The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, February 05, 2002

. . . was recorded on acoustic instruments in the spring of 1969. It is the piece "Conflict," the climax of British jazz composer Mike Westbrook's monumental "Marching Song" programmatic suite which comprised his Concert Band's third and fourth albums for Deram (oddly enough Volumes 1 and 2 were released as two entirely separate albums, rather like "Use Your Illusion") and certainly represents the summit of his work done up to that time. The piece used as a starting point the composer's own experiences while on National Service in Germany in the early '50s but expands to become an alternately pleading and howling protest against the futility of war in general (with Vietnam obviously very clear in his mind). Certainly this was the first of Westbrook's real large-scale programmatic works to appear on record; a total of 26 musicians were used, in various permutations, throughout the album, including a double rhythm section throughout, and consisting pretty well of the then cream of young Britjazz.

Although instrumental soloists are used to stunning effect throughout, including saxophonists John Surman (Westbrook's right-hand man in the Concert Band, who contributes three of his own compositions to the work), Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore and George Khan, trombonists Malcolm Griffiths and Paul Rutherford, and trumpeter Dave Holdsworth, "Marching Song" is principally an ensemble piece, and Westbrook constantly varies instrumentation, approaches and strategies throughout, leading to some powerful unscored free ensembles which contrast dramatically and brilliantly with the highly-structured sections elsewhere.

It begins with crowd noises (sampled from a cricket match by the engineer, a very young Bill Price - a connection with "Use Your Illusion"!) ushering in a somewhat parodic and seemingly endless sequence of Entry of the Gladiator-type fanfares. There's a quick exchange between the two drummers (Alan Jackson and John Marshall) before the band swings into "Hooray!" a "St Louis Blues"-type riff which propels jubilant-sounding solos from Holdsworth on trumpet and Osborne on alto (during the latter's solo, the band "goes for a walk" roaming around the headphones and fading into the crowd ambience before coming back in). After this initial euphoric blast, we go into "Landscape," a long, meditative pointillistic episode which begins with some extended unaccompanied piano ruminations by Westbrook before a very pensive, controlled band improvisation (with the saxists playing woodwinds) in turn leading into a series of duets. The first "duet" is actually one flautist, Bernie Living, overdubbed with himself. Then a sombre duet for bowed basses (Harry Miller and Barre Phillips) followed by some subtle stratospherics from Surman and Osborne. The concluding orchestral climbing chord sequence is immediately reused for the next section "Waltz (For Joanna)" a more conventional big-band piece with a melody not a million miles away from "Naima" but which provokes a spectacular soprano solo from Surman (my one minor fault would be that on the ballad sections one rhythm section would have done - the two bassists and drummers tend to get in each other's way on these pieces - and Westbrook presumably came to the same conclusion when he next used a double rhythm section, far more subtly, on 1971's "Metropolis"). After a brief reprise of the "Landscape" theme we are then plunged into "Other World" an early example of Rutherford's groundbreaking multiphonic trombone work, with Rutherford superbly portraying the confused soldier suddenly thrown into a completely alien environment and calling on his full arsenal of techniques, discreetly shadowed by basses and drums. At the conclusion of his solo the drums turn martial and we're into the title track "Marching Song" a deliberately clumsy, neo-bop riff which soon combusts into a brief free-form scrum, out of which emerges the tenor of George Khan; very rhythmic, in Archie Shepp mode. At the climax of his solo he is joined by a second tenor, Alan Skidmore; the two circle around each other like fighter planes before Skidmore takes over with a fiercely aggressive solo, sounding as though he is machine-gunning the drummers. Eventually a fast 4/4 swing takes root with Skidmore still nagging at the beat, but now more Rollins than Ayler, with some great call and exchange work between the drummers, and the bassists chasing each other up and down the scale. An even more awkward band riff then appears as Khan rejoins Skidmore for some ecstatic dual wailing, gathering in intensity before again erupting into tumultuous free-play. At the end, as the tenors, piano and drums go completely off the scale, a deliberately banal four-note brass riff harries at them to result in a cathartic ending to Volume One.

