Rhythm method

The Bath Festival

For a jazz composer, Mike Westbrook has very little natural rhythm. When he gets up from the piano to lead the band, it's rather as if Basil Fawlty has decided to get funky. So irregular is the pulse of his music that even the players can have difficulty clapping in time. But it's in this mix of jazz syncopation and a ruminative, very European, indeterminacy that Westbrook's genius lies; like the band, the listener may sometimes lose the rhythmic thread, but the textures of the writing, and the slow build-up of tension, often result in quite marvellous music that outstrips any supposed limitations of genre.

Saturday's premiere of Bar Utopia showed Westbrook's virtues to great, if mixed, effect. Scored for a 20-piece band, it interwove a series of features for brass and reed quartets with vocals by Kate Westbrook and John Winfield and screaming trumpets and swooning saxophones in the ensemble.

Not surprisingly, the utopian theme of the festival was treated with heavy irony in the lyrics (by Helen Simpson) and pastiche in the music, the two singers surveying a ruined world from the vantage-point of a last- gasp saloon. Brecht-Weill and water, mock Lambert, Hendricks and Ross vocalise, lugubrious tango-lament and rowdy bar-room blues were all up for parody, while Simpson and Westbrook kept their sincerity for the lovey- dovey stuff, although with more than a touch of bathos in the night. But, as usual, the music pulled it off, just, with a closing blast of big-band bravura that ensured the evening ended, as utopias tend to, with a bang.

On Sunday, the London Sinfonietta ended its Contemporary Music Network tour of Reich, Adams and Ades (already reviewed) by adding an extra item by the festival's featured composer, Jonathan Harvey. Premiered in 1977 by Ballet Rambert, Smiling Immortal requires its players to move their fingers around in what looked like tupperware tubs full of pebbles, as well as to make sucking and blowing noises with their mouths. The aura of Greek myth was ably evoked by this mix of primitive sound with percussion and a tape of wind and sea noises, but it was hard to suppress a giggle as the keenly sight-reading horn player kept inadvertently strewing his pebbles across the floor.

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