Mike Westbrook

On Duke's Birthday

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In many ways, this is the most delightful and most confounding of all of Mike Westbrook's recordings. The music here is not Ellington re-arranged or reconceived, it' s not a set of Ellington impressionist sketches, nor is it any attempt to reincarnate or bring back the big band in the postmodern era. What it is, is difficult to say, and why Westbrook titled his record that way is anybody's guess. What can be said about this music is that it is ingenious. Westbrook has written a series of five thematic musical conversations for a large band. All of the individual pieces are highly structured rigid in the way they address and, in Westbrook's work, "interlace the various sections harmonically and melodically, as a way of creating a new harmonic language. But the way this is accomplished is so ingenious in that each tune has very few chord changes to work with. These few changes allow a particular piece, such as the opener, "Checking in at Hotel la Prieure," to flow a series of melodic and rhythmic balances into the harmonic field, ever so slowly -- yet the piece swings like mad -- drop in solos of prescribed length and dynamic and resolve itself with a flying violin, á la Joe Venuti, and the horns carrying the original harmonic statement to a big band rave out. On the title track, which is almost Gil Evanish in its plodding, impressionistic canvas where Georgie Born's cello plays a slow counterpoint to near opaque horns likes as the subtle shaded chord voicings of Mick Goodrick's guitar. "East Stratford Too Doo" echoes thematically Ellington's structure in "Such Sweet Thunder," but not its voicings, harmonics, or dynamics. Westbrook's unfolds more gradually, and stays in the pocket longer with wildly chromatic horn arrangements and a swing-'em-easy drum chart by Toni Marsh. Ultimately, this is one of Westbrook's most accessible records, in that he leaves the vanguard completely out of the mix and moves instead toward opening up diatonic harmony to a set of colors and shades it perhaps hasn't encountered before, and the winner, of course, is the listener -- just take in the rave applause this band gets from the crowd. If you can only have one Mike Westbrook record, let it be this one.

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