Michael Gibbs: Still Pushing The Envelope

Ian Patterson By

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. My whole life has been based on trying to be note-wise free–use all the notes–but in a structured way. It was that initial record of Ornette Coleman that I found incredibly refreshing and essential to the core of jazz.
—Michael Gibbs
In a career spanning well over fifty years, veteran composer/arranger Michael Gibbs has chalked up a truly impressive range of credits, from Mahavishnu Orchestra to Jaco Pastorius, from Gary Burton to John Scofield and from Kenny Wheeler to Norma Winstone. The Zimbabwe-born maestro has worked with the very best jazz musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, but his expertise is by no means restricted to that field. In an extremely diverse career Gibbs has also collaborated with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Roy Harper, Osibisa, Marianne Faithful and Peter Gabriel, not to mention putting his name to a string of television and film soundtracks.

Gibb's own discography as a leader began with his eponymous debut in 1970, though releases were sparing in the following thirty years up to Nosequence (Provocateur, 2001). However, in recent years, beginning with Here's A Song for You (Fuzzy Moon, 2011), Gibbs has released more records—five in total—than in the previous thirty five years combined. Gibbs seems to be in the richest vein of form of his life. This notion is backed up by two excellent simultaneous releases with the NDR Bigband, with whom Gibbs first worked over forty years ago.

Play A Bill Frisell Set (Cuneiform, 2015) brings Gibbs and his former Berklee pupil Bill Frisell together—with Jeff Ballard on drums—while In My View (Cuneiform, 2015) celebrates Gibbs' own, highly impressive compositions plus several intriguing reworkings of jazz classics.

Yet, in spite of these recordings being hot off the press, Gibbs refuses to rest on his laurels. "I already see them in the past," says the septuagenarian. "I've got to keep moving on."

Gibbs has been moving on ever since he left his native Rhodesia (known as Zimbabwe since 1980) in 1959 for Berklee to study jazz. The catalyst for that move can perhaps be traced to Gibbs hearing one song while still a teenager in Rhodesia. "I heard a Billie Holiday song that resonated with me," explains Gibbs. "What I heard in her was a joy and hope against all the odds. What I heard in her said to me 'This is your life" and that's why I'm in jazz."

Gibbs arrived first in New York in 1959, eager to catch one of Holiday's club dates, though he admits that he didn't feel in any rush. "I figured I'm here for four years I'll see her. Then she died."

Gibbs recalls his surprise at the Berklee approach to teaching. "We were getting all these rules and I remember all the 'don't do this' and the 'don't do that' and I kept thinking to myself, there have got to be some dos somewhere in here," he laughs. In spite of the seemingly narrow methodology Gibbs encountered at Berklee he holds fond memories of the Boston institution. "I loved my time there," he acknowledges.

Of greater significance, however, was Gibb's encounter with George Russell at a summer school in 1960. "It turned my life around studying with George," says Gibbs. "He had all these scales instead of reading chord symbols but his last scale was chromatic, meaning any note could fit any harmonic situation, it was incredibly liberating."

Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin'" on the In My View album is a reminder of another significant challenge to the jazz mainstream as the 1950s gave way to a new decade. "Musicians were aghast," recalls Gibbs of Coleman's impact. "Some couldn't figure out whether to take it seriously or not."

Gibbs' desire to explore greater musical freedoms than that proposed by Berklee at the time found its impetus in Coleman. "I didn't hear any rules in Ornette Coleman's music but at the same time I did hear something that was intensely jazz and structured. My whole life has been based on trying to be note-wise free—use all the notes—but in a structured way. It was that initial record of Ornette Coleman that I found incredibly refreshing and essential to the core of jazz."

Gibbs first attempted to arrange "Ramblin" over thirty years ago but he made little headway. "I couldn't get anywhere with it and this was a new attempt, not a continuation of an old attempt," he explains. "This version still lacks a little something that Ornette's got that I would love to have but I haven't defined it yet but this is the best I can do. If I get to perform it again I want to loosen it up. Ornette had this sort of looseness."