Saying defiantly to Volume Two "follow that" - and there's a quiet, thoughtful start with "Transition" which leads to an unaccompanied but subdued trombone cadenza from Malcolm Griffiths. We then go into the swinging groove of "Home" which is rather like Bernstein's "Walk On The Wild Side" theme as arranged by Eddie Sauter - again a relatively conventional big-band piece which provides space for some cool playing by Griffiths. The generally straightforward nature of this section of the work continues with "Rosie" a ballad which originally appeared on Westbrook's previous album "Release" but now reappears in extended form, mainly consisting of a duet between Westbrook on piano and Dave Holdsworth on flugelhorn, who plays beautifully and achingly. Then we move into two linked compositions by John Surman: the Eastern-flavoured mood piece "Prelude" which mutates into the full-blast roar of "Tension" featuring some furious dual overblowing by Surman and Skidmore. Griffiths then pours a bucket of water over proceedings with some restrained trombone and the piece comes to a quiescent halt; but this is not a reassuring pause, rather a gathering of breath and resources for what is to come on Side Four.

Which begins, appropriately, with "Introduction," where Westbrook's desolate piano chords echo against much disquieting percussive bowing and scraping and a free ensemble which sounds as though it's coming from the next continent, put right at the back of the mix. Imagined screams and torment. The piano resolves into the opening chords of "Ballad" a waltz of lament (as opposed to the earlier, sprightlier "Waltz") with a brief but cutting alto solo from Mike Osborne, sounding as though someone is pointing a gun at his head. The desperate but reasonless pleading of someone who knows that they are doomed. The Ellingtonian ensemble is scored not quite straight, not enough to soothe.

And then, without any warning at all, war starts and the band explodes into "Conflict" a six-minute, unrelenting barrage of free noise which very nearly outdoes Hendrix's "Banner" at Woodstock in terms of onomatopoeic portrayals of death, blood and massacre. Even the mild-mannered Richard Cook and Brian Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz are moved to comment that "this constitutes the most violent music to be found in these pages," which, given that most of the ESP catalogue is present in the book, is saying something. There is nothing ecstatic or peaceful about this unending wail, and Westbrook himself was stunned by the performance; there was apparently blood in the studio, musicians were screaming, saxophones being hammered against microphones. In concert the lights would apparently go out entirely for this section, which would be performed in total darkness. Eventually, though, one scream becomes dominant and the ensemble subsides to allow the tuba of one George Smith to emerge for his extended cadenza. Accompanied only (and discreetly) by the two drummers, this is one of the most harrowing sequences of music ever recorded, up there with the coda of Schoenberg's "Survivor From Warsaw." Again this is an exercise in multiphonic brass playing, but Smith's vocalese (screaming really - in his Jazz Monthly review of the time, Brian Priestley approvingly noted Smith's playing as sounding like a "stuck pig") often overwhelms the notes which are actually coming out of the tuba, and is diametrically opposed to Rutherford's parallel soliloquy in "Other World." Clearly representing a dying man, the tuba continues to writhe in epileptic agony until, as the drums quieten down even further, almost to silence, a reluctant theme emerges, only to be reduced to the lowest D note on the instrument as Smith's "voice" pleads, tries to cling on to life, but is defeated and dies. The ensemble returns with the appropriately dark and brief fanfare "Epitaph." One wonders whatever happened to Smith - apart from appearing on Westbrook's '67 debut "Celebration" and in the ensemble on Surman's own "How Many Clouds Can You See" album, nothing seems to have been heard of him subsequently. A great improviser. Oren Marshall 30 years before the event.

Loose ends still need to be tied up, however, and Surman's unaccompanied soprano cadenza launches the band into the ballad "Tarnished," again a melancholy piece, and again featuring Mike Osborne on alto, but now the foreboding is replaced with grief and some form of resignation. A different kind of hopelessness.

And then the actual ending; the only ending there could really be. Jackson's increasingly agitated drum cadenza escalates the final wave of tension before the saxophonists re-enter en masse, howling, screaming and overblowing, while the brass launches against hammering drums into "Memorial" a barely-disguised rewrite of "God Save The Queen," the pseudo-pomp and false sympathy drowning out the pain of those killed or the living dead; but they can't hide the screams (compare Haden's similar "Circus '68/'69" tone piece which brings "Liberation Music Orchestra" to an equally shocking and overwhelming climax).

Little wonder that when Westbrook subsequently turned his attention to the human voice, his main chosen vehicle was to be the poetry of William Blake.

The original two vinyl volumes of Marching Song disappeared fairly rapidly from the UK catalogue in 1970 (though sold well in the USA and Japan) and copies now consequently require a second mortgage. The work was reissued as a 2CD set by Polygram (still using the Deram imprint) in 1998 with highly useful musicological notes by Mike Hennessey, but alas this also now seems to have disappeared from view.

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