Michael Gibbs and the NDR Bigband

Back in the Days
Cuneiform Records RUNE 322

Professionalism has long been the watchword of the extended musical career of 74-year-old composer/arranger/teacher/trombonist Michael Gibbs. This collection, recorded with the 18-piece Hamburg-based NDR Bigband during four German dates in 1995, 2002 and 2003, is both a career retrospective and proof that his finesse in mixing orchestral colors in still intact.

Throughout the dozen selections intriguing arrangements are linked to high-gloss solos from band members and especially visiting American vibist Gary Burton. Nonetheless, precisely because of his musical gifts which have guaranteed the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) -born Gibbs work in Boston, New York and London, there are certain facile qualities in his orchestrations which are multiplied by the performance of the NDR, which in its 65-year history has gone from being a regional radio danced band to a government-supported Jazz repertory ensemble.

Musical facility is thus a curse and a blessing. Carefully harmonized passages and glitteringly contrasted tone colors abound in the arrangements. But no matter how souped-up, a few of the non-Gibbs originals often overplayed elsewhere are not significantly made new here. Plus, except for Burton, too many of the soloists appear more dispassionate than motivated. This is especially galling on Gibbs-composed tracks such as “Tennis, Anyone?” and “Jail Blues”. The latter, which started life as a music cue for the Tales from the Darkside TV series, now sounds as if it should have been orchestrated for a late-period Stan Kenton big band, heavy on the horns and guitar, although reedist Fiete Felsch seems to skipping a generation and channeling David Sanborn. “Tennis, Anyone?” suffers from similar schizophrenia, with cushioned romanticism and Blues inferences vying for supremacy. Guitarist Stephan Diez’s clanking strums and pianist Vladyslav Sendecki’s double-timing try to roughen the tune’s edges, but trumpeter Claus Stötter’s tremolo flutter tonguing is a bit too modified and muted.

On the other hand Gibbs arrangement-by-request of “I Want to Talk About You” for tenor saxophonist Christof Laufer may go a long way from removing the tune’s association with John Coltrane. But a similar confusion in definition is revealed as well. Combining letter- perfect cadenzas from the backing players and featuring coordinated brass work and despite Laufer’s solo with its fluttering and irregular vibrato, the entire performance seems to push the completed performance back into the enervated 1950s.

Much better are “June The 15th 1967”, composed for Burton and the three tracks which feature the vibes man himself. Although “June The 15th 1967”, with its plunger brass lines plus slithers and bounces from Sendecki’s electric piano may be prototypical 1960s Jazz-Rock, at least the foot-tapping groove is genuine and was unique for its time. Composed in 1996, lead-off track “The Time Has Come” is intense and inspiring, with the section work multiplying and swelling as it modulates around Burton’s supple mallet popping solo that swings even as it introduces friction to the proceedings. Familiar and innovative simultaneously, Steve Swallow’s and Burton’s 1960s standard “Country Roads” is performed at a homey lope. Built up in sections, the tune gives space to bassist Lucas Lindholm’s double stopping, room to Diez’s supple licks, as well as featuring some polite brays from trumpeter Reiner Winterschladen. Burton, of course, is centre of attention, and his aluminium bars chime and ring with enough assurance to invigorate the other dozen-and-a-half players.

Valuable as a record of what the too-little-recorded Gibbs was up to in the 1990s and early part of this century, Back in the Days contains more hits than misses. Still taking the disc as a whole, it’s evident that a future rendezvous with Burton playing some new Gibbs music would be a welcome addition to the recorded legacy of both Gibbs and the 68-year-old Burton.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. The Time Has Come* 2. Back Where I Belong +$3. June The 15th 1967 +4. Tennis, Anyone?+^ 5. Jail Blues+ 6. Antique+ 7. Here's That Rainy Day+ 8. I Want To Talk About You+ 9. 'Round Midnight+ 10. With All Due Respect+^ 11. Mosher* 12. Country Roads*

Personnel: NDR Big Band: Ingolf Burkhardt, Johannes Faber*, Lennart Axelsson [tracks 1-6, 11, 12], Claus Stötter +, Rüdiger Baldau [tracks 7-9] and Dirk Lentschat [track 10] (trumpets); Egon Christmann and Wolfgang Ahlers*, Dan Gottshall+ Stefan Lottermann [tracks 2-6, 10], Joe Gallardo and Jon Welch [tracks 7-9] (trombones); Lucas Schmid*, Ingo Lahme+ (bass trombones); Fiete Felsch and Peter Bolte (alto saxophones); Christof Lauer and Lutz Büchner (tenor saxophones); Thnomas Zoller*Frank Delle+(baritone saxophone); Vladyslav Sendecki+, Simon Nabatov [track 10] (piano); Ed Harris^, Stephen Diez [tracks 1- 9, 11, 12] (guitar); Lucas Lindholm (bass); Thomas Alkier*, Martin France$, Mark Mondesir [tracks 3-6], Ian Thomas [tracks 7-10] (drums); Mario Doctor+ (percussion) and Michael Gibbs (arranger/conductor)