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Mike WESTBROOK (1936 -)
PlatterBack (1998)
Story and Lyrics by Kate Westbrook
Westbrook & Company (Kate Westbrook, John Winfield - vocalists; Karen Street - accordion and vocalist; Stanley Adler - Vc and vocalist; Mike Westbrook - Pf, tuba and vocalist)
recorded at Livingstone Studios, Dec. 1998.
VOICEPRINT GROUP: JAZZPRINT JPVP117CD [74'11]

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Mike Westbrook (OBE) has his fingers in so many pies. Heís been in, led and composed music for all sorts of jazz groups, both small and large. Heís written "classical" music, notably a Saxophone Concerto. Heís written music for film and television, and a small stack of cabaret and theatre pieces. There will be plenty of us, Iím sure, who recall his Big Band Rossini Prom concert in 1992.

I wonder, does this place him in the "cross-over" camp? I am very suspicious of anything labelled "cross-over" (which I take as meaning rather more than a musician of one sort borrowing tasty morsels from another sort). This not because I dislike the actual idea of different musical genres cross-fertilising. far from it: much of our finest music has what we might call, in this context, a dubious pedigree. No, itís because itís become fashionable, and I mistrust the motives of those who try to make us believe that itís something special, somehow "important" and "innovative". I just wish theyíd shut up banging on about how clever theyíre being and simply get on with the job, like "cross-fertilising" musicians have done since time immemorial.

Nowadays too many musicians, anxious (perhaps understandably) to make their mark, see "cross-over" as a convenient band-wagon on which they can hitch an easy ride to fame and fortune. Less understandably, they seem to overlook the fact that cross-fertilisation is only a Good Thing when it produces Something Wonderful. Some folk tend to forget that such a result is not guaranteed - rampant interbreeding can often (and often does) create monstrosities. I get the impression that in the past composers quietly buried their mistakes, whereas now they (the mistakes) are paraded in welters of aggressive media promotion. We, the poor punters, are made to feel reactionary if we donít cheer to the rafters the Emperorís latest taste in new clothing.

Thatís already a fair old mouthful, and I havenít even touched on umpteen other considerations, like the "oil and water effect" or the "cross-over take-over" of a dominant genre (and, letís face it, one usually is). To get back to the question: is Mike Westbrook in the "cross-over" camp? Well, on the strength of Platterback, Iíd say not (go on, then, tell me - I was wasting my breath on that little tirade!). To be sure, it does use certain elements from the "classical" side of the street. Formally, it bounces happily in the ball-park labelled "song cycle" - by definition as much as anything, seeing as itís a series of songs with a common narrative thread. The theme of the first song, Riding Down to Platterback, subsequently adopts the role of a ritornello, linking and occasionally seeping into the substance of the main numbers, though thankfully the idea isnít flogged to death.

However, these and a couple of other details no more make Platterback a "classical" work than does Ravelís adoption of contemporary jazz idioms make his Piano Concerto in G a jam session. In this sense, Platterback simply "borrows", and it borrows from right, left and centre: from the "classical" right, from the "Jazz Duke Ellington style" left (as a first approximation, at least), and from the "cabaret song" centre.

The result is a work that is pretty flexible, compact enough to be performed on a concert platform as a purely musical and poetic observation of its characters, or as a theatre piece - which is really what it is! Maybe though itís a mite too compact: the two principals - taking the parts of an army conscript townward-bound for his call-up and the British Ambassadorís cook townward-bound on her way to work - are purely singing parts. The three instrumentalists double as the vocal chorus, and everyone has to be able to act a bit. The scoring, for piano-accordion, cello and tuba doubling piano - which is to some extent designed with particular players in mind - amounts to an ensemble of a sort that hardly lies thick on the ground! All of which, I might guess, militates against the work being taken up generally by less exalted performing groups, unless they are prepared to do a spot of adaptation.

Roughly, very roughly (because I donít want to give all the plot away!), the scenario is that of a "commuter train" journey from the mountain village of Stiltsville down to Platterback, the localeís big city, and centres on the interaction of those two passengers, who have highly contrasted reasons for travelling. At the very start, there is a confused polyphony of voices, as if we are hearing the thoughts of the milling passengers waiting for the train.

In passing, just in case you are still insufficiently de-sensitised to such things, I should warn you that this work contains some strong language and a reference to solvent abuse. In this brief prelude, amongst much that was not clearly apprehensible, I quite clearly heard the "F" word. Iíd much rather I hadnít, because (a) as often as not (and certainly here) it doesnít mean anything, (b) its shock value is now severely diminished, so that it either makes no real impression or merely causes offence, and (c) well, there are far more powerful - and meaningful - adjectives in the English language. Itís not so much "rude" as simply "lazy".

That one blooper apart, I have only praise for the librettist, Kate Westbrook. She also takes the part of the Cook, and is a truly formidable vocal actress - her voice can charm the birds out of the trees yet, when she has a mind, it can also pack a punch that would floor Mike Tyson. Would that more of the worldís great opera singers had even half of her powers of expression!

