After a career spanning six decades, Terry Gibbs is recognized as belonging to the top echelon of performers on the vibraphone, being voted "# 1 Vibraphonist in the world" in both Down Beat and Metronome from 1950-1955, after stints with Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman. He has subsequently worked with Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Art Blakely, Elvin Jones and Tito Puente, and has had extensive experience as a bandleader since forming his own group for the Mel Tormé TV show in 1950. Since then he has led both big bands and small groups for every kind of work from jazz venues to TV shows. (Why Gibbs is not an N.E.A. Jazz Master--www. iaje.org/jazzmasters.asp--is beyond me, unless it reflects some prejudice against West Coast players.) In any case, Gibbs demonstrates throughout this set that he is still on top of his game. The vibraphone is a pretty physical instrument, but Gibbs' playing belies his 83 years. He is still as good on this instrument as anyone playing today; his solos are fleet, exuberant, and constantly inventive.
Gibbs' skill as a bandleader is also imprinted on this session. Choosing the selections, writing the arrangements, assembling the band--Gibbs has handled all of these with equal adroitness. I knew he was good at this as I have really enjoyed his last two releases, 52nd & Broadway: Songs of the Bebop Era, with its great string arrangements, and Feelin' Good: Live in Studio, where he returns to a simpler format. Here he has put together a mixed program of his own original compositions leavened with some jazz standards. The arrangements allow the tunes to speak for themselves and the top-flight rhythm section to support the soloists, with just the occasional ensemble passage added to pull things together. And the soloists are superb. Tom Rainer is a Gibbs regular and a stalwart member of the L.A. scene, Dan Faehnle has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Eddie Harris, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, and Jeff Hamilton and is now a regular member of Diana Krall's quartet.
For me, however, it is Gibbs' choice of "special guest" artist that really makes the date. Hubert Laws should be in the Down Beat Hall of Fame. Call me prejudiced if you wish, (I am a flutist!), but there is no performer who has gained more complete mastery of his instrument and the jazz idiom. But because the instrument in question is the flute rather than the trumpet or the saxophone, he is not well known to many jazz lovers. True, some of his own recordings have not been too well received by critics, but if you seek out his work as a sideman with McCoy Tyner, Milt Jackson, Ron Carter, Victor Feldman and a host of others, you will hear solos that are breathtaking in their technical mastery, harmonic sophistication and melodic inventiveness. He is also one of the handful of artists who are equally proficient in jazz and classical performance--which is evident across the board in the sound he draws from the instrument. He has a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Flute Association and flute players are generally in awe of him! If you have not heard Laws' work this is as good a place as any to start as he gets plenty of solo space on every track. (If you like what you hear there is a discography of his work in my forthcoming book The Flute In Jazz.)
Gibbs is certainly a friend to flute players--legendary "Father of Jazz Flute" Sam Most is featured on the 52nd Street and Broadway session--and he knows how to use them. Indeed, the flute/ vibes combination has become one of the signature sounds in jazz, along with the flute/muted trumpet sonority popularized by arranger Ernie Wilkins and flutist Frank Wess with Count Basie in the fifties. Gibbs exploits the sound, without overdoing it, and then gives Laws his head along with himself and the other soloists. This is great jazz playing by any standard. And the measure of Laws' mastery is that you forget that this is supposedly an unusual jazz instrument.
The set opens brightly with "Bernie's Tune," one of my favorites also! It is well-paced from there on out--a slow groove with the unexpected "Teach Me Tonight," an up-tempo samba, a gorgeous Bossa Nova "The House That Might Have Been,"--listen to the gorgeous sound Laws draws from the flute in the introduction to Joan Carroll's vocal--and a couple of tour-de-force up-tempo bebop numbers, Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers" and Denzil Best's "Wee." As one of the early bebop pioneers on New York's 52nd street in the forties Gibbs is totally at home with this repertoire. Carroll's vocals add a further dimension on two selections until Gibbs' "One Minute And 45 Seconds To Station Break" wraps everything up with the sense of fun that permeates the set.
Many years ago, when I was touring in Europe, I had a road manager who was an out-of-work chef. During our down time he would cook the most elaborate dishes for us, wonderful entrées, fabulous sauces, desserts to die for. But what was best of all was what he could do with coffee and a couple of eggs in the morning (around noon actually!) Sets like this are that nourishing and that refreshing. This one's a keeper!