Monday, 14 March 2011

Mike Westbrook - The Piano in the Room

I just found this as a link from an email to advertise Mike's 75th birthday gig  in London in April which will be more than just a concert, but a celebration of lots of things, but mostly for me, it will remind me, whenever I see him, and I've been seeing him play live since he was a nipper of thirty six, but already a jazz star, up there with the finest, most satisfying British experimental music of the early 70s: Soft Machine, Keith Tippett, John McLaughlin, Mike Gibbs, Nucleus, Terry Riley. I think I spent a good proportion of my first weekly wedge as a designer seeing Mike Westbrook's Solid Gold Cadillac playing downstairs at a pub in Cavendish Square, The Phoenix, I remember asking the way, (it was behind the College of Fashion in Qxford Street) and finding the upstairs pub crowd a nasty, change-rattling bunch of blazered reps, but the band-room downstairs held about thirty of us eager jazzers waiting to be taken on a journey with a 5-piece electric band that might start numbers with things I could reference; bits of Roxy-ish noodling, then extraordinary intense singing from the 'divine Mister M' as Mike called Phil Minton, who also played a handsome trumpet when the band started to sail before the wind; when a fresh musical squall hit the combo and a riot would start in your heart.

I shiver with pleasure, even now, at the jaw-dropping intensity of those moments; George Khan playing free sax over the stupidly handsome Brian Godding's tremelo dive-bombing on his Gibson SG (a similar left-handed guitar to the one played by Ollie Halsall in a band I would see nearer Christmas at the Marquee, the insanely overlooked Patto). You just knew there was no finer music on offer that night; not anywhere.  And the serene master of it all, sitting at his Fender Rhodes smiling as the musical adventures got more and more dangerous and unhinged.

I remember coming away from there a changed man. I had actually witnessed real creativity generated with apparent ease and with ferocious efficiency. I was talking to someone afterwards who asked what I did, and when I told her I was a designer and had the pleasure of working in a studio that made record sleeves and posters, she said how interesting my job must be, and whilst agreeing with her, I went home thinking that it didn't really compare with some. Not really.

Years later, and after many a gig, and all without fault as far as I'm concerned (some musicians have you in mind, you think stupidly, when the spot is hit time and time again) there is still a compelling happiness and such a brilliant un-Englishness about both Mike and Kate Westbrook; coming off stage at the Jazz Café in Camden, Mike said, "In France we'd just be ready to play!"

They very graciously agreed to do a gig at the Bridport Arts Centre when I had an exhibition there nearly 10 years ago; I was overjoyed: among some classic tunes they performed My Ship, Pirate Jenny and from their Off Abbey Road album, An Octopus' Garden. Yeah, I know, but imagine Duke Ellington producing the Fabs that day. They were beautiful, and overwhelmingly so.

Afterwards I remember feeling that Kate might be a tad formidable, her stage persona can be a bit, er, cross but I think she's possibly the nicest person I've ever met. She's a busy painter, lyricist and she plays flute and tenor horn and she's chatty, she's beautiful and... oh yes, well this is particularly touching for me, I had to down tools to write this, being a show-off, but as the camera sweeps the room during this beautiful piece of Westmusic, at about 3 minutes in, is a picture Mike bought at that show. It's a picture I made of the very wonderful and perfect Kate, and stupidly I made her look a bit cross.

If you ever get the chance to see them, then you must; they are still making wild and Westerly music. I guarantee a good night out, and there is no-one like them. I totally love them.

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