So many good things were contained within the Mike Westbrook Concert Band of 1968 that it’s hard to know where to start. Its personnel included the components of a whole scene of young London-based jazz musicians, bursting with energy and the desire to express the sounds they were discovering collectively and as individuals.
For a time, this band gave them the ideal structure. And when they needed a setting, Ronnie Scott and Pete King were there to provide it. The gift of the remaining 18 months of the lease on the basement of 39 Gerrard Street handed young musicians the precious opportunity to perform regularly in the heart of the West End in a sympathetic environment, free from the usual commercial pressures.
What went on in that basement is crystallised in this historic and previously unheard recording of its very last night, during which the band performed Westbrook’s Release, a suite that drew together many of the composer’s own areas of interest while providing space for a selection of magnificent improvisers to display their distinctive and fast-evolving personalities. What Westbrook had learnt from Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus was the importance of treating an ensemble as a group of individual voices
The humanity of the music was never to be compromised by prioritising a display of technical precision. Which is not to say that these guys couldn’t play. John Surman and Paul Rutherford were just two of the band’s members then engaged in extending the available vocabulary of their instruments. But this was never at the expense of the warmth and exuberance that delighted the band’s listeners, and never more clearly than on this night in May 1968 at the Old Place.
Three months later, Release would be recorded by the producer Peter Eden for the Deram label, its episodes trimmed in order to fit the playing time of a 12-inch LP. In this version, with no time constraints and in front of a sympathetic and sometimes vocally appreciative audience, the musicians are allowed to stretch out in a majestic sprawl of relaxed creativity.
So we have a chance to appreciate at greater length the frantic brilliance of George Khan’s tenor and Bernie Livings’s alto, Surman reaching a peak of youthful ebullience, the nerve-tingling dialogue between Dave Holdsworth’s trumpet and Alan Jackson’s drums, Harry Miller’s unflagging support play, and the wonderful contrast of trombone approaches set up by Malcolm Griffith’s proud roar and Rutherford’s oblique nurdling.
A special place is reserved for the immortal Mike Osborne, whose solo feature linking the standard “Lover Man” and the Westbrook original “For Ever and a Day” occupied four minutes of the studio recording but here is stretched to more than twice that length in a breathtakingly contoured passage of soul-piercing, heart-stopping, sweetly bruised beauty.
I wasn’t lucky enough to be there that night to hear all this magic filling a Chinatown basement. Perhaps you weren’t, either. But we are now.
1. The Few 06:51
2. Lover Man
3. For Ever & A Day
4. We Salute You
5. The Few (2)
6. Folk Song
7. Flying Home
9. Who's Who
10. Can't Get It Out Of My Mind
11. A Life Of It's Own
Mike Westbrook Concert Band:
Dave Holdsworth - trumpet
Malcolm Griffiths, Paul Rutherford - trombones
Mike Osborne, Bernie Living, George Khan, John Surman - saxophones
Mike Westbrook - piano
Harry Miller - bass
Alan Jackson - drums
Compositions & arrangements by Mike Westbrook, recorded by George Smith
Album produced by Mike Westbrook & Mike Gavin