sweet1My image of Mike Gibbs as a “difficult” jazz composer took a bit of a knock as I was researching this piece. It turns out that, early in his career, Gibbs was asked by Bill Oddie to act as the musical director of the BBC television comedy show The Goodies, a task he undertook for five years between 1969 and 1974. (There wasn’t a great deal of music in The Goodies aside from the theme music and the fake adverts they used to include).

There’s no doubt that Gibbs has some pretty serious influences though – Gil Evans, Charles Ives and Messiaen are three often cited, and Gibbs studied at the Berklee School of Music from 1959 where he became friends with the vibraphonist Gary Burton and studied with Gunther Schuller and George Russell. In 1966 he had the chance for further study at the famous Tanglewood Summer School with Aaron Copland, Xenakis, Schuller and Lukas Foss. I was reminded of Gibbs while revisiting Sweet Rain, the 1967 album by Stan Getz . The title track, brought to Getz’s attention by Burton, is a Gibbs composition, later also recorded by Burton and by Gibbs himself.

Getz’s version is something of a miracle, effortlessly spanning the gap between free jazz and gentle ballad. Getz achieves this partly because of his beautiful sound, but also through his effortless improvisation over the complex, ambiguous harmonies. Beguiled by the sound, we don’t notice the distance we are traveling. The theme itself is an unusual ten bars long, and while the first four bars are the most distinctive part of the melody, it plays above a harmonic no-mans land. Only at bar 4 do we get to a recognizable cadence, establishing what turns out to be the tonic key, Db. Then follows a sequence, upwards in the melody, downwards in the bass spanning the next two bars, then back to the “tonic” Db major 7th chord on bar 7. Bars 7 to 10 linger on four rich jazz chords with a pedal note held on the tonic Db. In one interview, Gibbs called these ‘Hollywood chords’: “I know it’s syrupy, but I love it”, he said.

These three more easily recognizable signposts – the first cadence, the sequence, and the Hollywood chords – serve as anchor points for the improvisations that follow – Getz over the next four 10-bar changes, Corea for the following three, then back to Getz for one more change of improvisation before the theme returns. They counteract the instability of the 10 bar change length (rather than the expected 12), and those first three bars of floating tonality (which we would typically expect to start in the home key). And the start of each set of changes is disguised even further by the fluidity of Getz’s melodic invention, backed ably by a young, pre-electric Chick Corea on piano, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate. The album Sweet Rain, and the earlier Focus of 1961 – on which Getz improvises freely above a very strictly written out string chart composed by Eddie Sauter – are two of his greatest recordings. (The score shown above is available from this site.

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