Mike Westbrook Orchestra

On Duke’s Birthday
hatOLOGY 635

British pianist Mike Westbrook uses the resources available from 11 musicians on this 1984 festival recording to perform the rare feat of honoring the spirit of Duke Ellington without playing any of his melodies. Still, Westbrook’s five bittersweet compositions impressively capture the atmosphere and the harmonies that underline many of Ellington’s orchestral work. On the downside however, only a couple of Westbrook’s soloists possess the raw individualism that characterized the work of Ellington’s long-standing sidemen-interpreters.

Especially off-putting are those times when the Westbrook group – which includes cello, violin, piccolo and tenor horn – plays arrangements that are elegant and graceful, but relate more to pop-classical and standard big band rhapsodies than Ellingtonia. Vocalist Kate Westbrook intoning a song-poem that name-checks the Duke’s main men doesn’t help either. More memorable is some individual solo work, especially from French violinist Dominique Pifarely, Italian trombonist Danilo Terenzi and veteran Westbrook associate, multi-reedman Chris Biscoe.

Terenzi’s skill is such that he’s able to unite Lawrence Brown’s slick tremolo attack and Tricky Sam Nanton’s wobbling emotionalism into an original synthesis. Similarly Briscoe channels a low-key version of Harry Carney’s polished mahogany tone on baritone saxophone and Johnny Hodges’s mocking suppleness on alto sax. Pifarely is better still. Even on “East Stratford Too-Doo”, with its Ellington-echoing title, he never tries to equal Ray Nance. With double-stopping, slightly off-kilter runs and distinctive splayed counterpoint, he uses his Europeanized background in jazz, rock and notated music for sprawling cadences that reference Ellington only by asserting his uniqueness

On their own Westbrook’s orchestration plus the harmonic interplay among the band members is notable enough to make this music enjoyable. But the situation may have been better served by downplaying the Ellington connection.

—Ken Waxman

In MusicWorks Issue #101