Reviews: Jazz: She knows it makes sense

Phil Johnson
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:39

Mike and Kate Westbrook The Albert, Bristol

Even if Joyce Grenfell had lived long enough to record an album of Billie Holiday's greatest hits, her version of "Don't Explain" couldn't have bettered Kate Westbrook's own, superbly English, reading of the classic lovelorn lyric. While most female jazz singers attack the words as if they were only rhythmic markers towards the peaks and valleys of a musical orienteering course, Westbrook - like the blessed Joyce - relishes the value of her own stately voice, and the supreme importance of a good, lengthy pause. It was as if one was hearing the song for the first time, and actually understanding the words instead of straining to decipher the expressionist tic-tac gestures of the delivery. For Westbrook is nothing if not clear, and she serves the text above all else, despite (or perhaps because of) having a voice that is almost entirely self-willed.

Here was an object lesson in how to communicate the meaning of a song with all the intimacy and audience involvement you could wish for, without a black stocking or angled fedora in sight. In an evening dedicated to the songs of Friedrich ("Valling In Lov Again") Hollaender, the Westbrooks presented a kind of poor-theatre version of a full-blown musical. Mike's piano playing is all bare bones, with splintered arpeggios prefacing the opening to each song, while Kate creates the very image of a vamp from nothing but looks, smiles and opera gloves. Her vocal technique can be as experimental as you wish - miaowing like a cat, adopting the odd, Barton Fink-style accents of a Hollywood studio exec or the dumb-blonde vernacular of Judy Holliday - but everything, like it or not, at least makes sense.

Most of the best bits, however, weren't from Hollaender at all, but came in a closing sequence calling upon the Westbrooks' long and honourable tradition of drawing in material from near and far: a Greek ballad by Theodorakis; a Bosnian lament sung in French; the Brecht/Weill "Black Freighter"; Weill's own "September Song". And then, chillingly, "Don't Explain" and a final, tear-teasing version of William Blake's "London Song". After that, there isn't much you can do except give thanks, go home and listen to the CDs (on ASC Records).

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