Drummer, composer and bandleader extraordinaire Gerry Gibbs impressed the hell out of us in 2010 when he had the balls to assemble a rock-jazz orchestra and lock them up in a studio until they have recorded 40 songs for twelve straight hours, jamming on songs from Miles Davis’ classic fusion period. Since he made that amazing Play The Music Of Miles Davis, 1967-75 record with his Electric Thrasher Orchestra, Gibbs went in an entirely different direction making a series of straight-jazz acoustic records with the Thrasher Dream Trio that included Kenny Barron and Ron Carter, a dream matchup indeed.
Gibb’s latest adventure brings him back to the fusion arena, albeit with a brand new trio, which he calls Thrasher People. Keyboardist Alex Collins and bassist Hans Glawischnig don’t have the experience and legend-building resumes of Carter or Barron, but Gibbs often required them to play like they did, and they more than met the challenge.
And it was a challenge, because they were asked to help him re-imagine the music of Weather Report, and then re-imagine Gibbs own music from over the years. Weather Or Not (out on February 24, 2017 by Whaling City Sound), are thus two distinct, fully realized albums packaged together. I’m not going to question the decision to sell two disparate discs as one product, because both are recommended.
Covering the music of Weather Report often reveals more of the artist doing the covering than its says about Weather Report themselves, because WR songs lend themselves so well for an endless array of adaptations. They had also gone through so many lineup changes and phases that the songs chosen for covering can often speak loudly about what facets of this multifaceted band inspired the artists the most.
The first disc, tagged The Music of Weather Report, draws four selections from the band’s acknowledged masterpiece Heavy Weather albumbut the much less heralded Mr. Gone follow-up also gets represented by only one less song, and a mere two compositions chosen (with a brief take on another) fall outside of the Jaco Pastorius era. Interesting, too, that a trio of Wayne Shorter compositions were chosen; three out of twelve isn’t a great amount until you consider he had contributed no more than two tracks per album after the 1971 debut. Gibbs & Co. did well to underscore the sax legend’s ‘quality over quantity’ contributions to Weather Report.
The trio plays all acoustically at the core of their sound, tactfully complemented with some electric piano and organ that don’t really pull the performances away from the pure jazz aesthetic. The main takeaway from this exercise is that these fusion songs not only work re-imagined as creatively arranged straight jazz performances, but work that way naturally well. It’s a reminder that the key members in this group were jazz musicians and composers first and foremost.
The lead sax and bass lines for “Teen Town” are replicated nearly note-for-note on piano, then Collins peels away and spews forth a crisp, rapid-fire solo. Glawischnig solos on standup bass to a slower swing after a furious swing as ambient electric keyboards emerge in the background before returning to all acoustic. What Glawischnig does not do here and elsewhere is try to replicate the great Pastorius’ bass figures, in keeping with the overall mission to make these interpretations personal to the performers. Glawischnig’s bass is exquisite for “A Remark You Made” even as it is well understated compared to Jaco’s, while Gibbs’ brushes blend in flawlessly with Collins’ organ. “Palladium,” a vastly underrated Shorter tune, swings a little harder but otherwise stays close to form, and Collins shines on both Rhodes and piano solos. Gibbs’ brushes get a heartier workout on “Birdland,” very elastic and sprightly, singlehandedly supplying the juice for Weather Report’s best-known tune. In another twist, the combo breaks out into a rolling shuffle for the chorus.
The vibe of “Mr. Gone” goes from scratchy trad jazz to electric hard bop on a dime as Joe Zawinul’s otherworldly walking bass line (originally done with a synthesizer) stays constant, and then sped up. “Young And Fine” another from the pen of Zawinul to appear on Mr. Gone, is punchier as rendered by Gibbs’ trio. For Pastorius marvelous gonzo-swing piece “Punk Jazz” we get piano runs instead of bass runs at the sprinting bop intro and an organ pairs up with piano on the Ellingtonian section.
“Black Market” is a sharp, quick tempo swing, and like the original mines that bass riff for all it’s worth; Collins’ Rhodes solo breaks out in the chorus section and a brief, all-new motif appears near the end. The other track representing the Black Market album, “Elegant People,” is another Shorter favorite of mine; Collins utterly captures the mysteriously moving melody.
Given the straight ahead approach the Thrasher People have taken to WR songs, Shorter’s “Sightseeing” is probably unsurprisingly closest to it original incarnation, because it was cast as a straight ahead tune from the start. But absent Zawinul’s single synth line in unison with Shorter’s sax, the piano and a little bit of vocal scat take its place and Jaco never went arco like Glawischnig did at one point. By contrast, “Scarlett Woman/Boogie Woogie Waltz” goes against the formula by sounding even more 1974 here than “Scarlett” did in 1974, and less diffused as well. “Boogie Woogie Waltz” actually only turns up in the last minute as a kinetic burst, prodded on by Gibbs’ crisp, busy snare.
The Weather Report tribute ends with Zawinul’s “Directions,” which Gibbs also tackled on the electric Miles tribute album as it was a concert favorite for both bands in the early 70s. Gibbs’ band states the distinctive theme in a relaxed manner, then cook. Collins uncorks a greasy organ solo and then Gibbs drops drum chops by the bucketfuls.
And that’s only half of this release. The second disc is also a tribute of sorts: to Gibbs’ own songs. The Music of Gerry Gibbs — subtitled The Life Suite: 1981-2016 — follows no set formula for how these are handled, aside from being jazzy in some way. There’s the Brazilian (“Just Glad To Be Anywhere”), the Caribbean (“The Caribbean Song”, duh), Billy Cobham/George Duke style funk and R&B (“Kojak,” “I’m Simply Waiting,” “The 70s Song aka Patrice Rushen”), straight-up blues (“Paul & Sid’s Blues) and modern, fundamentally acoustic jazz (“Only In Dreams”). A few of these songs have turned up on prior Gibbs releases and many (as far as I know) we’re hearing for the first time here. The common threads running through all of these tracks are Gibbs’ consistent ability to construct compositions that are both accessible and refined, and the Thrasher People performing them with a lot of fearless, fresh savvy.
Wayne Shorter himself sees the “graphically arranged material of Weather Report” on Weather Or Not as Gibbs keeping up with his “creative mission.” Sprawling and ambitious projects like this one are nothing new for Gerry Gibbs…and neither is his capacity to execute on his imaginative designs.
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