29. African roots

Now Listen Here ((Thul’ulalele). Mike Gibbs. From Nonsequence, 2001

Anything Mike Gibbs had a hand in is worth listening to, and with less than a score of recordings under his own name in fifty years, one can return to all of them. Choosing just one is hard: I still love Just Ahead, recorded at Ronnies’ in 1972 with an all-star British band, and In the Public Interest, with Gary Burton, not to mention the Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra. And the early work has just come back into the spotlight with a release of unrecognised versions of Tanglewood ’63 and other pieces on Jazz in Britain’s label.

Still, I have a special affection for this one, from just 20 years ago, which featured him revelling in the resources of two different line-ups. The one that really stands out is the US ensemble. That’s not because the NDR big band, who take care of the rest of the tracks, aren’t great. Gibbs has worked with them more than anyone else, and there are at least three more recordings featuring them exclusively that are worth tracking down. No, it’s just that the US line-up is so brilliant. I’ve listed the personnel below as the details are hard to find.

So is the CD, which appeared on Colin Towns’ Provocateur Label, Gibbs fellow composer and arranger paying him the ultimate compliment of inviting him to record with the players of his choice – the first time he’d done that for a decade or so. Everything they do is extraordinary, and the six tracks make full use of Gibbs mastery of texture and unusual voicings.

This glorious anthem from Gibbs’ home turf* is a brief exercise that demonstrates his love of a big sound. Has there ever been a richer rendition of this style. The solidity of the fanfares here makes Paul Simon’s Graceland outfit sound pretty anaemic by comparison. I remember an interview where Gibbs tried to explain the difference between North American and European brass – neither was better, he emphasised, but US players sound in general was “more yellow”. I think this track shows what he means. And there’s tuba or contrabass clarinet to deepen the texture a bit more.

Gil Goldstein’s accordion flourishes and Hiram Bullock’s guitar phrases complement the massed horns. Bullock isn’t the most characterful guitar player for Gibbs’ music – he’s toured the UK with both john Scofield and Bill Frisell at various times – but goes great work here. Add the way Steve Swallow (who else?) nails the bassline, Randy Brecker emerges from the mix for some back-and-forth with the other horns and the whole ensemble playing as if possessed. Result: 5.33 of pure joy. There’s a lot of overlap personnel-wise with Carla Bley and later Gil Evans bands, but it’s hard to imagine either of them doing anything like this. This is all Gibbs.

I recall another radio snippett where Gibbs said he arranged recorded this tune because “I wanted to own it”. He does!

Who is playing?

Lew Soloff, Randy Brecker, Earl Gardner, Alex Sipiagin (trumpets)

Chris Hunter, Chris Potter, Alex Foster (saxes)

Howard Johnson (contrabass clarinet, tuba)

John Clark (french horn)

Jim Pugh, Dave Bargeron, Dave Taylor (trombones)

Gil Goldstein (piano/accordion)

Hiram Bullock (guitar)

Steve Swallow (bass)

Billy Kilson (drums)

Come to think of it, the Anglo-US band that toured with Sco was pretty extraordinary too. I fancy I heard them on this tour, although I can’t quite get the date straight in my head. Never mind, the BBC recorded them…

Why the No 29? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (with a different Gibbs tune this week).

  • Rather chuffed to report that this post prompted a brief correspondence with Mike Gibbs, who reminded me that the piece is by these guys

And although I fudged their origins by referring above to “home turf”, the song is from South Africa, as I would have realised if I’d remembered it was also included on the excellent LP compilation lots of people will have The Indestructible Sound of Soweto (also now on Spotify…)

Also wonderful to hear that Gibbs still likes it, and may perform it live next year in Germany.


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