Review: Mike Westbrook in Taunton

Mike Westbrook And The Uncommon Orchestra visit Taunton's Brewhouse, engaging Barry Witherden with an "exhilarating" performance of A Bigger Show

The Brewhouse went into administration in February 2013 following a financial crisis, caused at least partly by an over-ambitious range of activities. A candle-lit vigil was quickly arranged outside the dark building at which people, including me, demonstrated support for the venue. In April 2014, reconstituted as an arts charity, the theatre reopened under new management striking a fairly successful balance between adventurous programming and commercial viability. By-and-large Somerset has conservative tastes, so promoting contemporary jazz is a risky venture, although in July 2008 there were queues for returns for Courtney Pine. The Brewhouse is therefore to be congratulated on booking the 21-piece Uncommon Orchestra performing Mike Westbrook’s A Bigger Show.

The personnel is drawn from the rock and classical fields as well as jazz, and ages range from 19 to 80: Westbrook (pictured right with his wife, lyricist and vocalist Kate) was 80 on 21 March. Some musicians were newbies recruited for this project but one, Dave Holdsworth, first worked with Westbrook in 1967 and was part of the edition of the Concert Band that recorded Celebration for the Deram label. Best-known as a player of the standard trumpet, here he wrestles with the sousaphone, contributing remarkably agile lines, with some pocket trumpet thrown in. Alan Wakeman, another old chum who first played with Westbrook almost four decades ago, took some tasty solos on tenor and soprano.

Westbrook always had a penchant for large formats as well as involving strong elements of theatre or street parades: viz, amongst others, Marching Song, The Cortege, Bar Utopia, Smith’s Academy, Cosmic Circus, and Glad Day, an expansion of The Westbrook Blake. A Bigger Show confirms that he has by no means lost his touch. It’s described as a jazz-rock oratorio, with Kate Westbrook’s lyrics interpreted by her, Martine Waltier and Billy Bottle, and begins with members of the band wandering onto the stage gradually, with drummers Coach York and Theo Goss settling in first, providing compelling rhythmic patterns soon reinforced by electric guitarists Jesse Mollins and Matthew North, nimble steam bassist Marcus Vergette and Bottle’s bass guitar. Some musicians arrived from the back of the auditorium, already playing as they walked down the aisles, whilst others entered via various points around the stage, milling around and apparently negotiating the layout of the stage and orchestra. All the time the sound was building up until the entire band was locked into the bravura strut of Gizzards All Gory.

With excellent acoustics and sound-mixing this exhilarating performance of an enthralling work struck me as funkier than the version on CD, but no less emotionally varied. Westbrook continues to be a master at creating powerful, all-pervading ensembles, brilliantly threading solos into the overall texture and structure whilst still providing ample space and opportunity for each player to stretch out and maintain their individual voices. Amongst those voices, all of whom were admirable, one of the younger participants, Roz Harding on alto, particularly impressed, managing to recall early Westbrook sidemen Mike Osborne and Bernie Living in her sound and phrasing yet retaining her own character.

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