INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Mike Gibbs (Big Band - 80th Birthday Celebration English tour, 24-29 Sept)

Mike Gibbs
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
Composer and arranger MIKE GIBBS turns 80 on Monday 25 September. He will be conducting his UK big band at the Vortex that night, the second date of six across England. Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon asked him a few questions by email.

LondonJazz News: The South African author/painter Breyten Breytenbach once said that because one’s first sensual experiences of the world (sights/sounds/smells) are imprinted in the early years of childhood, living in a different climate/landscape from one’s country of origin always makes one feel, to an extent, like a stranger in a strange land. He was talking as an exile, but I think it might also act as a creative impulse… Does this idea resonate with you at all?

Mike Gibbs: Yes, very much so. Having left Rhodesia in 1959, I later felt most ‘at home’ when I lived in New York - I felt as equally ‘other’  as everyone around me.

However, when in 1991, I visited Zimbabwe, and then later in early 2000s, I visited South Africa - the expanse of the horizon, the smells, the colour of the ground - the lack of lush green - the flat top trees, the food - really got to me - to the point that I (briefly) contemplated returning to Africa when it came time to die... so at home did it feel.

LJN: Your time living in Africa is a long way back now, but are you aware of any influences from that time and place in your music?

MG: No, and regretfully so. From my mid-teens, I had already discovered jazz, American jazz, and immersed myself in it to the point that I paid no more attention to the African music around me. It was later while I was at Berklee in Boston, I realised, sadly, what I’d missed out on. When I heard Chris McGregor in London in early ’70s, I realised that all the more - having missed out what I’d been in the midst of. I do though respond with a sort of natural basic-ness when I hear African music to this day - and at least treasure that.

LJN: I’m assuming bringing a rock beat and influences into orchestral jazz came naturally - was it a conscious move at the time?

MG: No, not that conscious - Gary Burton had stopped over in UK around 1965 - we always got together in those days to discuss music for his frequent recording dates - and he brought over a portable record player, and some Beatles music. Although I was aware of The Beatles, Gary’s delight and obvious desire to have some of that in what I wrote for him pointed in the direction of the rhythm grooves - and so I started to incorporate them into the pieces I wrote. These pieces then later became the foundation of the music I played in my bands. Although I did love the freshness of the “rock scene” - I did feel a little constrained in figuring out how to now use rhythm patterns that were very repetitive, where I was more comfortable with intrinsically interactive and constantly varying playing especially from drums - but this was hardly a problem - more new territory to explore - and we did have fun with it.

LJN: And the other influences upon your music, musical or otherwise - where do you find your inspiration?

MG: Most of ideas for pieces come to me from other musics - and the supply is endless. I’m never at a loss for things I’d like to write - though I do get stuck occasionally - but it’s just like a knot that needs loosening - so, I’ve found waiting a while always helps.

LJN: When working with a featured soloist - i’m thinking Bill Frisell or Gary Burton - how much do you take their musical character/style of playing into account when composing/arranging?

MG: Boyo! How would I measure that - there’s no way to avoid taking their personalities into account, and why would one want to…?

LJN: And so to the band for this tour - I get the impression your players mean a lot to you?

MG: Those I know - yes! Some are new faces to me - but their reputations precede them, and they - all, that is, as a group, sound wonderful - particularly, already having a collective personality - which we’re only beginning to define.

Mike Gibbs - the band's view
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk
LJN: Do you like standing at the front with the baton? Or are you happier with manuscript paper and pencil? Or working with a band away from an audience?

MG: Writing at home, alone, is (often) such a lonely pursuit - I don’t always enjoy it - and find distractions to compensate. However, when I do find a way to develop an idea it’s always a real giant pleasure, and prompts wanting to tell someone - in the old days, that would have been Cilla, my wife - even if she didn’t understand the technicalities, she always gave me the support of the (mini) achievement.

LJN: Tell me about the pleasures of teaching - and working with student players…

MG: Teaching is so often a great way to learn - at one residency I had in Helsinki - at the Sibelius Academy, I vividly recall being astonished at some of the students’ ideas, and found myself writing them down for my own (later) edification. But it’s the pleasure of the interaction with newer, fresher minds - so often a lesson to me.

LJN: You’re doing a Birmingham date (a co-promotion between Jazzlines and Birmingham Jazz). Your links with Birmingham have proved fruitful - and lasting. What’s the attraction?

MG: Birmingham has always been so kind to me when it came to support, and giving me opportunities to play and write - mostly through Tony Dudley-Evans - and so it’s a like a second home. I’ve had so many gigs at the CBSO Centre - it is such a fabulous venue to play in. Then my short stint at the Conservatoire was also such a positive delight - Hans Koller has the ears I most like to be present when I play, as his responses are always deeper than I was aware.

The Mike Gibbs 80th Birthday Big Band is:
Conductor: Mike Gibbs;
Trumpets: Ryan Quigley, Henry Lowther, Percy Pursglove, Nick Smart;
Trombones: Mark Bassey, Jeremy Price, Rory Ingham, Richard Henry (bass trombone);
Saxophones: Jason Yarde (alto/soprano), John O’Gallagher (alto), Julian Siegel (tenor/bass clarinet), Alex Garnett (tenor/baritone);
French horn & accordion: Jim Rattigan;
Piano: Hans Koller;
Guitar: Mike Walker;
Bass: Michael Janisch;
Drums: Andrew Bain;
Percussion: Paul Clarvis (some dates).

The tour dates are:

Sunday 24 Sept: Scarborough Jazz Festival
Monday 25 Sept: Vortex, London
Tuesday 26 Sept: Watermill Jazz Club, Dorking
Wednesday 27 Sept: Vortex, London
Thursday 28 Sept: CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 29 Sept: Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton

LINK: Feature: Mike Gibbs 80th Birthday Celebrations

2013 Podcast interview

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