John L. Walters writes: Michael Gibbs (b. 1937) is one of the world’s foremost jazz composer/arrangers, rising to prominence on the London jazz scene of the late 1960s. Over the past five decades he has taught and inspired countless musicians, forging creative connections 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 Jacques Pastorius. (JLW)
“He was among the first writers to convincingly incorporate rock elements into orchestral jazz and shared with one of his main influences, Gil Evans, the ability to organically incorporate carefully arranged and scored frames with the most “external” improvisations.” Colin Larkin, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
I first met at a jazz summer school; I was a budding teenage composer, he was a guest teacher. Much later, while working as a record producer, I produced Great Music (1988), which at the time was Gibbs’ first big band album in 13 years.
1. “Family Joy, Oh Boy!” by Michael Gibbs Michael Gibbs (Deram, 1970)
The opening track from Gibbs’ debut album, it was a powerful outburst of complex compositional bliss to celebrate the arrival of Mike’s first child, Nikki. The busy tune was recorded earlier (as ‘A Family Joy’) on the album Country roads and other places (1969) by Gary Burton, former student of Berklee, great champion of Gibbs music. However, Gibbs’ bravura big band arrangement takes ‘Family Joy’ to another emotional level that inspires extraordinary performances from Chris Spedding, Kenny Wheeler, Alan Skidmore…in fact, every musician on the recording.
2. Sweet Rain by Stéphane Grappelli and Gary Burton, Parisian meeting (Atlantic, 1972)
This tune is perhaps the closest thing to a standard written by Gibbs. First championed by Burton, it is also the title track of a quartet album produced by Creed Taylor in 1967 by Stan Getz. Heartbreakingly beautiful, “Sweet Rain” is another example of the big-screen nature of Gibbs’ melodic imagination. The complex melodic line has such nuance that it implies a bigger sound, a wider canvas, even when played by a small group. Grappelli negotiates his non-standard chord sequence with warmth and sensitivity. Burton said that during the first decade of his career, “almost every record I made included at least one or two songs by Gibbs”.
3. And on the third day of Cuong Vu 4-Tet, Ballet: the music of Michael Gibbs (Rare Noise, 2017)
This 2017 recording demonstrates that Gibbs’ music is equally at home in the lines of 21St-jazz of the century, from the opening ‘indie’ guitar to the thrusting and drawing beats of Christendom’s most compelling Messiaen-influenced chord sequence. My friend and mentor Neil Ardley (a close friend of Gibbs from the New Jazz Orchestra era of the 1960s) loved this piece, but did not like the religious connotations of the title (inspired by Messiaen’s suite the ascent). I agreed with Neil on a lot of things, but not on this one – “And On the Third Day” is a slow spiritual treasure that could convert atheists and true believers alike to Gibbs’ numinous music. Think of it as an Easter gift.
4. Mopsus of the Michael Gibbs Orchestra, great music (Venture, 1988; ACT, 1996)
At the risk of being selfish, I’ve included this slow, swaggering, reggae-influenced track from great music, the Gibbs album I produced in the late 1980s. “Mopsus” features Bob Moses’ alternately bubbly and steamy young rhythm section made up of 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 takes it back to the future with a tangled layer of guitar electronics. As I write this at the end of “International Trombone Week” (hashtag #spitvalve), please note the ultra-low trombones and a fabulous one-take bone solo from the great Dave Bargeron, who ended the session then that a New York cab was waiting downstairs to take him to his next concert.
5. March in trio from Century / Close your eyes original soundtracks (Mute, 1994)
Most of Gibbs’ scores for the 1991 film close my eyes is a rhapsodic, non-cliched suite for a contemporary studio ensemble with excellent soloists. “Trio Walk” is just one of many moving 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” by Michael Gibbs and the NDR Bigband, In my opinion (Cuneiform, 2015)
Gibbs has built an admirable creative relationship with the NDR Group and its individual soloists. Over numerous shows and albums, they have managed to penetrate deep into the lithosphere of the planet Gibbs. For ‘Ida Lupino’, Gibbs’ arrangement of Carla Bley’s tribute to the South London-born actor/director, the set takes on a dark luminosity that evokes the history of Ellingtonian jazz, film noir and existential angst with the sweeping confidence of a European road movie. Lupino was handsome, smart and versatile – just like this track.
7. Country Roads by Michael Gibbs, Just in front of (Polydor, 1972, BGO, 2005)
“Country Roads,” composed by Steve Swallow and Gary Burton, is another example of how Gibbs, in the tradition of Gil Evans, Mingus and Ellington, can appropriate someone else’s tune. This performance, taken from the extremely expensive live recordings the band made at Ronnie Scott’s house, is bluesy, dirty and downright Gibbsy (to use Gordon Beck’s adjective).
8. “Moonlight Serenade” by Michael Gibbs, Non-sequence (Provocateur, 2001)
Gibbs’ affection for Glenn Miller, another trombone-playing bandleader, surfaced in this beautifully emotional take on a much-loved wartime classic. The effortless use of deep brass – as with the tuba in ‘Family Joy’ or the rumbling trombones in ‘Mopsus’ – sets Gibbs apart in an uncrowded field of superlative jazz composers. And he’s never afraid to go…really…slowly.
9. “Le Berger de Breton” by Michael Gibbs with Joachim KühnEuropeana – Jazzphony No. 1 (ACT, 1995)
Like a feverish jazz concerto for piano, this spectacular arrangement of a Breton folk tune begins with a percussive prepared piano and takes flight with Richard Galliano’s floating-finger accordion, interjections written by friends of the NDR Bigband and a magnificent Kühn’s solo. It’s amazing what Gibbs can do with pedal point bass and a handful of descending chords.
(no YouTube – album available here)
10. “River Man” by Here is a song for you by Michael Gibbs with Norma Winstone (Fuzzy Moon, 2011)
Nick Drake’s repertoire provided rich material for decades for jazz musicians, from Brad Mehldau to Lizz Wright, and Gibbs, who was part of the late 1960s cultural scene evoked by the song (writing studio charts for many characters of this era), adds majesty and grace to Winstone’s touching interpretation. (Notice 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)
Chrome’s Only Cascade Orchestra (1975)
Housekeeping OST (1987)
Great Music (1988)
Iron and Silk OST (1991)
Hard OST (1993)
Being Human OST (1993)
By the way (1993)
Close Your Eyes / Century OST (1994)
Here’s a Song for You (2011)
Back in Time (2012)
Mike Gibbs + Twelve Play Gil Evans (2013)
In My Opinion (2015)
Playing a set list by Bill Frisell (2015)
Revisiting Tanglewood 63: The Early Years (2021)