Actually it wasn't his birthday. But it was a huge party
down in Sicily to celebrate the work of
Mike Westbrook - and Kenny Mathieson flew down
with him. In the first part of our two-part feature
Britain's most innovative Big Band leader discusses
structure, collaborating with Kate, and the
notorious Smith's Hotel chord.
I T i s meltingly hot and sticky in the elevated open-air courtyard of the Terrazza CSIL in the heart of old Catania. Even at 10pm, the heat generated by the baking Sicilian sun hangs heavy in the air, punctuated by the whine of one of the scooters which we endemic to the city.
Heat is being generated at an equally scaring level from the stage, however, where twenty musicians are pouring their hearts and their lungs into Mike Westbrook's powerful and widely varied music. They do so for three long, unforgettable nights, opening with his delightful and imaginative Big Band Rossini, and moving on to a jam-packed survey of his writing, from Citadel/Room 315 (1975), The Cortege (1979) and The Westbrook Blake (1980) through to world premiere live Peformances of two new pieces.
It is perhaps ironic that we have to travel to Sicily to hear this incredible tribute to a great British jazz composer, but it would be unfair to castigate British promotors for not putting him on in similar fashion. Westbrook is of course a European figure anyway, but the rationale for the Festival organised by the remarkable Associazione Catania Jazz goes far beyond any simple "things are so much better in Italy" reasoning. This is a literal labour of love on the part of Pompeo Benincasa and Marcello Leanza, and to prove the point, admission to the gigs is free!
This being Sicily, it was not an entirely smooth ride - the venue had to be changed at the last minute, and an unexpected thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon threatened the crucial gig that night, which featured both the new works. In the end, though, it was a triumph for Catania jazz and for Mike Westbrook and his musicians, and he's rightly forgiven fortrying to cram too much into each programme, an understandable compulsion in the circumstances. For Mike, of course, it still wasn't quite enough time ....
T H E N I G H T before the Festival is Alan Barnes' birthday, and a large chunk of the band repair to a local bar to celebrate, a final unwinding before the serious work starts. There, Mike talks, still with a slight edge of incredulity in his voice, about the miracle of such a Festival being offered to him, in a city he has played - with the brass band six years ago - only once in his life. Kate quietly divulges that he has been close to tears on occasion thinking about it, and has been rising daily at 4.30am for weeks, and working through until 8 or 9 PM preparing the music.
"That first visit went down terribly well," Mike recalled, "We even managed to include a Sicilian song from The Ass, and they eventually had to get the police to gently intervene to bring the concert to a conclusion. Most importantly, though, we made friends with Pompeo and Marcello, and they suggested that we do a three-day festival last year, and asked me what I wanted to do, and as usual when asked that question, I said I would like to work with the orchestra. They were a little crestfallen, since it was about three times the budget they had, but they worked away at it, and phoned a few months ago and said okay, we have the money, what do you want to do? They are marvellous people - they do it all very much for the music.
"We had the Rossini pretty well-tailored by the beginning of this year, including the two new additions, but I think I can honestly say thatI re-worked everything else, with the one exception of the material from Citadel/Room 315. On things like On Dukes Birthday or The Cortege, it was a matter of expanding the orchestration, with an odd change here and there, while others, like the version of "I See Thy Form" with the high trumpet counterpoint, had never been played live before. I re-worked it all very carefully, but a lot of my interest was focussed on the two new pieces."
That much was obvious from the extra degree of tension around the lunch tableon Saturday, when Mike was clearly a little anxious both about the new music itself, and about the on-stage monitor mixes which, unlike Debbie Dickensons excellent auditorium sound, were a lttle problematic. The whole thing will stand or fall, he tells drummer Peter Fairclough, on whether the rhythm section can hear each other. The musicians, too, feel that this middle concert is the toughest of the three, although, as one of the youngest members pointed out, none of it is exactly easy.
In the event, monitor mixes are still less than ideal, but it doesnt seem to matter. The band takes up where they left off with Rossini on Friday, and sail through Mikes complex charts with scarcely a hiccup. The Westbrooks have a way of inspiring great loyalty in musicians (and in the back-up team which supports their activities), and the mix of old Westbrook hands, like Chris Biscoe, Pete Whyman, Alan Wakeman, Paul Nieman and Peter Fairclough, with younger recruits and several deps (all of whom acquit themselves superbly) proves a winning one.
The new works are I. D. M. A. T. (based on Ellingtons "It Dont Mean A Thing" and prepared for John HarlesThe Shadow of the Duke, but not used on the final album) and Measure for Measure (a work commissioned by the Vienna Art Orchestra, but which proved to be too long for their programme). Length is a factor which Westbrook says he never takes into account, other than in film music, but works instead on the basis that "the programme always has to adapt to fit the piece". Both works revealed his current preoccupation with structure through rhythmic patterns, which began with London Bridge Is Falling Down (1987).
"With I.D.M.A.T. I had the problem of creating a piece which didn't just copy the Ellington version, but I discovered that it leant itself to some of my recent methods by superimposing the theme over a different five-bar structure rather than four, and in that way I was able to extend the tune through a series of rhythmic patterns, which is why I changed the title to suggest a new version. The fact that it was not on the album was extremely disappointing for me, not least because John played superbly. but it did get me started on writing new material for the Rossini, which allowed me to put some of my more progressive recent ideas, which I explored in London Bridgeck into a big band context.
