JJ 06/73: Mike Gibbs at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Fifty years ago Gibbs' music led Charles Le Vay to imagine a fast motorway drive with a lovely lady waiting at the other end. First published in Jazz Journal June 1973

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

Both Mike Gibbs’ status as composer, arranger and conductor and the standard of his formidable band are practically unrivalled in British jazz – a belief strengthened with every live performance. The versatility of the musicians is well- known enough – between them encompassing groups like Nucleus, Soft Machine and the individual bands of John Taylor and Harry Beckett; and there, too, looking like an awkward Gene Vincent in the ranks of, say, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band, is Chris Spedding – squeezing in a gig half-way through his tour with Sharks.

Gibbs’ regular features made up the first half of this Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, including numbers from his most recent ‘live’ album. The apparent warm-ing-up turns out to be the start of So Long Gone – a piece of textural sensitivity comparable to Ellington himself. Amidst the fine arrangement, MacRae is suddenly left letting rip on his own, stretching the keyboard to its electronic limits: broad grins all round, and behind the specs, cap and beard disguise there’s a smile of wicked innocence.

Carla Bley’s Sing Me Softly Of The Blues starred a beautiful solo from Sulzmann on sax – a real crack-up number if ever there was one, and one that could all too easily have been over-judged. While Triple Portrait is the sort of riff-thrusting music to listen to while driving a fast car down the motorway with a lovely lady waiting for you at the other end, Appetite sums up the mood once you’ve got there, and maybe leaving – the latter again featuring Sulzmann together with Frank Ricotti’s vibes and percussion work, showing just how important he is to the band’s overall sound.

The funky 9/8 intro into Four Or Less (Babbington, Marshall and MacRae—some ‘rhythm section’) led to some shining eloquence from Lowther’s trumpet. By this time the band had become the Mike Gibbs Orchestra (i.e., five extra musicians) including John Taylor, whose Mahleresque piano opening to The Start Of Something New – one of three new Gibbs compositions commissioned by the Park Lane Group – preceded a superbly balanced duet between Beckett and Chris Lawrence on string bass. Some Echoes ironically developed a farting amp, inhibiting what could have been a delicate solo from Taylor – one of our more sensitive and underrated pianists.

Fanfare, naturally, was a perfect number to finish with; Sulzmann and Brian Smith were on their feet, together in a stereo reed duet, to the accompaniment of rising brass behind them. Marshall’s astonishing bass roll – repeated for the last triumphant finale – sent his third erring stick of the evening soaring above his head like a vertical drop-kick, to land at his feet in near perfect timing with the ending chords. Marshall likes his little tricks, and he’s been practising, if you ask me.

Band personnel: Henry Lowther, Harry Beckett, Ian Hamer (tpt/fgl-h); Chris Pyne, Geoff Perkins (tbn); Martin Fry (tuba); Stan Sulzmann, Brian Smith (reeds/woodwind); Chris Spedding (el-gtr); Frank Ricotti (bs/perc); Tim Kraemer (cello); John Taylor (pno/el-pno); Dave MacRae (el-pno); Rov Babbington, Chris Lawrence (bs/bs-gtr); John Marshall (dm).