The third of six projected concerts in Red Lion Square, WC1, presented by the London Jazz Centre Society under the collective title ‘Jazz is Alive and Well’ (contrary, one suspects, to popular opinion), was surrendered to the Mike Westbrook Concert Band – a rampaging, frowsy tentette who were very much alive and kicking. The pieces presented (this reviewer caught the second set only) were puzzling pastiches of simple, effective big-band choruses mixed jarringly with vast, fuzzy, multi-improvisational passages. The traditional ensemble work, blown direct and clean, frankly emulated familiar sounds: the saxes in particular sounded like Ellington (John Surman can do a good Harry Carney) or Basie (Mike Osborne makes with a tight-lipped Marshall Royal.) Flying Home, superimposed logically and cleverly on Opus One, was pelted out in slap-dash Mingus fashion, with arresting tempo changes. The less derivative group sketchings, however, clung hard and fast to the other extreme: out-of-pitch duets, inchoate free blowing, slow-fuse crescendo roars – sometimes with leg-pulling private joke effect – whatever coherence of which was further mutilated by the spelaean acoustics of Conway Hall. Thus the oil-and-water schizophrenia of the band’s music – not a mature finished chart in the lot.
Straddling and unifying the tried-and-true and the flimsy-whimsy were the individual solo efforts, a very different matter. All horns (but one) acquitted themselves adequately, in some cases admirably. John Surman conjured up late Tintoretto – dark, writhing, bigger than life. He soloed with passion and no end of ideas, displaying enormous energy and facility on baritone as well as soprano sax. Malcolm Griffiths delivered an adept, gritty trombone chunk on Home/Opus that really got under the skin of the thing. The same piece had Dave Holdsworth, who, as the lone trumpet, had to spread himself thin to provide a roof for his six comperes on horns, take his turn with brittle gusto over some sharp drumming by Alan Jackson.
There was refreshing variety in the solo styles: Alan Skidmore (tenor) favoured a glancing, cadenza-like approach, while Bernie Living (flute and alto with pitch problems on both) brought down his phrases with a shotgun. A foil to both was the cleanly sculpted alto-work of Mike Osborne, who treated the folks to some healthy Oliver-Nelson-ish stuff toward the end of the evening. The rhythm played with assurance and drive, sustaining soloists consistently through long ensemble tacets and prodding them through riffs. Westbrook, who has a strong arranger’s keyboard approach, should allow himself some solo space, rather than tasteless, spoofing vocals, like the bitter and dreary treatment of I’m Old Fashioned.
This band fortunately doesn’t inhibit itself with fustain academics and pussy-footing (as plied, for example, by their predecessors in the Conway series, the New Jazz Orchestra,) and so it can collectively foment exciting and infectious moments, particularly riffing behind key soloists. Yet neither does it supply itself with the meaty, original arrangements necessary to fully exploit and direct the obvious creative powers of its members. It’s like a big, happy, irresponsible bloke with no ties and an identity problem. Too much licence makes its own straightjacket.