So many good things were contained within the Mike Westbrook Concert Band of 1968 that it’s hard to know where to start. Its personnel included the components of a whole scene of young London-based jazz musicians, bursting with energy and the desire to express the sounds they were discovering collectively and as individuals.
For a time, this band gave them the ideal structure. And when they needed a setting, Ronnie Scott and Pete King were there to provide it. The gift of the remaining 18 months of the lease on the basement of 39 Gerrard Street handed young musicians the precious opportunity to perform regularly in the heart of the West End in a sympathetic environment, free from the usual commercial pressures.
What went on in that basement is crystallised in this historic and previously unheard recording of its very last night, during which the band performed Westbrook’s Release, a suite that drew together many of the composer’s own areas of interest while providing space for a selection of magnificent improvisers to display their distinctive and fast-evolving personalities. What Westbrook had learnt from Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus was the importance of treating an ensemble as a group of individual voices. The humanity of the music was never to be compromised by prioritising a display of technical precision. Which is not to say that these guys couldn’t play. John Surman and Paul Rutherford were just two of the band’s members then engaged in extending the available vocabulary of their instruments. But this was never at the expense of the warmth and exuberance that delighted the band’s listeners, and never more clearly than on this night in May 1968 at the Old Place.