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David Gibson: Propelling The Story Forward

Dan Bilawsky By

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While Gibson looks back at his early years in New York City as lean years, his name was already starting to circulate during that period. He appeared as part of a trombone choir on Wycliffe Gordon's The Search (Nagel Heyer, 2000), worked with vocalist Nancy Wilson on her Christmas album, gigged and recorded with The Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band, and began to cultivate his own scene, which would lead to his debut album—Maya (Nagel Heyer, 2002). Gibson notes the circumstances that led to that first leader session: "When I moved to town there was a little restaurant called Salt on Columbus Avenue and, maybe, 75th Street. They had music there four nights a week, and every night was a steady band. It was one of my regular hangs, and I knew I could usually sit in on the last set. I was introduced to a lot of people there. [pianist] Rick Germanson used to play there; that's also where I became friendly with [saxophonist] Wayne Escoffery; and [saxophonist] Ian Hendrickson-Smith also had a steady night there." The scene surrounding that restaurant and the connection that many of those musicians had to the Nagel Heyer imprint would eventually lead Gibson to their doorstep with part of an album. "When I got here, the first thing I realized is that I had no gigs," Gibson amusingly notes. "But I wanted to keep writing music, so I started writing and got a group of people together to make what I thought was a demo. We went down to a studio on a Saturday afternoon and recorded about six tunes." Gibson sent those recordings off to Nagel Heyer, the label liked what it heard, and the scene was set for Maya, a well-crafted album named after Gibson's daughter.

Around the same time that Gibson sent that demo to Nagel Heyer to set the wheels in motion for Maya, he sent a copy of those same recordings to Slide Hampton. "When I came to New York," Gibson remembers, "I immediately reached out to him to try to set up a lesson. I couldn't arrange a lesson, but when I did the demo, I sent him a copy of it." Upon hearing the music, Hampton called Gibson, praised his work, and invited him to take part in the reconstituted World Of Trombones band. It was a life-changing experience, giving Gibson the opportunity to work with some of his influences, travel to Europe to perform, and, a few years later, record with a slightly different version of the band on Hampton's Spirit Of The Horn (MCG Jazz, 2003). It was also the scene for the development of a longstanding friendship between Gibson and Fuller, cemented during a potentially harrowing experience obtaining last-minute passport renewals and cultivated over the course of the many years that have followed.

Gibson's career wasn't in full bloom by 2003, but it was certainly moving toward that direction. He had a fairly steady flow of local gigs, his first album had entered the marketplace and received some positive press, he was about to begin a decade-plus stint teaching at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and his work with high profile figures like Hampton had helped to raise his profile in the jazz community at large. He was soon to receive another reputation boost through his participation and placing in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trombone Competition that year. It was an experience that almost never happened for Gibson, as the organization behind the competition had placed an age cap on the event. But the cap was eventually lifted, and Gibson went on to take Second Place honors in a strong field that included future heavyweights like Marshall Gilkes and First Place winner Andre Hayward. Gibson looks back on the whole experience with mixed feelings, but, nevertheless, the results helped to confirm his ascendancy into the upper ranks of jazz trombonists. His subsequent recordings would come to do the same.

The Path To Delphi (Nagel Heyer, 2005)—Gibson's sophomore effort—was born out of a scene at another restaurant/gigging situation. Gibson explains, "I used to book these little gigs at a restaurant in my old neighborhood called Jesse's Place. I had two nights a week that I would book there, and I would always have a lot of those tunes out that ended up on that record. Wayne would do some of those gigs, and [bassist] Dwayne Burno would do a lot of those gigs. So all the cats on that record would come through a lot and we would play a lot. It wasn't in that configuration [on the record], but it was that cast of characters." In addition, the record featured trumpet legend Randy Brecker, a somewhat last minute addition taking the place of an unavailable Dr. Eddie Henderson. Brecker, not surprisingly, fit in perfectly and rounded out the sextet. Gibson's third record—G-Rays (Nagel Heyer, 2008)—languished on the shelf for several years before receiving an under-the-radar release, so all signs pointed to the need to make a change at that stage of the game. That's when Posi-Tone Records came into sight.

Gibson's first two records for that label—A Little Somethin' (Posi-Tone, 2009) and End Of The Tunnel (Posi-Tone, 2011)—would come to feature a funky organ quartet that was born of a happy accident. "Around 2006," Gibson recalls, "I received a call from [saxophonist/bassist] Mike Karn to play a gig at Fat Cat on a Saturday night. The band was me, [organist] Jared Gold, [drummer] Quincy Davis, and Karn. Then, I got a call in the middle of the day from [saxophonist] Julius Tolentino, telling me that Karn got food poisoning and couldn't make the gig. So Julius says he's going to cover him, but he tells me I should bring some music because he's coming straight from another gig and he won't have any. So, all of a sudden, I'm the leader." In another strange twist, Tolentino ended up being unable to make the gig, leaving trumpeter Duane Eubanks to fill the void temporarily. But all of those eleventh hour changes did nothing to dampen the spirit of the performance that evening. That particular event marked the birth of a band, which included Tolentino, who eventually took over for an all-too-busy Eubanks, and led to a steady series of gigs and the aforementioned albums.

A bit further down the road, there was Boom! (Posi-Tone, 2015). It's an album that's at once bracing, beautiful, in the tradition, and outside the box. After two recordings and steady gigging with the organ quartet, Gibson switched gears. He enlisted a crew of young(er) guns—pianist Theo Hill, trumpeter Josh Evans, bassist Alex Claffy, and drummer Kush Abadey—and changed his outlook a bit, adopting an edgier quality while retaining the streamlined flow present in his earlier work. It proved to be a raving success, and Boom! became something of a breakout album for a man who already had five other records under his belt and fifteen years of high-level playing experience in New York. And that was just the beginning for Gibson in 2015. He also saw the release of Swing Makes You Happy! from the George Gee Swing Orchestra, a critically-hailed album featuring Gibson's trombone work and his writing for a fierce little big band, and he took on a larger role with Orrin Evans' Captain Black Big Band. It was a banner year for Gibson, and 2016 looks to be another one.

Two weeks after the session for Gibson's forthcoming album we sit down for a lengthy talk at the Chelsea apartment he shares with his wife of five years—trumpeter Kiku Collins. Over the course of several hours he proves more than willing to look in on his past, evident in the personalized history that informs this writing, but he's more eager to discuss the present. He's rightfully enthused about the music he just recorded, featuring the same band on Boom! minus Josh Evans, who's replaced by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix; he's thrilled with the current state of affairs in the aforementioned large ensembles he works with; and he's both happy with his life as it is and eager to keep moving forward, noting that the two aren't mutually exclusive. He speaks with candor and humor, never tries to sugarcoat anything, and finds a good deal of wisdom and clarity in both the lemons and the laurels that life can hurl at you. Through conversation and action he shows himself to be a pragmatist in practice, a philosopher at heart, a realist in his exploration of self, and an optimist for the modern age. The David Gibson of today only exists because of the fact that the David Gibsons of the past were open enough to let life's truths reveal themselves and hold sway over future outcomes. And as Clark Terry once taught him to do, he's propelling the story forward.

Photo Credit: Lynn Redmile
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