Live Music

Mike Westbrook's An Uncommon Orchestra at Hen & Chicken

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Posted on 6th July 2015

The Uncommon Orchestra – A Bigger Show

Hen and Chicken, Southville, Bristol

5 July 2015

The great British composer and bandleader Mike Westbrook has always had a gift for bringing off large scale works that would collapse under their own weight in the hands of almost any other jazz creator – a talent that first came to full fruition with the epic Marching Song way back in 1969. The big projects have usually depended on grants and commissions, and he and partner Kate have toured extensively in trios and small groups, too. Those continue now the pair are settled in Dawlish in South Devon.

But Mike Westbrook, the tireless organiser, has also been in evidence in the West Country in the last few years, with occasional performances from a brand new big band. That ensemble is now reconfigured as the 22-piece Uncommon Orchestra, and are now performing a brand new, two hour suite, A Bigger Show, music by Mike, lyrics by Kate. And a spectacular show it is. Three vocalists –Kate Westbrook, Billy Bottle, who also plays electric bass, and Martine Waltier - bring real variety and depth to the songs.

Each one is a launch pad for long, punchy big band scores, rich in Westbrook M’s resourceful writing for massed horns. Add a string bass alongside the electric instrument, two electric guitars, who feature more strongly in the second half, and two drummers, and the result is, simply, epic.

Hard to believe this majestic ensemble is playing for 100-odd people crammed into the upstairs room of this capacious pub. It reminds me rather of seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra a few years in the Croft in Stokes Croft. Something of their spirit creeps into the room tonight, too, courtesy of Kate’s cosmic lyrics. The songs are carried over from a small group recording made in 2007, extensively re-worked for the large ensemble. Her words can tend too much to abstraction, but give the band lots to work with and it responds with much fine soloing. Fittingly, some of the best comes from longtime Westbrook cohorts. Dave Holdsworth (who appeared all those years ago on Marching Song) plays implausibly light-footed sousaphone, and plangent pocket trumpet. And Alan Wakeman contributes world class tenor and soprano saxophone.

But it is the band sound that stays in the ear after the gig. A roaring ensemble, orchestrated by a master of the art. They are touring the West country through the summer, and there’s a live recording on the way, set for Exeter at the end of the month. The double CD that will lead to is open for advance subscription on the band website – Surely a worthwhile investment in new work from one of English music’s most creative forces of the last half century!

Jon Turney

Jon is a science writer, editor, and lecturer as well as a jazz authority. His book I, Superorganism: Learning to Love Your Inner Ecosystem was published Feb 2015 and is available at Amazon and most good retailers.      twitter: jonWturney

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