It's encouraging to see that today's listening public accepts artists not bound by style, who can play not only in a variety of jazz forms, but also outside its purview. Artists like Bill Frisell regularly step outside more rigid definitions of jazznot just on his own records, but also with singer/songwriters like Robin Holcomb, Marianne Faithful, and Kelly Joe Phelps.
Back in the 1970s, however, cross-pollination was almost a given. In Britain, while artists like trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist John Taylor, and bassist Roy Babbington could be found engaged in more "pure jazz pursuits, they could also be found on records by artists like drummer Bill Bruford, Splinter, and blues maven Alexis Korneralbums that barely skirted jazz borders, if at all. And within jazz? Players were exploring every potential, from the jazz-rock of trumpeter Ian Carr's Nucleus and Soft Machine to the free jazz of saxophonist Elton Dean and drummer Tony Oxley.
So when Zimbabwe-born Mike Gibbs settled in London in 1965after studying at Boston's Berklee School of Music and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gary Burton and Carla Bleythe trombonist found himself in the midst of a scene that some have called the golden age of British jazz. And while he was no slouch as a player, he'd ultimately go on to make a bigger name for himself as composer, arranger, and orchestrator, working on projects as diverse as the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Apocalypse and Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. He released a number of albums of his own which are now considered classics, including In the Public Interest and Only Chrome-Waterfall Orchestra.
Add to that list Just Ahead, recently rescued from obscurity by Britain's BGO Records. The two-CD set, culled from performances at London's Ronnie Scott's in 1972, features a veritable who's who of British jazzWheeler, Taylor, and Babbington are there, but so are woodwind multi-instrumentalists Stan Sulzmann, Ray Warleig, and Alan Skidmore; trumpeters Henry Lowther and Harry Beckett; pianist David McRae; and drummer John Marshall.
The nine lengthy compositions from Gibbs, Bley, Burton, and Keith Jarrett are all given the progressive and broad-scaled treatment for which Gibbs had already become renowned. There are elements of rock in Jarrett's "Grow Your Own, blues in Bley's "Sing Me Softly of the Blues, and free orchestral jazz in Gibbs' "So Long Gone. Within a spectrum extending from a pure jazz aesthetic at one end to rock-influenced bands like Nucleus and Soft Machine at the other, Gibbs perches somewhere in the middle, sliding either way at will.
The performances are all outstanding, but special note deserves to be made of Chris Speddinga guitarist far removed from jazz proper, yet able to comfortably make his way through Gibbs' challenging charts, adding colorations that more schooled players might not consider.
Long overdue, BGO's reissue of Just Ahead captures Gibbs at arguably the height of his powers. Let's hope this means that reissues of In the Public Interest and Only Chrome-Waterfall Orchestra are not far behind.