Michael Gibbs '63: Breaking the Rules and Sounding Great

By Mark Small '73

Editor, Berklee today

Mike Gibbs '62 (right) and producer Taka Watanabe at Abbey Road StudiosAt the close of a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios in London, it was easy to see that composer/arranger Mike Gibbs '63 and everyone else was pleased with the tracks that had just been recorded. Gibbs was hired by Tokyo-based producer Taka Watanabe to pen four orchestral arrangements for an outstanding young French countertenor named Fabrice di Falco. Gibbs's hiring was further evidence that his reputation as an top-notch arranger has spread well beyond the circle of jazz musicians like Gary Burton, Stan Getz, and John McLaughlin that brought him into the spotlight in the 1970s. These days, his resume includes work for artists like Sting, Bruce Hornsby, and Laurie Anderson as well as film and television scoring.

In conversation, Gibbs is warm, intelligent, and humble all at once. He reminisces about friends he met as a student and during his nine years as a Berklee faculty member. The four tracks that had just been recorded, a medley of two Christmas carols, "Les Anges dans nos Campagnes" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"; the Bach/Gounod setting of "Ave Maria"; Handel's popular aria "Ombra Mai Fu,"and the Cole Porter chestnut "True Love" clearly illustrate Gibbs's facility in diverse genres. The charts were rich sounding and satisfying, and contained a few trademark Mike Gibbs twists.

I noted things like the gorgeous oboe obbligato he wrote into the Handel aria. It sometimes wove —at times nearly inaudibly —through the orchestral fabric and at other points more prominently, it leapt wide intervals. Also striking were the tension notes that do not appear in the original diminished chords of the Bach/Gounod piece, and the subtle, yet piquant dissonances in the Christmas medley. A voicing at a cadence point placed the root above the major seventh, creating a minor ninth interval. (That's something arranging students are routinely cautioned against.) Gibbs skillfully exploited these ideas to great effect. It takes experience and clear vision to bend the rules and obtain such beautiful results.

"I have made a career of breaking the rules," he tells me. "Working for Gary, I wrote big melodic leaps. They are not hard on a vibraphone. When I wrote them for woodwinds, it was splendid. So all of the things I learned not to do —like writing a B-natural to a B-flat on the trombone or writing in the break of the clarinet —I just do them now. The players I work with are so good; they would be too embarrassed to say they couldn't play something. They rise to the occasion and find a way to do it rather than moan about it."

Gibbs was born in Salisbury, South Rhodesia, South Africa, and grew up playing trombone and piano. He came to Berklee as a student in 1959 and received his diploma in 1962. While learning jazz techniques at Berklee, he also studied in the summers with Gunther Schuller and George Russell, and with classical composers Aaron Copland, Iannis Xenakis, and Lucas Foss.

He explains that he never made a conscious decision to cross over with jazz and classical music. "I know I am in two fields," he says, "but they really overlap for me and become one field. I have no problem switching; it is just one big palette."

His gifts were noticed early in his student years. "I played trombone with Herb Pomeroy's band —not the school band, but his professional band," he says. "Gary Burton was asking me for tunes. These were good breaks, and came while I was a student."

By the late 1960s, Gibbs had absorbed much from his main influences —Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Charles Ives, and Olivier Messiaen —and was recognized as a bright light in the jazz composing and arranging field. Tunes he had written were being performed by a number of his contemporaries. "Sweet Rain" attained the status of a jazz standard and was recorded by artists like Stan Getz, Stephane Grapelli, and Gary Burton to name a few. He worked in England for a time with composer and saxophonist John Dankworth and Dankworth's wife, vocalist Cleo Laine, before accepting a post as composer-in-residence at Berklee in 1974.

Gibbs points to another significant break in 1974 that gave him even wider visibility. Guitarist John McLaughlin, who was then at a peak in his career, asked Gibbs to orchestrate all of the music for his groundbreaking Apocalypse album.

"Although I knew John and had worked with him before, I was very surprised to be given this huge responsibility of orchestrating the whole album," says Gibbs. "I had done things with classical players, but I had never written for a full symphony orchestra and certainly not for a group like the London Symphony Orchestra and a conductor like Michael Tilson Thomas. When John asked me to do it, I was very moved. It boosted my confidence a lot. George Martin produced the project, and the album got a lot of attention —especially among people in the business. It ended up bringing me a lot of work."

Through the years, Gibbs has done a range of gigs. While writing is his main focus, he is also frequently invited to appear at European jazz festivals as a bandleader directing his own music. He is a well-known guest conductor of the national radio bands in Germany, Austria, Denmark, and elsewhere. Last year, he directed a band at a jazz festival in Portugal, and led performances in Weimar, Germany, with Gary Burton in commemoration of the Duke Ellington centennial.

Presently, he is concentrating on getting more film work in London. "I did three movies for television last year and one for cinema," he says. "The film industry here is picking up and it is not a problem to work in both film and television. In America, you do one or the other."

At the moment, Gibbs is looking forward to the February 27 premiere in Carnegie Hall of the work he collaborated on with Laurie Anderson. Dennis Russell Davies will conduct the American Composers Orchestra in the piece which commemorates the life of Amelia Earhart.

Gibbs is also considering recording another album of his own music. "Doing my own albums was always a luxury for me," he says. "I have a company here that is interested in doing it. If that comes through, it will spur me on to do it. Ideas are developing, and I am feeling a need to write music for another album. My daughter is feeling a need to have a second baby, sort of a biological need. I think I'm having a similar feeling."