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The Cortège (Remastered)

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Album Review

The Mike Westbrook Orchestra's 1982 opus The Cortège, initially released as a sprawling three-disc vinyl set by Original Records (re-released on CD by Enja) and winner of that year's Grand Prix du Disque de Montreux, is an often stunning work of massive scope and an indisputable highlight of Westbrook's career. Originally commissioned by the Bracknell Jazz Festival in 1979 and subsequently performed at a number of European festivals, The Cortège is themed around the idea of a New Orleans funeral procession, from its dirges to its final exuberance, but this theme is used as a framework for excursions into territory that is pure Westbrook — namely a marriage of creative jazz orchestra and European poetry written by Federico García Lorca, Arthur Rimbaud, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, and others. To be sure, the impassioned, theatrical, and — to some — even occasionally eccentric interpretations of the texts by singers Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton do not fit within what might traditionally be considered "jazz vocals"; both Westbrook and Minton draw mainly from European cabaret, musical theater, the avant-garde, and even opera. And they throw themselves into their performances, holding nothing back. They possess extraordinary range, control, and interpretive skill, and anyone open to a melding of jazz and European art music — which honor each other here — should find much to admire in the performances.

Moreover, Westbrook assembled a wonderful 17-piece ensemble for this project, capable of warmth and color in the ensembles and powerful, passionate solo statements. Notable among the players are musicians from both the British jazz and avant rock worlds, including bassoonist Lindsay Cooper (who takes a Zappa-ish solo complete with wah-wah on "Democratie"), cellist Georgie Born, guitarist Brian Godding (spitting fusiony sparks on the opening "It Starts Here" and ending "Erme Estuary" with atmospheric soundscapes), electric bassist Steve Cook, and saxophonist Chris Biscoe (pushing beyond the waltz of "Knivshult/Ash Wednesday" and taking the rhythm section with him). If you think The Cortège's band photos snapped by Kate Westbrook in a fancy hotel ballroom provide evidence that this project might be overly polite, listen to the suitably raucous treatment given to John Clare's celebration of ale-drinking companionship The Toper's Rant ("And we'll sit it in spite of the weather/Till we tumble dead drunk on the plain/When the morning shall find us together/All willing to stand it again") in "A Hearth Burns," with Minton, Kate Westbrook, and Born pumping out the vocal chorus with abandon while the horns and reeds wail around them (followed by a blues-rockin' feature for Godding). And yes, "A Hearth Burns" segues into the genuinely weird "Une Vie," with a short text by Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski vehemently declaimed by Minton over Cook's Hugh Hopper-esque fuzz bass — it's as bizarre as Ivor Cutler on Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom. The Cortège might be too sprawling for a first investigation of Westbrook, but it warrants consideration as the centerpiece of any Westbrook collection.


Born: 21 March 1936 in High Wycombe, England

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s

Progressive big band leader from the U.K. who loves Ellington, Weill, and Blake. Multi-faceted music and performance art. Politically...
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The Cortège (Remastered), Mike Westbrook
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