A sort of looseness also fairly well describes Frisell's approach to performance. The guitarist is in top form on Play a Bill Frisell Set List, soloing on every single track. Frisell studied under Gibbs at Berklee in the 1970s though the experience was clearly more memorable for Frisell, as Gibbs explains: "I've told him [Frisell] this and I've said it before, I have no recollection of him in my class because he was very shy."

Forty years later, when it came time to choose the songs for Gibbs and the NDR Bigband Frisell was still content to stay in the shadows. "Two or three times I said, 'Bill, do you want to recommend anything?'" recalls Gibbs, who was left to choose the material as he saw fit. "Bill doesn't talk very much," says Gibbs, "but I relish the times we've been able to get together."

In fact, bringing Frisell together with the NDR Bigband was not Gibbs' idea but that of Axel Durr, the head of the NDR Bigband. "Then of course I wanted to be in on it too," relates Gibbs. Though it took almost three years to find a time-frame that suited everybody the first rehearsals went extremely well. "It just felt magical," says Gibbs. "The band felt comfortable and the music kind of played itself. The relationship between Bill and Jeff Ballard was magical too. Ballard was an absolute dream to work with."

The live premier took place at the Überjazz Festival in Hamburg, on October 26, 2013. "The concert itself was really good" enthuses Gibbs. "The music just fell out of the instruments."

There are numerous highlights, notably Gibb's expansive arrangements of Frisell's compositions "Throughout"—from the guitarists' debut as leader, In Line (ECM, 1983)—and "Monica Jane"—from This Land (Nonesuch, 1994)—and a rousing version of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" from All We Are Saying (Savoy Jazz, 2011), Frisell's heartfelt tribute to John Lennon.

Another standout track is Gil Evans "Las Vegas Tango." More so than either George Russel or Gunther Schuller—with whom Gibbs briefly studied—Evans has left an indelible stamp on Gibb's approach to music. "His influence is immense," acknowledges Gibbs. "He's my main influence. I would like to say mentor, although I did know him I didn't know him deeply. I lived in New York for two years in the early '80s and in those days he played every Monday at Sweet Basil and I was there most Monday nights. Gils' Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) is an absolute masterpiece.

It would be easy to conclude that the Gibbs composition "Spanish Sketch" from In My View is Evans-inspired but inspiration, in fact, came in the wake of Paco De Lucia's sudden death in February, 2014. "When he died I watched a lot of videos of Paco from young to old and they were so absolutely gripping. I wanted one more piece for my album and the only music in my head was Paco and flamenco," relates Gibbs.

"I see flamenco as a sort of parallel to the blues and jazz. The blues and jazz have a certain chord progression that musicians are so familiar with that they're able to be very free with it. I was hearing, not the blues chord progression but a Spanish chord progression: four notes descending; a tonic then the note above it going down; then the notes two above it going down and so on. I heard this pattern all the time and I started playing round with it on the piano. When I came to write "Spanish Sketch" this was what my head was full of" Gibbs explains.

"So, yes, some of the big band timbral chords are very Gil-ish but the music comes from what I was hearing in Paco de Lucia. The rhythm section is Paco himself, even when he's got a drummer. Then he's also playing harmonically and he's improvising. He's remarkable."

Gibbs' and de Lucia would have made for a tantalizing collaboration, but alas, that is not to be. Still, Gibbs can look back on collaborations with the likes of Pat Metheny, Stanley Clarke, Jan Akkerman and John Scofield. John McLaughlin has called on Gibbs' expertise as an orchestrator, firstly on Mahavishnu Orchestra's Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974) and then on his solo album The Mediterranean: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Sony, 1990)—both of which featured the London Symphony Orchestra.

"I've worked a lot with guitarists and there are vast differences between them, much more so than tenor players," says Gibbs. There is no similarity between McLaughlin and Bill Frisell, for me. It's coincidental that they use the same instrument."

For Gibbs, what perhaps best defines Frisell's music is his openness to all music, particularly—though not exclusively—the colorful panoply of American music. "He's amazing in that he does things, it seems to me, unconsciously," says Gibbs of Frisell. "It's not like he's deciding how jazz should be and he's taking it there; he just does what he wants. His music is very Americana but it doesn't matter to him if the music is Miles Davis or Nashville or Aaron Copeland, or whether everything he does is jazz or not. There's no thought process in Bill to arrive at that. I think Bill is too busy doing what he does to think about creating a path or something. I don't see it as a conscious thing."

