Mike Gibbs: A Celebration, Vortex Jazz Club, London

The self-styled “listening club” seemed even more respectful than usual for the return of veteran composer/arranger Mike Gibbs. Not that there was anything po-faced about either music or man.

Gibbs’s work ranges from film scores – for directors including Bill Forsyth and John Woo – and orchestral arrangements to the small-scale and incidental music for The Goodies. And his musical palette is just as broad. Credits stretch from Pat Metheny to Peter Gabriel and recent commissions include contemporary brass, European folk and re-arrangements of Duke Ellington.

But jazz is at the heart, and, as this biggish UK band gig showed, remains a passion. Both sets balanced arranger’s finesse with muscular improvisation, there were showcase highlights and the rhythm section was given room to breathe.

The opening set was dedicated to the US composer/arranger Gil Evans. Gibbs had tweaked the original Evans scores to fit the line-up – though he stressed, “we wanted to be as close as we can get to the original” – and his 13-piece band captured the original Evans magic, getting the shimmering fanfares, soft-voiced discords and panoramic sweep to a tee.

The set opened with Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie”, Kurt Weill’s “Bilbao Song” and “Saint Louis Blues”. Each theme was broken in pieces and reconfigured anew, sometimes softened, at others roughed up by stubby discordant riffs. There were moments of pathos – a dirge of overlapping brass, a moan of muted trumpets – and elegant dances. And as with the original, strong soloists were the key to the music’s success. At this gig, extended features for Mark Nightingale’s urbane trombone and Finn Peters blues-bordering-on-the-abstract alto sax were standouts.

The second set presented new material for an upcoming album, and, as with the first, covers were heavily featured. Gibbs’s arrangements bear a strong Evans stamp – tuba and French horn give a rich bottom end – but there is more flesh in the middle and an occasional folkish tinge. Carla Bley’s beautiful theme “Ida Lupino” was lovingly voiced, there was a sharp deconstruction of Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin’”, and a Monk medley to finish. But the set was not so well paced, and two consecutive ballads made it sag slightly in the middle.


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