"Measure for Measure was a last-minute commission from the VAO, who I feel parallel our work in many ways, although unfortunately we don't have the subsidy to tour all over the place! It is a kind of off-shoot of the sax concerto I did with John Harle last year (Bean Rows and Blues Shots), which was another experiment with superimposing time-scales against each other. I think of it as a way of setting up interesting long structures, rather than having twelve bars which keep coming around, and there were some ideas arising from that which I had not developed as much as I would like to.'
The composition was a highly intense and dramatically charged affair, rising to a declamatory central climax across its three-part structure, with the alto saxophones of Alan Barnes and Chris Biscoe set in counterpoint with Kate's voice It made unconventional (but typically Westbrookian) use of innovative internal voicings, instrumental groupings, and tonal colours,and represented a logical extension of his interest in accommodating jazz idioms, including free jazz, within a strucrured but formally adventurous framework.
H I S C U R R E N T work with rhythmic patterns follows a long period in the 1980s where that structural development was essenrtially harmonic, dating from the discovery of the infamous Smith's Hotel chord in Glasgow in 1982, which became the foundation of After Smith's Hotel(1983) and On Duke's Birthday (1984), and carried on into London Bridge, as well as the material for the trio with Kate and Chris Biscoe, and their theatrical works.
"I hit upon the chord during a sound check at the old Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, and its ramifications became the starting point of a new harmonic development, and also a new attitude to musical structure, a new way of building music. The Smith's Hotel chord is basically a way of superimposing one pattern on another, a conventional chord with a kind of free counterpoint which gives intervals and clusters and so on which aren't quite the same as you would get from developing an ordinary chord. It has been a rich source of ideas for me, and I have applied it in many different contexts, alongside conventional chords.
The idea of harmonically-freer music goes back to Ellington, who was always pushing music to the limits of tonality and often beyond, especially in the internal workings of the music. I think I always write tonal music, but within that I want to be able to use notes in a more arbitrary fashion. Improvisers like Eric Dolphy found ways of playing all kinds of inceresting notes over conventional structures, and I wanted to address the point where conventional tonality breaks down into freedom - in crude terms the ability to play any note you want at any time You can either jump in with both feet in a purely improvisatory way, which sometimes produces interesting results and sometimes doesn t, or you can try to find a kind of technique, a way of writing, to approach it.
"I don't do those kind of arrangements where lots of people blow on the same sequence, and I suspect that is maybe more interesting for the soloist as well. I think structure is the thing we lost, and the intuitive became over-valued against the intellectual in the music. If you listen to Charlie Parker and classic early bebop, you can hear that concern with structure which disappeared later in bop, and again in the other direction with the freedoms of the 1960s, which I went through with enormous enthusiasm, but now I have maybe heard enough of that, and no longer find it satisfying.
"In fact, I have found it tremendously exciting to work on compositions which have no improvising at all, as in the two-piano music with John Alley on Kate's new record (Goodbye Peter Lorre), which is something I never thought I would do, but has proved fascinating. Song-forms open up another dimension again in structural terms, as in the Brecht-Weill songs, or the songs in London Bridge, and I greatly regret its lack of performances."
London Bridge Is Fallen Down, scored for a ten-piece band and chamber orchestra, would seem a natural for The Proms, where Westbrook will become the first jazz coimposer to be featured in a main evening Prom on 30 August, when they perform life Big Band Rossini at the Albert Hall. The Orchestra will be back in action at the Outside In Festival in Crawley on 6th Septeinber, when they will perform a selection of his works, including Measure for Measure, in what has been an active summer.
The Westbrooks, meanwhile, are embarked on their next writing project, an opera for Channel 4 entitled Good Friday 1663, which will be recorded next year for transmission in 1994. Their working relationship is now long-standing, dating back to the mid- 1970s, and is something of a symbiotic one, going beyond any straightforward he-does-music, she does-words demarcation.
"We work most of the time, and are together most of the time, and a lot of my scores are done in the studio where Kate paints. She will often suggest specific things concerning the music, especially where it affests the vocal parts, but our working relationship is more complex than that. It has been an amazing adventure, from the early days of the Brass Band to where we are now. There are always problems if you try to earn a living exclusively from creative work, but it does mean that we have been able to make a kind of creative lifestyle devoted to art in its various forms."
B A C K I N Catania, that creative lifestyle is paying massive dividends, The final night, entitled The Westbrook Song Book, but not devoted solely to songs, or indeed to Mikes compositions, since it includes several of his distinctive arrangements, is an incandescent triumph. The slight tension of Saturday has gone, and everyone is ready to go for it, aided by singer Phil Minton, violinist Dominique Pifarely, and trombonist Danilo Terenzi.
The rich sonority and sheer power of the big orchestra is over-whelming, and familiar pieces are transformed in a glorious welter of expanded sound, none more effectively than Blake's "I See Thy Form", which ends the first set in a blaze of emotion.
It is a fitting climax to a marvellous celebation of Westbrook's music, and his broad smile says it all, On stage, when he is not playing piano, he becomes contagiously wrapped up in the music, swaying along in a curiously shambling fashion to a tempo which never quite seems to be the one being played, greedily absorbing every note and nuance of his music That has been a too-occasional satisfaction over the years, and one which he richly deserves.
The Wire, Issue 103, September 1992