John L. Walters writes: Michael Gibbs (b. 1937) is one of the world’s great jazz composer/arrangers, who came to prominence in the late 1960s London jazz scene. Over the past five decades he has taught and inspired countless musicians, forging creative bonds with artists such as Gary Burton, Bob Moses, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Norma Winstone, also working with Joni Mitchell, Whitney Houston, Peter Gabriel, Sister Sledge and Jaco Pastorius. (JLW)
‘He was among the first writers to convincingly incorporate rock elements into orchestral jazz, and shared with one of his major influences, Gil Evans, the ability to organically integrate carefully arranged and scored frameworks with the most ‘outside’ improvisations.’ Colin Larkin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
I first met at a jazz summer school; I was an aspiring teenage composer, he was a guest teacher. Much later, while I was working as a record producer, I produced Big Music (1988), which at the time was the first Gibbs big band album for 13 years.
1. “Family Joy, Oh Boy!” from Michael Gibbs, Michael Gibbs (Deram, 1970)
The opening track from Gibbs’s debut album, this was a mighty blast of complex compositional happiness to celebrate the arrival of Mike’s first child, Nikki. The busy tune was earlier recorded (as ‘A Family Joy’) on the album Country Roads & Other Places (1969) by fellow Berklee alumnus Gary Burton, a great champion of Gibbs’s music. However Gibbs’s bravura big band arrangement takes ‘Family Joy’ to another emotional pitch that inspires extraordinary performances from Chris Spedding, Kenny Wheeler, Alan Skidmore … in fact every musician on the recording.
2. Sweet Rain from Stephane Grappelli and Gary Burton, Paris Encounter (Atlantic, 1972)
This tune is possibly the closest thing to a standard that Gibbs has written. First championed by Burton, it is also the title track of a 1967 Creed Taylor-produced quartet album by Stan Getz. Heart-rendingly beautiful, ‘Sweet Rain’ is yet another example of the widescreen nature of Gibbs’ melodic imagination. The intricate melodic line has such nuance that it involves a bigger sound, a broader canvas, even when played by a small group. Grappelli negotiates its non-standard chord sequence with warmth and sensitivity. Burton has said that during the first decade of his career, ‘pretty much every record I made included at least one or two Gibbs songs’.
3. And On the Third Day from Cuong Vu 4-Tet, Ballet: the Music of Michael Gibbs (Rare Noise, 2017)
This recording from 2017 demonstrates that Gibbs’s music is equally at home within the bloodlines of 21st-century jazz, from the opening ‘indie’ guitar strum to the pulsing push and pull of the most compelling, Messiaen-influenced chord sequence in Christendom. My friend and mentor Neil Ardley (a close friend of Gibbs from their 1960s New Jazz Orchestra days) loved this piece, but disliked the religious connotations of the title (inspired by Messiaen’s suite L’ascension). I agreed with Neil on many things, but not this – ‘And On the Third Day’ is a slow, spiritual treasure that could convert atheists and true believers alike to Gibbs’s numinous music. Think of it as an Easter treat.
4. Mopsus from The Michael Gibbs Orchestra, Big Music (Venture, 1988; ACT, 1996)
At the risk of being self-serving, I have included this slow, swaggering, reggae-influenced track from Big Music, the Gibbs album I produced in the late 1980s. ‘Mopsus’ features the alternately bubbling and steaming young rhythm section Bob Moses assembled from his Boston students and friends, including electronic drummer Billy Martin (later in Medeski Martin & Wood) and bassist Kai Eckhardt. There’s more than a hint of swampy New Orleans roots, but Bill Frisell drags it back to the future with a tangled layer of guitar electronics. Since I’m writing this at the close of ‘International Trombone Week’ (hashtag #spitvalve), please note the ultra-low trombones, and a fabulous one-take ‘bone solo by the great Dave Bargeron, who finished the session while a NYC taxicab waited downstairs to take him to his next gig.
5. Trio Walk from Century / Close My Eyes original soundtracks (Mute, 1994)
Most of Gibbs’s score for the 1991 movie Close My Eyes is a rhapsodic and cliché-free suite for a contemporary studio ensemble with fine soloists. ‘Trio Walk’ is just one of many affecting cues, a measured composition for strings that adds elements of humanity and forgiveness as passions spiral out of control and reason in Stephen Poliakoff’s intense cinematic drama.
6. “Ida Lupino” from Michael Gibbs and the NDR Bigband, In My View (Cuneiform, 2015)
Gibbs has built up an admirable creative relationship with the NDR band and its individual soloists. Over many broadcasts and albums, they have succeeded in getting deep into the lithosphere of planet Gibbs. For ‘Ida Lupino’, Gibbs’s arrangement of Carla Bley’s tribute to the south London-born actor/director, the ensemble takes on a brooding luminosity that evokes Ellingtonian jazz history, film noir and existential angst with the sweeping confidence of a European road movie. Lupino was beautiful, intelligent and multi-faceted – just like this track.
7. Country Roads from Michael Gibbs, Just Ahead (Polydor, 1972, BGO, 2005)
‘Country Roads’, composed by Steve Swallow and Gary Burton, is another example of the way Gibbs, in the tradition of Gil Evans, Mingus and Ellington, can make someone else’s tune his own. This performance, from the massively expensive live recordings the band made at Ronnie Scott’s, is bluesy, dirty and utterly Gibbsy (to use Gordon Beck’s adjective).
8. “Moonlight Serenade” from Michael Gibbs, Nonsequence (Provocateur, 2001)
Gibbs’s affection for Glenn Miller, a fellow trombone-playing bandleader, surfaced in this gorgeously emotional version of a much-loved wartime classic. The effortless use of very low brass – as with the tuba in ‘Family Joy’ or the growing trombones in ‘Mopsus’ – distinguishes Gibbs in a not very crowded field of superlative jazz composers. And he is never afraid to go … really … slow.
9. “The Shepherd of Breton” from Michael Gibbs with Joachim Kühn, Europeana – Jazzphony No. 1 (ACT, 1995)
Like a feverish jazz piano concerto, this spectacular arrangement of a Breton folk tune kicks off with percussive prepared piano and takes flight with Richard Galliano’s fleet-fingered accordion, scored interjections by friends from the NDR Bigband and a wonderful solo by Kühn. It’s amazing what Gibbs can do with a pedal point bass and a handful of descending chords.
(no YouTube – album available here)
10. “River Man” from Here’s a Song For You by Michael Gibbs with Norma Winstone (Fuzzy Moon, 2011)
The Nick Drake repertoire has for decades provided rich material for jazz musicians, from Brad Mehldau to Lizz Wright, and Gibbs, who was part of the late 1960s cultural scene the song evokes (writing studio charts for many characters from that time), adds majesty and grace to Winstone’s effect. (Reviewed here)
Mike Gibbs discography
Michael Gibbs (1970)
Tanglewood 63 (1971)
Just Ahead (1972)
In The Public Interest (1974)
Seven Songs For Quartet And Chamber Orchestra (1974)
The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra (1975)
Housekeeping OST (1987 .))
Big Music (1988)
Iron & Silk OST (1991)
Hard-Boiled OST (1993)
Being Human OST (1993)
By The Way (1993)
Close My Eyes / Century OST (1994)
Here’s a Song for You (2011)
Back in the Days (2012)
Mike Gibbs + Twelve Play Gil Evans (2013)
In My View (2015)
Play a Bill Frisell Set List (2015)
Revisiting Tanglewood 63: The Early Years (2021)