while he was messing about on a piano in a Glasgow hotel in 1982. Its E minor 11 fundamental adds A flat on top, and Westbrook describes as his "key to finding interesting notes."
"London Bridge is slightly different in that its starting point was purely musical. The whole piece develops from the four chords that begin the 'Für Sie' section of the work, and only later were the texts grafted on top. The chords were treated with Smith's Hotel ideas and began to form their own shapes and chromatic possibilities. I also recorded long stretches of piano improvisations which I listened back to, and themes developed that way too. As the musical ideas and structures began to emerge and as we travelled around Europe, Kate began to find the texts that brought the whole thing into focus.
"The piece is really about European tragedy and the suffering of its people. When we were in Wenceslas Square, for instance, there was an almost eerie sense of tragedtragedy and this legacy of war is often in great contrast to the warmth of individual human beings."
* * * *
"How you doing? Think we've covered enough yet?" Westbrook asks as our interview heads towards a natural cadence. "There's all the theatre works, and the trio with Chris Biscoe we haven't really talked about. Oh yes, there's The Orchestra Of Smith's Academy, album. That's an important record too. There's so much stuff!" The Smith's Academy (Enja) record is indeed excellent, and the Westbrook Trio's 20th Anniversary recording L'Ascenseur (Jazzprint) opens up a whole new area of Westbrook's work that's ripe for analysis. But no single article about Westbrook can reveal all the preoccupations and the wonderful richness of bis work. The more you discover about Mike Westbrook's music, the more there is to discover. He's composed a world all of his own.