John Winfield, in the role of the Conscript, although blessed with an expressive voice well suited to ballads and tender reflections, might at first seem to be having a fair old struggle to keep his end up (and DONíT take that the wrong way, please!). However, that turns out to be part - a somewhat central part - of the drama. The Conscript is a sensitive, artistic type, convinced that he is leaving the Love of His Life in Stiltsville and setting off to Certain Death (Strafe Me with Friendly Fire) whilst the Cook is a pretty rugged character, eager to get back to her Day Job (Boiled Beef). It gets to the point where in one number, Tragedy of a City, the "masculine" sounding Cook is directly contrasted to the "feminine" sounding Conscript, a vaguely disconcerting passage!

At heart Platterback is a serious work. Mike Westbrookís apparently facile use of orchestrated train noises, particularly in the evident context of a downhill journey, is I think meant to represent the relentless driving of forces outside our control - it sweeps us all helplessly along, whether it be to success or failure, happiness or doom. Against this mechanised Force of Destiny, the composerís more intimate utterances immediately gain added poignancy (and why not?).

But, lest we drown in our own tears, the Westbrooks provide a couple of well-placed comic turns, of which top billing must go to The Stiltsville Yodel. This starts off sounding like a send-up of the Grand Ole Opry. Yodelling which comes nowhere near the achievements of even Frank Ifield (remember him?) gives way to a flurry of farm animal impressions which would impress even the best of farm animal impressionists. These in turn yield to some really fruity whistling and warbling. Coming as it does practically slap-bang in the middle of the work, certain dyed-in-the-wool cynics might read into all these shenanigans some profound philosophical significance. I just think itís a hoot!

The choice of instruments, a fairly radical departure for Mike Westbrook, works surprisingly well. Westbrookís stylish piano-playing furnishes the main foundation, but when he turns to the tuba, and pumps away in comical numbers like Boiled Beef and The Stiltsville Yodel, there is no danger whatsoever that the music will lapse into ill-considered good taste. Stanley Adlerís cello playing, distinguished by expressive range, virtuosity and imagination, conjures a number of fascinating illusions. Sometimes he sounds like a lead guitar, sometimes like a rhythm guitar, sometimes like a stand-up bassist. At one point, he lets rip with a more than passable imitation of a Blue-Grass fiddler. Not surprisingly the relatively softly-spoken cello, which for this reason has ever been a problematic soloist, is amplified. But be warned! This is not a matter of upping the fader on the cellistís spot mic. a notch, but of "wiring up" the instrument itself. This artifice undoubtedly enhances Adlerís ability to imitate, but it also constitutes a gilding of the lily not extended to any of the other instruments. Iím not making a judgement: whether you like it, or even find it "acceptable", is entirely up to you.

The real highlight of the instrumental side of this CD, and which alone makes it worth the price, is the accordion playing of Karen Street. Anyone who thinks of the accordion as just a crude "squeeze box" to accompany boozy singalongs, or a noise-generator for Red Army ensembles, or the musical equivalent of a bottle of French Dressing, really must hear Streetís playing: it is phenomenal. The very first reference I made in my listening notes, during Strafe Me (track 3), was "1st. time heard accord. clearly - very expressive instr!" By the time Iíd got to The Streams of Lovely Lucienne (track 8), in which the accordion has a big solo, I was noting "as ever, beaut[ifully] artic[ulated]". That, and more - from touching mellifluousness to congested anger, whether intimating a fine-spun lyric or chomping away in the "rhythm section", the exertions of Karen Streetís arms and fingers were, quite literally, music to my ears.

Letís return to the question of sound. This recording is very much a "studio" artefact in the finest "pop" tradition, with everything individually miked and mixed. Nevertheless, the "natural" timbres (other than the cello!) set in an "unnatural" acoustic (in Lovely Lucienne, the accordion is double-tracked, so thereís no argument really) are all very cleanly captured and within these parameters the recording is more than acceptable. Apart, that is, from the use of the detestable "fade-out finish" to portray the departing train. Come on, Westbrook and Company, you are much more imaginative musicians than this!

The booklet could perhaps have said more about the music: all we get is a track-by-track synopsis of the "action", some photographs of the performers, and a whole page full of credits. The pictures are described as "live-photographs". Suppressing, admittedly with a struggle, the urge to enquire as to what might constitute a "dead-photograph", I guess that these were taken at a "live" performance. The omnipresent individual microphones in the photographs lead me to suspect that this recording actually does fairly represent how Platterback sounds "live".

Some commentator or other has said of Platterback, "The pianist has written more important works", while another has dismissed it with, "[It is] perhaps not quite as characterful, musically explosive or capable of absorbing you in the fortunes of the cast as some Westbrook ventures". On the other hand, we have comments such as, ". . . such is the power of the music and of its performance that the whole piece grips like a thriller" and ". . . serve[s] up a dazzling display of sound". Opinions are divided, then, I reckon. Youíre going to have to hear it and decide for yourselves, and thereís plenty to chew on. Whether you find Platterback painful or pleasurable, Iíll lay odds that youíll be as enchanted as I was by that superlative accordion playing.

Paul Serotsky

 


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