LJF: Mike Gibbs 85th Birthday Celebration

In full flow, the Trinity Laban Big Band's career-spanning tribute to Gibbs eclipsed the squawking and thumping of the rap music outside

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Mike Gibbs at the Watermilll in Dorking in 2017. Photo © Brian O'Connor

It doesn’t seem like five years ago that Mike Gibbs celebrated his 80th birthday at the Vortex but amazingly it is. Here he was again for another series of concerts spread over two nights with two sets apiece.

Since his arrival from Zimbabwe in the 1960s, Gibbs has been one of the leading lights in British jazz, composing, arranging and leading various big bands. He started out playing trombone in big bands led by John Dankworth, Graham Collier and Neil Ardley and his New Jazz Orchestra, but then he began to carve a new direction for jazz with his spectacular, eponymously titled debut album (Deram, 1970) boasting the cream of British jazz including, amongst others, the saxophone triumvirate of Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne and John Surman plus Tony Oxley and John Marshall on drums and even rock god Jack Bruce on bass.

The London Jazz Festival was wise in including Gibbs in its programme because this was surely one of its highlights. For the first set of the first of two evenings celebrating Gibbs’ 85th birthday, The Vortex was, perhaps unsurprisingly, packed to capacity, and then some. With around 100 souls crammed into the modestly sized venue it was difficult to hear all the between-tune announcements from Gibbs, sporadically commenting on details of the numbers from the side of the room. These spoken shortcomings also had to vie with loud sonic leakage of a constant thumping and squawking of non-stop rap music being spontaneously created immediately outside in Gillett Square. The music inside though was crystal clear and perfectly executed by the Trinity Laban Big Band conducted by Josephine Davies.

The band comprising both staff and students was led by Trinity’s head of jazz and pianist for the night Hans Koller, who acted as co-compere along with Davies. The opener, Turn Of The Century, from By The Way (Ah Um, 1993) witnessed a fiery alto solo from Tom Challenger followed by Lewis Wright on vibes reminding the audience of the key part that Frank Riccotti played in that role on Gibbs’ earliest albums.

Antique from The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra (Ah Um, 1991) with Julian Siegel masterfully soloing on tenor, was followed by ’Tis As It Should Be from In My View (Cuneiform, 2015) inspired by Kenny Wheeler’s album The Long Waiting (CAM Jazz, 2012). This featured moving flugel solos from Christie Smith and Billy Rowlatt. Tunnel Of Love, again from Chrome Waterfall, featured elegant duetting trombone solos and Challenger again, here on tenor and Koller on piano. There followed an unannounced number but the next was easily identified as a labyrinthine arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight, with solos by Alex Polack on trumpet and Siegel once more on tenor.

The closer was the joyously upbeat Township-influenced number Now Listen Here, (or Thul’ulalele) from the album Nonsequence (Provocateur, 2001), Gibbs’ paean to his South African childhood home country. For this one double bassist Kobe Heath Ngugi transferred to bass guitar and there were spectacular trombone and guitar solos.

Referencing the albums above is to merely scratch the surface of Mike Gibbs’ influence on contemporary jazz – his music and arrangements have been associated with or recorded by the likes of Stan Getz, Gary Burton, Carla Bley, John McLaughlin and Bill Frisell to name just a few. His own compositions and arrangements are instantly recognisable and inimitable. He’s arguably still the best living jazz composer in the world and deserves to be recognised as such. The Vortex audience certainly did despite the somewhat challenging conditions. Maybe the LJF could consider hiring the QEH to celebrate Mike’s 90th birthday?

Mike Gibbs 85th Birthday Celebration at The Vortex as part of the 2002 London Jazz Festival; night 1, first show, 14 November 2022.