Mike Westbrook: “Jazz is freedom of expression”
One of the most experimental, provocative and playful figures in British jazz, composer and pianist Mike Westbrook, has finally encountered something that intimidates him: cataloging his own vast body of work.
For more than 60 years his production has grown voraciously through small group jazz and big band brass, sets for poetry, agitprop extravagances, operas and orchestral works. He’s spent his life exploring and fusing influences as disparate as Duke Ellington and Kurt Weill, Hollywood and Rossini, all with an intrepid disregard for convention and boundaries.
So when we meet at Westbrook in Dawlish, a quaint coastal town in his native Devon, to discuss his upcoming plans at the 2021 EFG London Jazz Festival, it’s no wonder he admits a certain lack of progress. . “I can’t take it all,” he said. “I have a ton of stuff.”
Westbrook, who turned 85 this year, is not exactly quiet, with three different concerts for the LJF. They include an improvised piano solo and a club performance alongside her partner, Kate Westbrook, and her Granite Band of Earth felt the wound, a lament inspired by John-Milton for a world willfully damaged.
The centerpiece is a concert hall staged by The Westbrook Blake, whose roots go back to Tyger, an eventful genre collaboration in 1971 with poet Adrian Mitchell, who introduced Westbrook to the work of Victorian radical poet William Blake.
Mitchell and Westbrook got to know each other through the mass of radicalized art events that erupted in the 1960s. Mitchell’s Tyger was commissioned by the National Theater and lasted six months, with its confrontational mix of cabaret and agitprop drama madly overlapping the live music of the freewheeling Westbrook band who channeled hymns, music hall and free jazz. “There were actors in riot gear who were shooting guns at the audience; Bill Fraser played Mad King George the 50th as a grotesque demagogue, ”Westbrook recalls.
These rearranged Blake songs were lightened up for the fluctuating staff of Mike Westbrook’s Brass Band, then extended for the one-time 1978 show. Good day, written by Mitchell for Thames TV. In 2018, Westbrook Blake’s songs were performed in Moscow, with the Moscow College Choir.
“Blake continued to evolve,” says Westbrook. “It’s the only material we’ve been making for a long time. A part of [Blake’s] the lyrics are very wild. We performed ‘London Song’ [based on Blake’s poem ‘London’] in St Giles Church in Soho. You go out and it’s like that now, people sleeping in the streets, people going to the opera in evening dress stumbling over poor old drunks. It hasn’t changed, not really.
Just as resonant is Blake’s writings on slavery, he adds. “I’m not just talking about slavery in the sense of plantations. I mean people in factories, office jobs or people who are not where they want to be and who are being exploited. It continues everywhere, including the poor musicians who drag themselves into the West End shows. “
For the LJF concert, two of the original singers, Phil Minton and Kate Westbrook, join a choir led by Paul Ayres and a Westbrook quintet playing new charts for accordion, violin and sax.
It is around this notion of freedom that, for Westbrook, jazz and Blake are combined. “I think he’s talking about liberation. . . a kind of freer spiritual life. This is what jazz represents, jazz is freedom of expression.
Freedom of speech guided the self-taught Westbrook for most of his adult life. He formed his first group while studying at the Plymouth School of Art; he went to art school quite late “after failing miserably in other things”, and then trained as an art teacher. But jazz already had it in hand: “I had this colossal primitive desire to express myself by playing the trumpet and learning music on the piano.
However, he moved to London, just as many jazz concerts turned to R&B. “The Marquee Club, then in Oxford Street, [used to have] jazz seven nights a week. But then Alexis Korner put on a regular blues night, Mick Jagger came jamming, and suddenly there was nowhere to play. “It was a radical change. . . ”Westbrook and his group of 11 musicians traveled to far flung places to play in an interval slot for a five. He trained as an art teacher and combined teaching by day with poorly paid concerts at night.
But, fueled by the significant changes in American jazz of the 1960s – from John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Albert Ayler – Westbrook’s writing evolved into a more schematic approach. He studied new time signatures, explored non-jazz music, and combined free improvisation into predefined structures. “The real work wasn’t on albums but trying to put a band together, trying to scramble material together.”
In 1969, he received a commission from the Arts Council to write Metropolis. At that time he was artistic director at a school in London – but the £ 500 reward was enough to get him to leave the classroom. He has also collaborated on large-scale events with John Fox and his site-specific groundbreaking theater company Welfare State International – The Apocalyptic High Dive into the pit of molten fire, played at the Tower of London in 1972, sets the tone.
In 1973, he hit the road with a small group called the Brass Band playing street music “with all you can wear”, confirming a shift towards a more theatrical approach. That’s when Kate Westbrook joined in, adding lyrics, vocals, piccolo and tenor horn. Since then, she has been a constant presence and an equal collaborator.
And for Westbrook the composer, there are still challenges ahead. “I think I’m getting more accomplished in the ability to make things work with very few resources,” he says. Jazz remains the driving force, but Westbrook doesn’t want to rule anything out. “I love all kinds of music, they are all possible if you know how to use them.”
The Westbrooks continued to cross the lockdown by posting weekly edits to their archive of performances filmed under the banner of “Westbrook Jazz Animated Picture Show”. Kate, both a painter and a musician, also documents the resilient melancholy of the locking experience on canvas.
“These are different times,” says Westbrook. “Things are in such a state. But we have very solid material and we will continue to try to respond to the situation that we find around us. I just think we have to be out there in the real world.
The EFG London Jazz Festival takes place from November 12 to 21; efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
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