Michael Gibbs is unique among those considered here in so many ways. He was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1937. Many of the arrangers considered here came from jazz backgrounds but worked primarily in pop. Michael Gibbs is a respected jazz composer who came to pop almost as an afterthought. Writing influential works for jazz legends such as Gary Burton, Jaco Pastorius, Chick Corea, Carla Bley, and Stan Getz, he has released ten acclaimed albums under his own name.
Other distinguished jazz colleagues include Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, Alan Skidmore, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Steve Swallow, Charlie Mariano, Philip Catherine, and Tony Coe. As a jazz composer he was at the forefront of the so-called ‘fusion’ movement of rock with jazz working with ‘rock’ musicians such as Chris Spedding, Jack Bruce, and John Marshall in his jazz ensembles.
The Encyclopedia Of Popular Music comments, “Gibbs was among the first writers to convincingly incorporate rock elements into orchestral jazz, and shared with one of his major influences, Gil Evans, the ability to organically integrate carefully arranged and scored frameworks with the most ‘outside’ improvisations. Gibbs is both a meticulous arranger and a frugal composer. Everything he delivers is carefully thought through and not a note is wasted.”
His close association with Gary Burton began when they were fellow students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Although the combination of jazz and rock is generally attributed to Miles Davis with his album In A Silent Way (1969), Burton points out that he recorded the first “fusion” album, Tennessee Firebird, in 1966, performing with country musicians. He followed this record with Duster (1967), Lofty Fake Anagram (1967), and Genuine Tong Funeral (1968), containing rock elements and compositions by Gibbs. Burton has been a champion of Gibbs’ compositions throughout his career.
Gibbs says that he approached his work in the pop/rock field no differently than his approach to jazz. I asked how he first became interested in music.
“I started playing piano in Rhodesia at the age of seven. I was learning basic classical but my mother always played what she called ‘syncopation,’ a kind of gentle stride piano. This of course led to jazz and pop. About the age of thirteen I decided to quit the classical teacher and the grading system and go to a jazz teacher. He had me listen to Louis Armstrong and ‘modern’ jazz like Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Dave Brubeck, and Oscar Peterson. This music was complicated to me but with his guidance I started to get interested in it.
“Music was still a hobby to me, not something to be taken seriously. When I failed my science studies at the age of seventeen, my Dad asked me if I wanted to go back and repeat it. But by that time I had been hanging out with jazz musicians from America who brought records and magazines like Downbeat and Metronome. I discovered that you could study jazz in America at a place called the Westlake School of Music. That’s what I decided to do and that’s when music became serious.
“That was 1955 and in ’56 Charlie Parker died. I had never listened to him before, but with his death there were lots of programs about him, and I realised there was a lot more to jazz than what I was hearing on the West Coast. Then I started considering a school in Boston called the Shillinger House, which became the Berklee School of Music. Coincidentally, Westlake folded, and by this time my interests had expanded widely. So I saved money for two years and in January 1959 I went to Berklee.
“It was just an amazing, wonderful experience. I arrived on a Friday. I’d come from Zimbabwe where the difference between summer and winter is about ten degrees. Fortunately, I travelled from London where I had bought an overcoat.
“I met Bob Share, the second in command of the school, and he said, ‘There’s a recording session today. You can watch if you like.’ So there I was with all these musicians recording jazz, and Herb Pomeroy was there! But that weekend I walked around and heard church bells tolling and I became so homesick I was ready to go home.
“Fortunately, I stuck it out ‘til Monday and as soon after I enrolled in school I found myself singing Four Freshman arrangements. I thought, ‘These people are serious! This isn’t just for fun.’ I was actually singing this jazzy four-part harmony. It was so thrilling.
“I met Gary Burton in my second year, 1960, and it’s one relationship that has lasted a lifetime. There were only 250 students at the school and there was a little clique of Herb Pomeroy’s best students. Each year Herb’s student band made an album, and I got to play in it and do arrangements for it. It gave me visibility and tremendous confidence. And when I left Berklee it gave me tremendous credentials to begin work.
“While Gary was a student, he got his first record contract and he asked me to write for it. Tommy Flanagan, Phil Woods, and Joe Morello were on it. I was still a student, and this was an incredible break and really helped me. I was still trying to be a jazz trombone player. But Gary saw that my ability was limited and seeing I had more ability as a writer, he encouraged my writing. In fact he formed a band with trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone. I lasted two rehearsals when he replaced me with a much better player.
“But he didn’t just cast me aside, because he got me writing for the band, and I found satisfaction in that. I didn’t give up the trombone, but I stopped expecting to be the next J.J. Johnson. That’s why Gary is so great, because he can see these things in people. He got several record dates then, and for years after I left Berklee he continued to ask me to write. Later, pieces I had written for him became the basis of compositions for my own big band.
“My student days were the early ‘sixties and I went back to teach at Berklee in the 70s. The great thing is to see my Berklee students, like yourself, now doing so well—and some of them are even giving me work!”
