Colin H on Mike Westbrook
A wander down memory lane with Brit jazz colossus Mike Westbrook, published in ‘Record Collector’ in October 2017.
Take a trip around Ebay and Discogs and you will conclude that Mike Westbrook is a man who makes rare records. Periodically, something from the first decade of his remarkable 50-year career is reissued and within five years it becomes a pricey second-hand prospect itself. Meanwhile, original pressings of those classics go on ascending the twin escalators of legendary greatness and practical inaccessibility. Absurdly, the current resale price for a 2008 Japanese CD edition of 1969’s ‘Marching Song Vol.1’ is around £100 – £20 higher than the (conservative) ‘Rare Record Price Guide’ price on a mint Deram original.
I can think of no other significant British artist whose 60s/70s oeuvre is currently so out of reach. However, with expanded CD editions of his 1972 ‘Live’ on Hux and his long unobtainable two-volume masterpiece ‘Marching Song’ out last year on RPM’s Turtle imprint (including unreleased 1966-70 tracks), with hopefully further expanded RPM/Turtle releases, this golden anniversary of Mike’s singular career in music is also a golden opportunity for new listeners to find out what all the fuss was about. For Mike, 81, is as creative as ever, releasing both the fabulous electric big band 2CD set ‘A Bigger Show’ with his Uncommon Orchestra and a new solo piano album last year.
His position in music has always been unique: known for a series of ambitious, large-scale works – much of his 1967-71 output, and periodic projects thereafter, including his under-appreciated magnum opus/personal favourite ‘London Bridge is Broken Down’ (Virgin, 1988) – his living has nevertheless mostly involved under-the-radar small groups, including his brass quintet ‘village band’ and his piano-based trio, and an ethos of ‘anywhere, anytime’ performing.
A product of jazz, with his music often compared to that of his hero Duke Ellington in the early days, Mike’s London-based flowering in the cultural cauldron of the Swinging 60s saw him with one foot in jazz and the other in whatever caught his fancy (musical theatre, poetry settings, rock music, circus, free improvisation, ‘happenings’) – often to the bafflement of the jazz community and wider media. It was a blessing and a curse.
‘I’m ruled out by a lot of people, who could give me work, because of my jazz connections,’ he told Creem in 1972. ‘I like to be able to play anything that appeals to me and, looking back, that seems to be the only consistent thing about my music.’
Summing up 1970 in Melody Maker, Richard Williams wrote of Westbrook that ‘one hopes that he feels the struggle is worth continuing’. Struggle as it was, Mike did indeed continue and Richard, blogging about a Westbrook solo piano recital in November 2016, could acclaim it as ‘a useful reminder of what age can bring. As always with Westbrook, a massive authority was lightly worn – but its presence was never in doubt, and the result was unforgettable.’
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