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Mike Westbrook – Glad Day, Newton Abbot, May 14

May 16, 2011

Seem to have been listening to Westbrook almost as long as I can remember. The other pair of ears and I were at Bracknell back in 1979 for the premiere of the astounding Cortege, a sprawling masterwork which blends big band scores with a rich selection of European poetry (just re-released on CD and on Amazon for 10.99). But his devotion to William Blake goes back even further, to 1971, when he wrote the music for Adrian Mitchell’s Tyger.

Westbrook bands have been playing Blake settings ever since – there’s a version of Jerusalem in the Cortege, for instance. The great man now lives in Dawlish in Devon. (I know he grew up round there, but it still seems to me like discovering that, say, Duke Ellington had settled in Sidmouth.)  Hence a welcome chance to hear a full Blakean performance just down the road in Newton Abbot, inaugurating the concert space at the old agricultural college there which is now run by the Hannah Rogers Trust as Hannah’s at Seale Hayne.

This Friday and Saturday affair featured a scratch choir directed by Marion Wood, who’d been rehearsing since New Year, and a new(ish) Westbrook ensemble with accordion and violin. The Blake songs have been heard intermittently as choral settings, but still with the core vocal work from the peerless Phil Minton and Kate Westbrook. The fine Enja CD which captured those had three saxes, and plenty of solo work, so I wondered a little what the new instrumental line-up would sound like. No worries. The revisions to suit a drumless, reedless band work brilliantly, and Westbrook veteran Steve Berry on bass holds the whole thing together. The choir got stuck in enthusiastically, and the virtuosic Billy Thompson on violin and especially Karen Street on the accordion brought some atmospheric improvising. Street is a marvel, with a range and technique on her vast, beautiful device which rivals the likes of Richard Galliano.

But this, while often rivetting, as were Berry’s bass solos, was icing on the cake. Westbrook’s themes and Blake’s poetry are a perfect marriage of words and music, and for all their jazz inflections seem, like the dotty old writer himself, wonderfully English. Westbrook paid moving tribute, too, to his long collaboration with Mitchell, and Mitchell’s partner Celia Hewitt came along, to read one of his own protest poems. But it was Blake’s words which rang in the mind and ear afterwards, as they should. Both Minton and Kate Westbrook deliver them with scalp-prickling passion after all these years. Mike Westbrook has an astonishing life’s work to look back on, though he’s still pretty busy with new projects – there was a 75th birthday premiere in London last month and he has even put together a new big band which makes occasional appearances in the West Country. But this collection, which also gets an airing a few times a year wherever there is a suitable choir, is one of his greatest gifts to us all. An evening of pure pleasure, full of nourishment. I wonder if they could be persuaded to do it in Bristol?

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