I asked how Gibbs had begun doing pop work. “I have to make a living! I still like a lot of pop, although it’s not life or death for me. But I do enjoy it. I first got into it in the late Sixties when Gary Burton was doing a gig in London. He gave me a Beatles record, and a record player to play it on! Obviously I knew the Beatles music, but it was his endorsement of it. He said, ‘When you’re listening to this song, check out the pedal point!’ We talked about the music in the same way we talked about jazz. So the line between pop and jazz, or any music was always blurred. And I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve known Bill Oddie for years, and he’s a great pop fan. Through him I started listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Band, along with my own jazz. I think my first pop gig was writing instrumental backgrounds for a Uriah Heep record.”
Gibbs was my composition teacher at The Berklee College of Music (1974-1975). He taught there until 1983, introducing students to his methodology that included such techniques as polytonality, polymetrics, and polyrhythmics. He discussed ways to create tonal color rather than harmony. He showed us that timbre itself was a compositional element.
Many of his pieces give players freedom within the composed work. This freedom goes beyond simply improvising based on chord scales. Players are sometimes instructed to hold notes for the length of their individual breath. Gibbs creates “blankets of sound” played so softly as to have no apparent attacks. Some of his pieces have no meter indicated and players play note values as they feel them. Where it would be normal practice to write a concerted background pad for a section phrasing together, Gibbs might instruct one player to play his part in a more expressive manner. Players in a section are instructed to crescendo and decrescendo independently rather than as a section.
Gibbs was influenced in this by the methodology of Twentieth Century composers, Gunther Shuller, George Russell, and Charles Ives.5 He was also influenced by the work of Olivier Messiaen.6
Contemporary composers often use scales as a basis for composition. Messiaen’s “Seven Modes of Limited Transposition” are given below, as this is relevant to Gibbs’ use of the concept in a (perhaps unexpected) pop/jazz context. By using this type of technique, Gibbs was indeed carrying on in the “Third Stream” tradition of Gunther Shuller.
Gibbs explained, “Most of my gigs come through the producer, and Elton John was through Narada Michael Walden. Elton did an album of duets with various artists and each duet had different producers. The one I did with Narada was “True Love” with Kiki Dee. Because Narada was coming to London to do it and I was his guy, I got the gig to do the strings. I didn’t actually work directly with Elton, but he was there hanging out.”
Gibbs kept things very simple throughout and the strings do no more than provide pads and play the melody doubled by glockenspiel. But there is a glimpse of the Gibbs predilection for instrumental textures in the intro as strings trill and swell and flutes flutter in the Lydian mode.
Gibbs worked with Elton John again with producer George Martin. This record, The Glory Of Gershwin features many well-known pop artists performing Gershwin’s songs with virtuoso harmonica player Larry Adler.
Gibbs’ experience shows that there can be difficult situations, even when working with the most experienced and capable producer. “George is not only a producer, but also an arranger—extremely professional and so together. It was awesome to watch him at work because he did so little. You were unaware of him functioning, yet the end result was totally as a result of him.”
One might think that if a producer hires a talented and experienced team, the end result was assured. “Sometimes,” Gibbs said, “but not without guidance. I remember a record made years before I went to Berklee, where they put together all the winners of the Downbeat poll—Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, and Miles Davis—and it was very flat. It needs someone like George Martin to make all that talent come alive.
“Unfortunately, I had only one meeting with George and Elton, and one with George and Sting. In fact, they had the meeting and I stood in the background taking notes. George and Elton had the discussion as to how the song would go. Elton was quite ill so they quickly agreed to do ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ as a medley. Now, I don’t know whether I misread the instructions, but ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ has a long verse. I still don’t remember any discussion about leaving the verse out. So I did the arrangement with the verse.
“We got to the session and Elton hadn’t prepared it. George, who is usually unflappable, was, well—flapped! ‘Why did you do the verse?’ he said angrily. I mumbled something to the effect of ‘Why not?’ Elton was so cool about it and saved my ass. He’s not just a ‘pop star’ he’s a capable musician. He just said, ‘Don’t worry. Give me the words. I’ll learn it.’ So he got a bit of paper, scribbled down the words and we did it, and George calmed down. Then Larry came in and said, ‘Oh I’m so glad you did the verse!’ And I thought, Well, of course! I only know the song with the verse! So there was George’s idea, Elton’s idea, my idea, and Larry’s idea—and none of them were really mixing.”
In contrast to his previous work with the Beatles, Martin would appear to have had the clear intention of making a traditional and rather unadventurous record. Gibbs therefore keeps the arrangement of this medley very simple indeed, especially if one compares the writing to his compositional work. But there are two places where Gibbs has written passages that demonstrate his own techniques.
As this record must feature Adler, Gibbs has included a number of interludes and answering phrases for his harmonica. The following example works well with the strings. Adler’s harmonica style is defined by his phrasing—sliding into notes. Gibbs writes a line for him accompanied by violins that compliment this with a rising flurry of notes derived from the F Semitone-Wholetone Scale over an F7 chord. This small example contains the following elements:
With this combination of techniques Gibbs takes the listener up one dynamic level into the next verse very effectively.