Mike Gibbs' Dramatic Big Band Birthday Bash A Blast At Birmingham's CBSO Centre

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In celebration of his 80th year, the composer and arranger Mike Gibbs took his big band out on the road, to play a select six-date UK tour. His actual birthday was 25th September, the night of the band's first of two performances at London's Vortex, but three days later at Birmingham's CBSO Centre perhaps this assemblage was drilled even deeper.

Gibbs is strangely borderless, actually born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), but spending many of his years either in the US or the UK. As a result, his accent and demeanour are strangely without obvious geographic placement. His music also embraces characteristics found in the large scale works from Britain and America, as well as featuring a significant African influence. Gibbs has also been consistently open to funk and rock elements, the strongest model being Gil Evans, who remains his key colouristic guru.

The line-up of this big band is a testament to the respect that Gibbs commands, with a particularly impressive saxophone section, featuring Julian Siegel, Alex Garnett, Jason Yarde and John O'Gallagher. Gibbs is concentrating on his arranging side for this tour, chiefly using the works of other composers as a basis for painting his thoughtful layers, and strategically deploying the soloing ranks.

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Opening with 'You Go To My Head', from 1938, it seems like the natural choice to have Garnett take the solo, with his expert command of vintage jazz voicings. Paying tribute to old colleague Kenny Wheeler, Gibbs offers his own ''Tis As It Should Be', with the trumpet section highlighted as each of them steps forward to take a solo, led by Henry Lowther. In actuality, it's their flugel horns that are chosen to deliver this glowing sequence. The acoustics of the CBSO Centre are particularly suited to this multi-faceted ensemble spread, and the low-level amplification reveals all players in equal measure.

Gibbs polishes his player-parts, crafting a burnished, carefully layered and regimented spread. Next come Bill Frisell's 'Throughout' and 'Las Vegas Tango', by Gil Evans, running into each other with Jim Rattigan's accordion playing a prominent part, in the Gil Goldstein manner. Guitarist Mike Walker sends keening strokes into the ether, which Siegel snatches, maintaining the tonal character with a voluptuous tenor solo. A rousing horn section punctuation develops, bringing the piece to its climax, as Garnett joins for added emphasis. It gradually becomes apparent that a favoured Gibbs technique is to prompt an initial solo, and subsequently trigger another player to enter the fray at a crucial point, emphasising and heightening the drama.

As if cheerfully embracing his senior status, Gibbs appears to reject the concept of a set-list, though he does have a neatly stacked selection of scores. He delights in questioning his players over this or that detail, almost as if he's exaggerating the abstract forgetfulness of the elderly. Pianist Hans Koller is a long-standing cohort, here acting as 'musical director', and filling in any pieces of missing information. Even so, there's absolutely no doubt when it comes to Gibbs and his sensitive hand gestures, riding each piece with precision sensitivity.

Eberhard Weber's 'Maurizius' has a dancing, loquacious alto solo from O'Gallagher, ending on a gradually fading ensemble repeat. Yarde solos on a new arrangement of 'Django', by John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, with a two-part solo to follow (trombone and muted trumpet), Walker churning up a groove, locked together with drummer Andrew Bain and chief tour-assembler and bassman Michael Janisch. The final explosive run is provided by Yarde, with a writhing solo reprise, as the versatile Rattigan sends soft notes hanging via French horn resonance. Not surprisingly, John Scofield's 'Meant To Be' acts as a showcase for Walker, with strategic punches provided by the horn ranks. Once it's fully aroused, O'Gallagher weighs in with one of this extended single set's finest searing solos. Gibbs probably overran what might have been an informal curfew, encoring with 'Tennis, Anyone?', amorphous and quietly triumphant. Heading for the two-hour mark, this was a delicious adventure in tonal positioning, roughed up by each individual member's passionate soloing interventions.

– Martin Longley
– Photos by John Watson