by Phil Sandford
Composer and arranger Mike Gibbs, due to perform three concerts at the Kinetic Jazz and Theatre April Season in Sydney, has had a long and distinguished career in jazz and film music. Several of his early compositions such as ‘Throb’, ‘And on the Third Day’, ‘Ballet’ and ‘Family Joy, Oh, Boy!’ were recorded by Gary Burton in the 1960s. A famous version of his ‘Sweet Rain’, with its intriguing melodic line, was recorded by Stan Getz in 1967.
Gibbs has continued to expand the vocabulary of the big band and orchestra through a series of excellent albums as leader such as In The Public interest (1974), The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra (1975), By the Way (1993), Europeana (1995), Nonsequence (2001) and Back in the Days (2012).
He has integrated jazz, classical and popular influences in his composing and arranging into a distinctive sound that is fresh and interesting. Now living in Spain he continues to compose and explore new ways of expressing his musical ideas. His most recent project is the Gil Evans Tribute, which he will feature in his Sydney concerts on April 20, 22 and 24.
He spoke to Phil Sandford on the eve of his visit to Sydney.
What material are you going to perform in Australia?
I’ve got four pieces by Gil Evans and I’m trying to do a fifth. There’s ‘Bilbao Song’ and ‘Sister Sadie’ from the 1961 Out of the Cool album, ‘St Louis Blues’ that he did with Cannonball Adderley on New Bottle Old Wine in 1958, and ‘Las Vegas Tango’ from The Individualism of Gil Evans in 1964.
Of the other pieces I’m doing a piece of mine that I haven’t performed very much called ‘A World Without’ from my album By the Way, a ballad called ‘Dance: Blue’ from In the Public Interest and a piece called ‘With All Due Respect’ from Nonsequence. I’ve got a couple of others that I’m just not sure if I’m going to do but I won’t duplicate what I did last year.
So there’ll be the Gil Evans tribute and then your material?
That’s how we presented it in England but whether it will be Gil’s and then mine or mixed I won’t know until we’ve had a rehearsal and I get a sense of how the music lies with the band.
How did you develop the idea of the Gil Evans tribute?
It is the 100th anniversary of Gil’s birth this year and Hans Koller, a young pianist and composer whose band I have fronted before, asked me to do a gig at the Pizza Express in London last year. Because this was on the eve of the anniversary we combined the two ideas. Since then I’ve performed the Gil Evans pieces in Birmingham and London with Hans and his band.
We had six pieces of Gil’s and six of mine so we did the concert in two halves. It was a 12-piece group so I’ve bolstered the arrangements up to a big band for the Sydney concerts.
So obviously Gil Evans was an influence on you historically?
Immensely. I was in America at Berklee in 1959 about the time that the three big albums with Miles came out: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. But I’d already heard his music prior to that so it was an immense influence. I met him eventually in 1986 and we performed together at a concert in Paris with the Orchestre National de Jazz. I only knew him personally in the last few years of his life.
What was it that attracted you to that music when you first heard it?
I already liked big band music but this was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was very much what I was interested in, which was a large jazz ensemble with incredibly inventive orchestration. I’ve been looking at a lot of his scores and in ‘Bilbao Song’ he has three oboes, three flutes, french horns and bassoons, a lot of instruments you don’t usually get in a jazz orchestra. He always used those instruments but in that score he used them more than usual. The later bands he had were more jazzy lineups but that score is mostly classical. And then there’s one soprano sax which really adds a jazz tinge to it. I’m sure he was doing that sort of thing when he wrote for Claude Thornhill, because that band had six clarinets if I remember rightly.
Apart from Gil Evans who are the other major influences on your writing?
At the moment I really like Wayne Shorter, not only his writing but the approach he seems to have with the quartet. It’s not only the tunes but how he performs them. I don’t know how to do what he does but I’m inspired by it and find my own things to do based on what I hear him do. What he does is very loose. When I watched him play sometimes as a group they try things which work and sometimes they try things that don’t work and all of that is equally acceptable. There’s a lot of what I wouldn’t call danger exactly, but there’s a lot of chance as to whether it’s going to work or not. And they enjoy either, success or failure, or rather I wouldn’t call it failure, it’s just the attempt to try something spontaneous. I like that very much and I’m not nearly there to doing that with a large ensemble but it still influences the way I make my choices.
And then Miles Davis of course, especially the ’50s and ’60s bands; I really enjoy that music a lot.
I haven’t heard a lot of Clare Fischer but one of the things of his that I liked a lot was a Dizzy Gillespie album of Duke Ellington music, which isn’t very well known. It was very different from the normal big band. I like the tradition; I love the Basie band and I especially love Duke Ellington. And I played in a lot of big bands when I was in Boston. I played in Herb Pomeroy’s band for a long time, which was a real, real treat. And the more traditional big bands really influenced me as a foundation, but I like the departures from the tradition.
What are your main classical influences?
I like Charles Ives a lot. Particularly that he had layers of music, and I like to write a piece where when you listen to it one time you hear this bit and when you listen to it another time you hear something else, there’s a lot going on.
He doesn’t always do that. I mean his ‘The Unanswered Question’ is one of my favourite pieces and although there are three things going on it sounds very sparse and there’s a very easy clarity about it. But I also like other pieces of his that aren’t so clear.
