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Michael Gibbs / Vortex

Tom Challenger soloing with the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra at the Vortex

Small space, big band. Can’t beat it. Five trumpets, four trombones, four reeds, five rhythm, making the air move within the confines of a proper jazz club. Even the smallest concert hall wouldn’t be the same. And sitting just behind me at the Vortex last night was Mike Gibbs, smiling and cheering as the Trinity Laban Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Josephine Davies, performed a selection of his compositions and arrangements in one of four sets arranged over two nights as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, in celebration of his recent 85th birthday.

The finest tribute to the great man was the spirit shown by the young musicians of the orchestra, buttressed by a few distinguished elders, including Julian Siegel and Tom Challenger on saxophones, Lewis Wright on vibes, Hans Koller on piano and Gene Calderazzo on drums. Challenger’s alto soared unstoppably on a heart-lifting “Almost Ev’ry Day”, Wright proved yet again on “Ramblin'” that he doesn’t know how to play an uninteresting phrase, Siegel took firm control of “Round Midnight”, and Calderazzo kept the music on its toes. But the newer faces also had points to make: Kobe Heath Ngugi’s bass matched the drummer’s power and agility, Talfan Jenkins delivered a poised alto solo on Gibbs’ fascinating arrangement of Eberhard Weber’s “Mauritius”, Alex Polack’s trumpet cut through on the closing sequence of “Round Midnight”, and the guitar comping of Joseph Leighton behind Koller and Wright on “Ramblin'” was stimulating enough to remind me of Ray Crawford’s contribution to Gil Evans’s “La Nevada”, than which there can be no higher praise. These are all student at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, and all names to watch.

Gibbs has worked with many musicians and orchestras in his long career — Kenny Wheeler, Gary Burton, Joni Mitchell, John McLaughlin, John Scofield and so on — but not much can have been more fun than this. At the end of the set, he was presented with a birthday cake while the band stood to play “Happy Birthday”. The fizzing candle was only one of the night’s fireworks.

* If you hurry, there are two more sets tonight:

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Damn. Considered going but dithered. And sadly I can’t make it this evening. But glad it was so enjoyable.

    November 15, 2022
  2. Tony F #

    Sounds great. Many moons ago, Mike Gibbs was one of my entry-points into jazz. Great that he could be there to enjoy the gig.

    November 15, 2022
  3. Tim Adkin #

    Sounds like a very good evening. Gibbs has long been a favourite composer and bandleader. Chastening (albeit accurate) to see the excellent Julian Siegel described as a ‘distinguished elder’. Was it really that long ago I chatted to him briefly at the interval of a Partisans gig in Cheltenham and cheekily asked if he was going to actually play his bass clarinet or whether it was there for display purposes only? Yes it was and yes he did – superbly.

    November 15, 2022
  4. Mick Steels #

    Yep the small space biggish band worked pretty well for Mike in 1972

    November 15, 2022
    • Saverio Pechini #

      Just Ahead ‘s inner sleeve (1972) , depicting the band playing at Ronnie Scott’s springs to mind.

      November 15, 2022
  5. John Blandford #

    I went to the first house last night and thoroughly glad I did. I couldn’t help making some mental comparisons with Mike Westbrook, who is just a year older and whose big band version of Rossini I saw in Cambridge a few weeks ago. Although neither, understandably, actively leads the band these days, this only serves to draw attention to the strength of the arrangements and the enormous legacy of both men. And both Mikes seemed to really enjoy the respective occasions.

    November 15, 2022
    • Clive Sykes #

      You must have gone to the 2nd show Richard; I went to the first, which was also excellent. Round Midnight was played then too, not sure about the others, not all titles announced. The closing piece was especially good, partly based on Mike’s Southern African roots, didn’t get the title.

      Also saw Trevor Watts at ljf on Friday night, equally good.

      November 15, 2022
  6. Daniel Silverstone #

    great review so sorry to have missed it

    November 15, 2022
  7. I saw Michael on at least 3 occasions in Newcastle. Marvellous bands and arrangements, with some superb soloists. I recall at one that Paul Jones was in the audience. He was doing theatre locally. I think Jack Bruce was in that particular band. I can’t recall the year/exact nature but Michael appeared , again in Newcastle, at a young jazz musicians show as ‘mentor’ where they played his compositions. A great man with wonderful talent. Sounds like he’s still thriving at 85, how nice!

    November 15, 2022
  8. Conal #

    I remember seeing a different incarnation of a Mike Gibbs orchestra at Cheltenham jazz festival maybe 15 years ago cos I think that was also celebrating a significant birthday. It’s a concert that I really cherish in my memory. I remember Julian arguelles playing some beautiful solos but also Chris hunter on alto sax taking one blistering and imaginative solo which blew off the dust of life for a couple of weeks for me.

    November 15, 2022

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