Mike Westbrook “Village Band”. London Jazz Festival, November 2006.

By the time I got to the Queen Elisabeth Hall, it was packed. I was surprised – I don’t think of jazz being that popular, and even if it were, Mike Westbrook wouldn’t be thought of as that popular: he usually plays quite avant garde music (which I like: his “Art Wolf” project was broadcast on Radio 3 during the summer, and it was stunning, exciting music). But then this was the first concert of the London Jazz Festival, and it was free; and I think just about every contemporary jazz fan in London had turned up – together with a great many musicians (I recognised Chris Biscoe, a great alto player who has played with Andy Sheppard, Carla Bley – and Mike Westbrook); it is easy to tell the musicians at gigs: they are the ones who stand around talking and drinking.

There were no seats available, but then someone noticed a stack of fold-away chairs, and I noticed him grabbing one from the top of an eight foot high pile; so I did the same. (I doubt I would have unless I had seen someone doing so first.) An old guy – much shorter than me – asked if I could get him one, so I gave him my chair, and went back to grab a couple more (one for me, one for his wife); and by then everyone standing had seen the first bloke and then me help themselves, and pile diminished, until it was all gone. The foyer of the QEH was jammed – there was no free space at all.

Westbrook uses lots of different bands: Art Wolf is a quartet (sometimes a sextet); he has big bands. This was the Village Band – apparently formed in the village in Dorset where the Westbrooks live: no rhythm instruments, just brass – saxes, trumpet, trombone, english horn; and euphonium. They played tunes from the broad history of jazz – numbers by Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, together with Mingus (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – so they had me won other from the outset – and Jelly Roll Soul), Monk (Monk’s Mood), Ellington (The Mooche) and a tune by Tad Dameron (If You Could See Me Now); and a long suite by Westbrook and his wife, which compared the internet to the freak shows of Victorian England (no, really).

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It was a great concert: informal, but fun. It was really interesting to hear those tunes interpreted by the brass instrumentation: it was modern jazz as if it were played by an early New Orleans marching band. I sat there drinking Guinness, enjoying the music: really fun.

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