Music Is: Chris Biscoe Plays Mike Westbrook – November 2023

Progress Theatre, Reading Friday 10 November 2023

Chris Biscoe saxophones, Kate Williams piano, Mike Outram guitar, Dave Whitford bass, Eric Ford drums

It was a real pleasure to welcome the return of saxophone virtuoso Chris Biscoe to Jazz at Progress on Friday 10 November after an interval of six years. His latest project, Music Is: Chris Biscoe Plays Mike Westbrook captures with astonishing brilliance the spirit and vast range of one of jazz’s greatest composers, Mike Westbrook – creatively active as ever aged eighty-seven and soon to be leading his Band of Bands, a collection of long-term alumni including Chris Biscoe, at London’s Café Posk on 2 December.

But more than that, ‘Music Is’ serves as platform to reveal Biscoe himself as a musician of rare expressive quality and as a tribute to his friends and fellow musicians who are no longer with us – Tony Marsh, Danilo Terenzi, Stuart Brooks, Lois Barry and Bobby Wellins.

The seeds of Biscoe’s long association with Mike Westbrook took root long before he joined the Westbrook Trio in 1979. As he told Chris Searle in a recent interview for the Morning Star, “I first heard the concert band live at the 100 Club and fell in love with the mix of free­dom, organisation, tunes and great solos by saxophonists like Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore and the real favourite, George Khan. I loved Mike’s constant desire to explore new projects and his willingness to take on the unusual.”

He continued, “ ‘Music Is’ starts with the history of my association with the West­brooks. Hence the concentration on music from the Mama Chicago and Cortege albums. It’s a mixture of pieces I felt I could play in a similar way to their first incar­nation, and others I wanted to take in a different direction.”

‘Music Is’, from ‘On Duke’s Birthday’, Westbrook’s celebration of Duke Ellington, opened the evening to beguiling effect. Whitford and Ford improvised freely around the variations of the plaintive theme expressed by Biscoe on soprano sax. Did Biscoe really conjure those final notes from his instrument? So exquisitely beautiful and yet way beyond its normal range. Or were they a figment of the imagination? Stunning.

‘Mama Chicago’, Westbrook’s ground-breaking ‘Jazz Cabaret’ from 1979, gave birth to the next two numbers. The richly evocative ‘Mama Chicago’ combined Kate Williams’ free-flowing piano, Biscoe’s slow searing alto and Outram’s bluesy guitar in a glorious melee of changing moods and shifting rhythms. ‘Goin’ to Chicago’ could be described as an atmospheric ‘road-song’, depicting the tension and mounting excitement of driving to the most populous city in America’s mid-west, on a journey charged with the anticipation of the delights Chicago has to offer. I loved Eric Ford’s propulsive drumming and an insistent figure from Kate William’s keyboard that seemed to be counting down the miles to the destination.

The contemplative ‘View from The Drawbridge’ saw a return to a trio format, this time comprising Biscoe on soprano, Outram guitar and Dave Whitford on bass. First recorded in 1975 by a nineteen-strong orchestra, this arrangement lost none of its emotional splendour in this scaled-down interpretation. It brought to mind the haunting beauty of ‘Starless and Bible Black’, Stan Tracey’s timeless collaboration with the late Bobby Wellins.

The calming influence of Kate William’s sensitive keyboard touch helped restore order to the enjoyably anarchic portrait of a late-night street scene in Vancouver depicted in ‘Aggro-Vancouver-Desperado’, allowing Biscoe’s majestic baritone to emerge briefly from the ensuing chaos. Biscoe explained the inspiration for the piece. ‘For some unknown reason Mike and Kate Westbrook and I decided to walk back from an out-of-town gig by the pianist/singer Dave Frishberg. Vancouver is light and airy in daytime. It’s a lairy place at night.’

The first set closed with a personal favourite of Mike Westbrook; the Friedrich Hollaender/Ralph Freed ballad ‘You Leave Me Breathless’, featuring a beautiful solo by Mike Outram.

The yearning ache of loss filled Chris Biscoe’s baritone in the sax/drum dialogue that opened the second set as he reflected on the desolation of old communities in the wake of modern development in ‘Wasteground and Weeds’.

The following three pieces were drawn from ‘The Cortege’, Westbrook’s massive work for a seventeen-piece orchestra originally issued as a triplealbum in 1982 which drew its inspiration from the canon of European poetry.

‘Enfance’, based on the text of French poet Paul Eluard captured the joyous spirit of childhood, though tinged with the bitter sweet knowledge that all too soon it comes to an end.

‘July ‘79’, served as a reminder that ‘The Cortege’ was commissioned for the late and much-lamented Bracknell Festival of that year and evoked the jazz/rock feel of those days. Fine solos from Biscoe on alto and Mike Outram paid tribute to former Westbrook colleagues Chris Hunter and Brian Godding.

As if to say, ‘Here we go guys. Let’s see where this will take us’, everyone cut loose to joyous effect on ‘Graffitti’, the final choice from ‘The Cortege’.

A gorgeous re-working of ‘Music Is’, this time with the full band, and with Kate Williams and Mike Outram very much to the fore, brought the evening full circle to a magical close.

But there remained one more tune to play – ‘Johnny Come Lately’, another personal favourite of Mike Westbrook. Somehow the band took on the sound of a much bigger ensemble as they stretched out on this Billy Strayhorn classic. The quirky stops and starts to the arrangement kept musicians and audience alike firmly on their toes. A great ending to a wonderful evening.

In a brief conversation with Chris after the gig, he expressed delight at the size of the audience and the response to the music. ‘After all’, he remarked, ‘playing Mike Westbrook’s music isn’t like revisiting Miles, Mingus or Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond, but it does have tremendous appeal.’

True enough. Let’s trust that the ‘Music Is’ project will make his name better known, along with that of Chris Biscoe.             

As ever our thanks to Stuart McCubbin and his band of helpers who form the Front of House and technical team at the Progress Theatre.

Review posted here by kind permission of Trevor Bannister
Photo by Steve Foster @jazzshots (Instagram & FB)