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by Ian Mann

June 19, 2006


A challenging, uncompromising and ambitious record that succeeds brilliantly on its own terms.

Husband and wife team Mike and Kate Westbrook have been creating their own very distinctive brand of jazz for over thirty years. They specialise in creating works with a unifying theme and draw on other elements including poetry, classical music, cabaret and opera. Some of these works have been on a large scale incorporating big bands and orchestras and it would be fair to say that the Westbrooks have virtually invented their own musical genre. Certainly their music defies easy classification.

Their latest album “Art Wolf” contains many of the Westbrook hallmarks. This ambitious and uncompromising record is performed by a quartet consisting of Mike on piano and euphonium, Kate on voice and tenor horn plus Pete Whyman on soprano saxophone and long term associate Chris Biscoe on alto. The album was recorded at drummer Jon Hiseman’s studio and he provides percussion on two tracks. Otherwise there are no drums or bass-an unconventional line up to say the least.

The music is inspired by the life and work of the Swiss landscape painter Caspar Wolf (1735-1783). Wolf’s dramatic Alpine scenes were undervalued in his lifetime and it is only recently that the quality of his work has achieved due recognition. The album was commissioned for the re-opening of the Aargauer Kunsthaus,Aarau, Switzerland which houses a major collection of Wolf’s work. It is released on the Swiss record label Altrisuoni.

Kate Westbrook began her artistic career as a painter and as such is able to write with an insider’s knowledge on the subject. She provides the text /lyrics for the album with Mike composing the music. Kate’s words draw on the life and work of the artist whose very signature was the image of a wolf. She addresses the theme of the isolation of the artist, his relationship with the outside world and the economic hardships he endured. Wolf died a poor man, having enjoyed little commercial success. Using the metaphor of the wolf, and alluding to the legend of Romulus and Remus she examines the internal struggles of the artist, his inner demons, and the very nature of creativity.

The music draws on jazz, cabaret and opera all familiar Westbrook devices. Kate’s voice sweeps and soars exhibiting an impressive dynamic range. Sometimes guttural, sometimes sensual her voice can be unsettling and disturbing. Certainly her poetic words and dramatic voice evoke the “sublime, wild and terrifying beauty” of Wolf’s Alps.

She is well supported by the three musicians who shadow her every move with grace and acumen. This is totally an ensemble piece and although there are instrumental interludes there is no conventional jazz soloing.

This is not a work I would recommend wholeheartedly to the average listener. The record is challenging and uncompromising - some of the libretto is delivered in German - and would only suit so many people’s ears. Accusations of pretentiousness would not be entirely unfounded and the dreaded words “concept album” are never far from one’s thoughts. Somewhat austere, this album does not have the sense of humour with which Carla Bley leavens her work.

Having said that this is an ambitious record that succeeds brilliantly on its own terms. Initially I found it rather daunting, but repeated listening has its rewards, and surely the best art requires a little work from the viewer or listener.

It’s not an album to play every day and I suspect that the Westbrooks are the type of artists who have developed something of a cult following. Their regular audience will find much to enjoy on “Art Wolf” but I would advise only the most adventurous of newcomers to give it a try.

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