Another influence is Olivier Messiaen, but he’s very different to Ives. In Messiaen I like the harmonic language. I still like it today and go to it sometimes to find things. He influenced pieces of mine like ‘Throb’ and ‘Antique’.
You’ve performed with a number of European big bands. How do you see the state of jazz in Europe?
One thing that surprises me in Europe is that England has its own thing and Europe has its own thing that seems more open to experimentation and forging ahead, finding something new. In Europe they are doing different, more contemporary things.
What about jazz in Australia?
Australia is new to me. It was a delight to find so much talent and such good players but Australia is vast and I only know people I heard and met in Sydney.
What do you think of the state of jazz education these days?
It’s amazingly healthy. I hear people complaining about it but there are so many schools, it surprises me. I sometimes do gigs with the Upper Austrian Jazz Orchestra and sometimes along the way we do workshops. I met young players at a school in Austria near the border with Slovenia, so there were a lot of Slovenian students, and I was astonished at the level and the interest. There’s also a very well known school in Graz and their band made a very good record with John Hollenbeck.
Out of all your experience do you have any advice for young jazz musicians starting out today?
If I had advice it would come when I meet the person because what I would say to one person would be different to what I would say to somebody else. I remember meeting the young bass player Alex Boneham in Sydney. He had questions as to whether he should move to Europe but my feeling was he was so good he could do an immense amount of good staying in Australia and being part of the development of jazz in Australia. I wouldn’t want to deny him a life in jazz in Europe or America but I think Australia would benefit by his staying there.
Let’s talk about your two recent CDs, both with the German NDR Big Band. On Here’s a Song For You, featuring Norma Winstone, there is an interesting mixture of standards with songs by more recent writers like Joni Mitchell, Sting, Nick Drake and Tom Waits. Why did you choose that material?
The choices weren’t all mine and in fact several of my choices weren’t on the album. Originally the album was commissioned by Provocateur Records in 2003 as Norma’s album but when it was done they said it wasn’t the way they wanted to present Norma. So Norma and I asked if we could put it out on our own and they agreed. But it took a long time for us to decide how to do it and then it took Fuzzy Moon Records two years to get all the licenses for releasing the songs. So there were a lot of delays.
What about Back in the Days, another one with the NDR Big Band?
I’ve done a lot of work with the NDR Big Band and that album is a selection of the music I had done for them for broadcast between 1995 and 2003. Cuneiform Records do a lot of re-issues and they have released some of the other jazz in NDR’s library. They’d asked me long ago to do an album and I didn’t have any music that could be released other than NDR. So we let it lie while they did a John Surman album and a Soft Machine album and then they said could they look at my stuff.
Some of the music had been recorded before in different settings such as ‘Antique’ on The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra but I’m glad the music has a chance to live on this album.
You’ve had a long career in music, including jazz and film music. What are some of the highlights for you?
I guess one was working with John McLaughlin on his Apocalypse album because it was a full symphony and I didn’t know that I was ready for it. It amazed me that someone would trust me with such a big project, but it seemed to work very well for him. I think he got what he wanted and it definitely did a lot for me. I had worked a little bit with symphonic musicians but nothing that big or that grand. So I really enjoyed that period. I also really enjoyed going back to Berklee in 1974 as composer in residence. I initially went for one year and I ended up staying nine years. That was a highlight for me.
You’re going to be doing three performances with the Kinetic Jazz Orchestra so it will be a good chance for the band to work with you over a period of time.
Yes, when I was talking to Graham Jones from Kinetic Jazz I mentioned that so many gigs I do are one-offs. We rehearse for three, four or five days and then do one concert and the one concert is always to me like a grand rehearsal because once we’ve done the concert we then know what it is we’re dealing with but then we don’t have any more chance to play. It was his idea to try the three concerts in a row.
What are your next projects after the Sydney concerts?
I have a concert of Here’s a Song for You with Norma with the BBC and then I have a tour with the Upper Austrian Jazz Orchestra and after that I’m composer in residence this year with NDR. I’m trying out a new piece with them called ‘A Portrait of a Jazz Orchestra’. They also want me to do a project with guitarist Bill Frisell. I want to revisit some of the pieces I did on In the Public Interest in 1974 but the availability of NDR and Bill is very difficult. They usually book at least a year ahead. So the interest is there but the possibility isn’t there yet. Cuneiform Records are also looking for a chance to do something new with me.
The Kinetic Jazz and Theatre April Season is on April 13-15 and 20-22 at St Luke’s Hall, 11 Stanmore Road, Enmore, NSW. Mike Gibbs and the Kinetic Jazz Orchestra perform on April 20 and 22 and then on Tuesday April 24 at 505, corner Perry and Cleveland Sts, Surrey Hills. For details of the program, including performances of the play ‘Empire’, see www.kineticjazz.com.
Mike Gibbs’ composition ‘Tanglewood 63’, played by the Kinetic Jazz Orchestra, is available on the forthcoming Kinetic Jazz 2011
Recent Mike Gibbs’ CDs:
Mike Gibbs, Norma Winstone and the NDR Big Band Here’s a Song for You | Fuzzy Moon Records (2011)
Michael Gibbs and the NDR Big Band | Back in the Days | Cuneiform Records 2012
A Mike Gibbs discography is available at http://gibbs.onttonen.info/
Mike Gibbs’ scores are available from: www.gaibryantspareparts.com/mike_gibbs.htm