Gibb's own career path saw him leave America in the mid-1960s when his student visa expired and head to England. "I was only in England a week and I the decided to go home to Zimbabwe, which was still Rhodesia then, to see my parents. I thought I might go home for a month," relates Gibbs.

However, as fate would have it, Gibbs' plan to then return to England didn't turn out quite as expected. "When I left England I couldn't get back in as there was an eighteen-month wait for visas. During those eighteen months I met my future wife. She was English but living in Zimbabwe and because England was her home and I wanted to get out of Africa we went back. Within the first week I had a job in Graham Collier's band, whom I knew in Berklee."

In the next few years Gibbs—a trombonist and keyboardist—played and recorded with the very cream of British jazz: John Dankworth; Dave Holland; Norma Winstone; Alan Skidmore; Kenny Wheeler; Peter King; Tony Oxley; Barry Guy and John Marshall, to name but a handful. It was also a prolific period for Gibbs as a composer and he released six albums under his own name in the first half of the 1970s.

It was around the same time, 1973-1974 that Gibb's long association with the NDR Bigband began, notably with the recording Seven Songs for Quartet and Chamber Orchestra (ECM, 1974), a session with Gary Burton that also featured Mike Goodrick, Steve Swallow and Ted Seibs. Gibbs memory of that session is hazy though he recalls that the NDR Bigband he initially encountered was quite different to the institution it has grown in to.

"At that time the band was recording every week for the radio but it wasn't jazz," says Gibbs. "It was light music and popular music and most of the guys in the band were old. Wolfgang Kunert was the boss and he eventually formed a new band that he liked. He based it on the way he heard [Duke] Ellington's band and that's the band that plays today."

If anything, Gibbs encounters with the NDR Bigband have increased in recent years. There was Back in the Days (Cuneiform 2012), a series of Gibbs' sessions recorded in 1995, 2002 and 2003. Norma Winstone again collaborated with Gibbs and the NDR Bigband on Here's a Song for You Fuzzy Moon Records, 2011) and Nguyen Le lured Gibbs and the NDR Bigband into new terrain on Celebrating The Dark Side of the Moon (ACT Music, 2014), a stirring tribute to Pink Floyd's seminal album.

With the core of the NDR Bigband musicians remaining fairly steady for a number of years Gibbs is at an advantage when it comes to arranging new music. "I know them all now very well, what they do best, and it's automatic when I'm writing that I write to their strengths and I make room for the personalities to come through, "explains Gibbs. "The only thing that changes each time is the drummer because they don't have a drummer. Depending on the arrangement I usually ask them for a certain drummer."

On both Play a Bill Frisell Set List and In My View Gibbs draws from jazz's storied past for much of his inspiration. Arrangements of tunes by Thelonious Monk, Lee Konitz, Benny Goodman, Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley reflect the musical era that Gibbs grew up in. On the question of musicians of today's generation who might inspire him to arrange their music Gibbs mentions Sebastian Gille—saxophonist with Pablo Held and the NDR Bigband—and Marius Neset.

"Sebastian Gille is a new player on the scene who has got a lot of recognition. It's not only him it's the whole group, Pablo Held. The trio has been touring a lot with John Scofield when he comes to Europe. They're amazingly good," enthuses Gibbs. "There are a lot of good musicians. Marius Neset -I've got the feeling that he's so good, not just himself but his band, that I think it would be an intrusion. If he needed a writer I would rather see him find a writer in his own ilk. I don't want to talk myself out of a job but I don't think I fit. I would be bringing old ideas."

Judging by the sparkling releases Play a Bill Frisell Set List and In My View there's nothing much wrong with Gibb's 'old ideas.' On the contrary, there's a vibrancy to the veteran's arrangements and in the writing that suggest that Gibbs may well be, half a century after setting out on his great adventure, at the very peak of his creative powers.

Photo Credit: John Watson

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