An immensely enjoyable set from an under-represented talent.
Peter Marsh 2012
The music of Michael Gibbs remains woefully under-recorded, even as the composer hits his mid-70s, so this release from the ever wonderful Cuneiform Records is a bit of an event.
After a spell as a jobbing trombonist on the British jazz scene in the late 1960s, Gibbs devoted himself to writing and arranging music for that unfashionable and uneconomic beast, the big band. Inspired by Olivier Messiaen as much as Gil Evans, his music was luxurious, complex but accessible, and driven by rock rhythms and electric instruments. He even picked up a few coveted Melody Maker Reader's Poll awards in the mid-1970s (yes, those were different times).
Since then, there have been surprisingly few chances to hear Gibbs on record, despite warm critical reaction (including approval from his idol Evans) and the presence on his sessions of high-profile names like John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Michael Brecker. You'd have been more likely to see his name credited as an arranger for such unlikely clients as Uriah Heep, Sister Sledge or Whitney Houston or as a soundtrack composer for a John Woo film; he even spent a while as the musical director for The Goodies.
These recordings come from three sessions with the German NDR Big Band made from 1995 to 2003. The earliest session features vibraphonist Gary Burton as guest soloist (Gibbs' first arranging job was for Burton in the early 60s, and they've collaborated often since), while all sessions feature the massively underrated saxophonist Christof Lauer, whose work is a joy throughout.
The highlight here is Mosher (presumably a dedication to saxophonist Jimmy Mosher), a sumptuous ballad for Burton's luminous vibes and Lauer's airy tenor. In fact it's the more introspective material that stands up best – Tennis, Anyone? could be a lost Ellington tune re-imagined by Gil Evans, while the brooding Antique (from 1975) features some beautifully poised, intricate writing.
The inclusion of a few standards feels a bit surplus to requirements – it’s unlikely that the world needs yet another version of ‘Round Midnight, however cleverly arranged, and the usually beautiful Here's That Rainy Day is given an odd, brassy reading which does it few favours. More of Gibbs' own writing might’ve made for a better package, but that aside this is an immensely enjoyable set from an under-represented talent.