7. An inspired take on the windy city

Mama Chicago (1). Mike Westbrook, 1979

Mike Westbrook, an unarguable national treasure, has such an extraordinary back catalogue it’s easy to overlook even some of the choicer items from the era when recordings came and went more rapidly. I have a particular affection for this one, which came twenty-something years after his first release, a double album of pieces written for a musical that never was.

The idea was a show based on the life of Al Capone. No doubt hopes were dashed when it was never staged, but I like the quality of the adapted version, haunted by the ghost of an unseen theatre production. Like much of Westbrook’s later work, it was performed cabaret-style, and you can make your own narrative from the vignettes crafted by Michael Kustow and Kate Westbrook. It stands up well to the obvious comparison among musicals that did make the stage (and screen).

(In fact, there’s film of Mama Chicago as well, still available. It’s a DVD worth having, but know this Mama is incomplete, and it’s filled out with a different show from a Westbrook trio. Coincidentally, a portion of the film went up on the Westbrook website the other day as one of their weekly lockdown treats, a tribute this time to the late Malcolm Griffiths. Here it is.)

remembering Malcolm Griffiths from Westbrookjazz on Vimeo.

Griffiths is only one of the outstanding soloists on the record – Chris Hunter on saxes, caught before his departure for the US, shines throughout, and Mick Page does great work, especially on baritone. And never underestimate the composer’s own contributions on piano. His style is a near opposite of the stream of notes generated by Martial Solal – recommended here last week – but he can do more with a repeated triad than anyone. More important, they all do fine work as a band. Westbrook’s arranging skill makes it hard to believe this is only a seven-piece, as they move effortlessly between jazz styles past and present.

That comes through well on this track. More than most weeks, it’s here to stand for the full work. There is a track titled “overture”, but to my mind this is the real overture here. Several later themes get their first airing. The band’s ability to slip into older sounds – affectionate recreation, not pastiche – comes to the fore: love the burst of polyphony that follows the line “turn the clock back to 1929”. And we hear from both vocalists: Kate, blazing a theatrical trail that one feels Ute Lemper would approve of; and Phil Minton, who never fails to do exactly the right thing.

Minton, and the soloists, get wilder as the show develops, and the last numbers feature some of his finest free vocalising. Here he’s caressing the words, but still mesmerising – raised hairs on the back of the neck stuff. It’s an enticing way in to a suite of songs that deserved its original, handsome double-album packaging. They hang together remarkably well as a whole, and that quality endures.

No spotify links this week. The full album, along with almost all of Westbrook’s recorded work, is now on Bandcamp, so you can listen there. Other landmarks in the wider Westbrook landscape like The Cortege, On Duke’s Birthday and Westbrook Rossini are also still available on CD. But don’t forget Mama.

Why the No 7? 

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

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