AFTER 80 years, a lifetime’s piano: that’s how it sounds, that what it means, that’s what it is. Like his inspiration, Duke Ellington, Mike Westbrook’s prime instrument has been his orchestra — or his brass band, or the trio with his wife Kate and saxophonist Chris Biscoe, or whatever format he has created.
But listen to this record, made in Paris in July 2016 with just a piano to give him his voice and you begin to know what a deep and fine pianist Westbrook is too.
Drummer and ex-confrere Jon Hiseman made this solo album Paris during two nights of Westbrook playing at the art gallery and jazz venue 16 Rue Paul Fort.
It is a sonic autobiography, moving backwards and forwards, starting with two tunes from his most recent big band recording, A Bigger Show.
Kate’s sonnet to their friend Stephen Hewitt, with the Westbrook melody Freedom’s Crown opens an hour of music; serene, powerful and tender, echoing a full and committed life of tunes, friends, love, visions, memories and moments, reminding me of what Westbrook’s Blake collaborator Adrian Mitchell wrote about the Chilean theater director, poet, singer and political activist Victor Jara: “His hands were gentle, his hands were strong.”
For these tracks, often potent improvisations, are anything but doodles. Westbrook still thinks orchestrally while facing his keys.
His piece Propositions, for example, is solo piano played as an “equivalent to the raw sound of horns pitchbending notes against the chords.”
And when the very familiar John Lennon-Paul McCartney chorus of She Loves You peals from the timbral undergrowth with a sudden recollection of a whole past era, you know that the pianist has been saving it with just that intention.
Billy Strayhorn’s Ellington classic A Flower is a Lovesome Thing is played with a direct and immediate beauty before Westbrook turns to two Ellington stand-bys, Sophisticated Lady and Solitude, as if he were playing unnoticed in a room where everyone is talking and the pianist is invisible but never inaudible.
The Love Stories go back to the ’70s and the Citadel/Room 315 and London Bridge is Falling Down albums. They are prefaced by the Westbrook setting of Goethe’s Nahe des Geliebten (In the Presence of the Beloved) and followed by the Stylistics’ You Make Me Feel Brand New, an expression of the pianist’s extraordinary eclecticism and unity of artistic purpose.
Motown becomes a meadow of restraint and reflection, transmigrated and transformed, a field of hope.
All throughout A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square the London plane trees with their giant blotched trunks seem to be weeping, until She Loves You brings a thoughtful joy and the huge power of memory.
The fourth section of the album is devoted to the blues. D.T.T.M remembers two of Westbrook’s ex-bandmates in the ’80s version of the brass band.
Trombonist Danilo Terenzi and drummer Tony Marsh were also stalwarts on one of the finest of Westbrook’s big band albums, On Duke’s Birthday.
His memorial blues to them adapts one of the movements from that album and is full of the drama that both musicians brought to Westbrook’s performances and has unusual allusions to Kurt Weill, another Westbrook hero.
The sudden burst of Bessie Smith and Good Old Wagon is a part of what Westbrook tells us “drew me first to jazz.” The roots are never far and Bessie’s blues are still lovingly performed by Mike and Kate.
Blues for Terenzi remembers the trombonist again.
Based on pianist Jimmy Yancey’s Death Letter Blues, Westbrook reminds us that he still plays it during trio gigs, with a particular pertinence too, as Biscoe and Terenzi were very close friends: a deeply moving blues elegy and the ears do not forget.
The last notes are to Kate, a setting to If Thou Most Love Me, a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Its brevity matches its beauty and seals a rare and cherished album by a musician who never stops, never lays down his notes, never loses his sonic memory.