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Review: After death, pianist Forrest Westbrook finds his audience

by Sean J. O'Connell | Off-Ramp®

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Pianist Forrest Westbrook died in 2014, but two CDs of his music have been released posthumously. Meryl Jaque

Off-Ramp Jazz Correspondent Sean J. O'Connell reviews two new CDs featuring jazz pianist Forrest Westbrook: Carmell Jones Quartet with Forrest Westbrook and The Remarkable Forrest Westbrook, both available now on Blue Sound Records.

There is a small, disorganized box of CDs squeezed into the back of my garage labeled: “Demos, 2000s.” The box isn’t so much for me. I know what’s on those CDs because I played piano on every track. The box is for my daughter.

Long after I’m gone, crushed by a shipping container on the 710 or mistaken for a koala bear by a famished mountain lion, that box will be proof to her that Dada was hip for at least a little while. Two fantastic new albums featuring the late jazz pianist Forrest Westbrook provide a glimmer of hope for any artist who has ever felt a little under appreciated.

Forrest Westbrook was barely a household name in his own house. The hard-working musician played battered pianos across Southern California, often leaving his best ideas among the clouds of cigarette smoke and two drink minimums. He died two years ago at the age of 86, overlooked and under-recorded.

But when his daughter Leslie sorted through his possessions, she found swinging reel-to-reel tapes of sessions he had masterfully engineered in his Hollywood apartment dating back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. She knew they had to be heard and through a partnership with the Spanish jazz label Blue Sounds, Forrest Westbrook is finally finding a bit of recognition.

Last year, the first of the Westbrook trove was released as the Carmell Jones Quartet featuring Forrest Westbrook. Recorded in 1960, the cuts were intended as an audition tape for Jones for Pacific Jazz records, a local tastemaker that launched the careers of musicians Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Les McCann.

At the time of the recording, Carmell Jones was an explosive, 24 year old hard-bop trumpeter from Kansas City. He arrived on the West Coast looking for fame, fortune and a record contract. Less than a year later, he crossed one of those goals off the list: releasing the first of three engaging but underselling albums. Within five years he had moved on to New York and eventually Europe. He made his most widely-heard recording alongside saxophonist Joe Henderson on Horace Silver's Song For My Father, a cornerstone of mid-60s Blue Note soul.

On Jones’ session, the quartet eases into the heat with a simmering “Willow Weep for Me.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQGjnplRA-g

On it, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Bill Schwemmer work on a subdued groove while Jones slides in on buttered valves. A double-time piano solo briefly enters into the finger-popping realm but the grooves reach their peak later on “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

There, Jones’ fanfare unfurls over a blues march, leaving the Earth’s atmosphere with a precise jolt. Westbrook is equally forceful, twisting around the confines of the piano’s lower register.

Westbrook only ever released one album under his name, a 1970 free jazz LP called This Is Their Time, Oh Yes. But these new tapes prove that a decade prior he had a unique voice — linked equally to then-contemporary pianists like Lennie Tristano, Red Garland and Errol Garner. He had a deep well of nimble flourishes far hipper than many of the so-called West Coast jazz pianists.

Recorded two years earlier than the Jones session, the Forrest Westbrook Trio & Quintet finds Westbrook in a knottier bag, doubling back on rumbling lines on a crisp “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and evoking Dave Brubeck with a mid-tempo “In Your Own Sweet Way.”  Following a particularly exuberant solo on the Charlie Parker blues “Buzzy” it is either bassist Bill Plummer or drummer Maurice Miller who can be heard shouting “Yeah, Forrest,” an affectionate encouragement that exemplifies the homespun charm of Westbrook’s tapes.

These albums are a delight, but the pleasure is bittersweet. Westbrook was a great talent unearthed a little too late. If it wasn’t for his daughter’s determination, much of the record-buying public would never have even known his name. I’m sure her Dada would be proud. 

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