JJ 12/72: The Mike Gibbs Band – Just Ahead

Fifty years ago Ron Brown thought the successful fusion of the old with the new was one of the best things about Mike Gibbs' music. First published in Jazz Journal December 1972

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An advertisement for Mike Gibbs' album Just Ahead, from Jazz Journal December 1972

I’ve listed Mike as part-composer, and the others are Keith Karrett (Grow Your Own), Gary Burton & Steve Swallow (Country Roads) and Carla Bley (Mother and Sing Me Softly). It’s these imports that provide all the melodic compositional interest, for Mike has temporarily left the land of Family Joy and Tanglewood ’63, judging from this recording and his Queen Elizabeth Hall concert of earlier this year, in order to explore the drone and the loose ar­rangement as stimulators for his solo­ists. They respond to this greater res­ponsibility with varying degrees of suc­cess: Ray Warleigh’s solo on Three is very good, but Alan Skidmore, whose work I’m normally partial to, disinteg­rates into a boring string of scalar runs on Just A Head.

Gibbs the arranger is the main force behind the set, and all his virtues are on show during Country Roads. Reviewing a live performance of this just over two years ago, I compared it to the original version on Gary Burton’s ‘Country Roads and Other Places’ LP: ‘The skil­ful way in which the unfolding of the thematic line is shared by vibes, guitar and bass on that album is blown up into even sharper focus when it’s shared by the sections of an energetic jazz orch­estra, and this number was most ex­citing’. All this still applies today, although now of course the soloists are different.

Chris Spedding’s rock orienta­ted guitar is essential to the band’s overall sound, but he lacks depth as a soloist, and although familiarity with his bottleneck work on this track has bred fondness, his main intention would seem to be a Hawaiian guitar parody to fit in with the country & western assoc­iations of the piece, and he’s made his point before the end of his first chorus. Dave McRae’s offering on the same number is just as freakily electronic, but he aims for contrast in an eerily quiet, economical and extremely soul­ful solo. Gibbs then winds things up with some old-fashioned wailing saxo­phones.

The successful fusion of the old with the new is one of the best things about Mike Gibbs’ music, and his performance of Grow Your Own, a sprightly jazz theme allied to a lovely rock beat, is easily among the finest pieces of ‘jazz-rock’. Spedding’s pop overtones are of great textural import­ance, but he’s also excellent when he wanders over to poke a superb chord into the works on the slower items, like he does in the second chorus of Frank Ricotti’s vibes solo on Sing Me Softly Of The Blues. Roy Babbington’s bass-guitar work is near perfect, whether he’s called upon to be gentle (just listen to him on Mother Of The Dead Man) or to belt, and he proves himself a rocker to be reckoned with on Grow Your Own and So Long Gone.

To hear a Mike Gibbs band live is an experience, but this is the best recorded guide to his work so far; the moments of diffuseness, even rambling some­times, that can be heard in parts of So Long and Head, are inevitable occur­rences in improvised music, and in this instance do nothing to detract from a first-class record.

The actual recording is superb and genuinely evocative of a night at Ron­nie’s, but there’s a discographical hang-up which I suppose I ought to mention. The sleeve notes that Harry Beckett and John Taylor replace Wheeler and McRae on the June 3rd date, but doesn’t say when each track was recorded. However, John’s beauti­ful duet with Ricotti’s vibes on Grow Your Own is credited, and Harry’s playing’s restricted to the section. Okay? 

Discography
Grow Your Own; Three; Country Roads (23 min) – Mother Of The Dead Man; Just A Head; Fanfare (23 min) – Nowhere; Sing Me Softly Of The Blues (23 min) – So Long Gone (21 min)
Mike Gibbs (arr/part comp/ldr/tbn); Ken Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Harry Beckett (tpt/fgl-hn); Chris Pyne (tbn); Malcolm Griffiths (tenor & bass tbn); Geoff Perkins (bs/tbn); Ray Warleigh (alt/flt/alt-flt); Stan Sulzmann (alt/sop/flt/piccolo); Alan Skidmore (sop/ten/alt-flt): Dave McRae, John Taylor (el-pno); Chris Spedding (el-gtr/el-sitar); Roy Babbington (bs-gtr); John Marshall (dm); Frank Ricotti (vbs/perc). Ronnie Scott’s. London 31/4/72, 1-2-3/5/72.
(Polydor 2683 011 Select Double £2.50)