Past performances by Mike & Kate Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra have seen the familiar mixture of unapologetically theatrical, fairground, jazz-rock and cabaret music included in the repertoire. Whilst these elements were certainly present at this 12 February concert at Ronnie Scott’s, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on the jazz content this time, drawing the question of whether this was in response to the surroundings. The Westbrooks have good reason for having fond memories of Scott’s club, going back to the 60s. The connection was recently documented by the issue of The Last Night at the Old Place (SGCCD016), which came out thanks to Mike Gavin, who donned the mantle of the late John Jack when he took the reins at Cadillac Music last year. The spirit of John was in the house, as was that of another Jon, Hiseman, to whom Mike Westbrook dedicated the evening.
The performance showed the way Mike Westbrook has assimilated the approach of Duke Ellington into his music, whilst retaining his unique expression. Like Duke, it has the blend of composition and arrangement with individual and collective improvisation, rich harmonies, textures and tones. And as with Duke, there are musical associations and loyalties which stretch back over the decades: long-standing collaborators Alan Wakeman on tenor and soprano and Dave Holdsworth on pocket trumpet, still producing forthright and sonorous solos. This evening there were lush Strayhorn numbers and overtly Dukeish references (“On Duke’s Birthday”) combined with past compositions – “Tender Love” and “Bebop De Rigeur” (from Citadel/Room 315), the latter a showcase for the talented altoist Roz Harding. “Graffitti” (from Cortege) featured some beautifully modal trumpet from Dick Pearce. Other solo highlights came when Pete Whyman’s braying clarinet took us into a Sicilian wedding party and in the powerful vocal rendition by John Winfield of William Blake’s “I See Thy Form”. Billie Bottle led the vocals on “Gas, Dust, Stone”, with characteristically tight brass and reed arrangements and a fiery, adventurous alto solo from Harding.
Throughout there was great interaction between the four frontline vocalists (Kate Westbrook, Martine Waltier, Bottle and Winfield) and the band, driving rhythms led by drummer Coach York and soaring violin from Dominique Pifarely. No-one disappointed, either individually or collectively, and a rousing finale ended with Rossini. Something for everyone!