Multi-instrumentalist and composer Gerry Gibbs returns with his 12th album as a leader, Our People. Unlike anything the visionary musician has ever produced before, this epic, 19-part suite is a sonic masterpiece that pays tribute to the many different cultures that make up our world. Our People sounds like a full orchestra but is, in fact, the work of five gifted multi-instrumentalists- two of which are part of Gerry’s versatile Thrasher People Band. The amalgamation of styles and influences create a wonderfully universally significant sound that seems to transcend genre while awing listeners. ArkivJazz recently had the pleasure of speaking with Gerry about his new release.
ArkivJazz: Today we're talking to Gerry Gibbs, percussionist extraordinaire, musician, and composer whose new Whaling City release, Our People showcases a tremendous blend of many influences and ethnicities with extraordinary percussion and vocals.
Gerry Gibbs: Well, thank you Tom. Thanks for thinking of me.
AJ: This project is really broad and quite interesting, especially compared to your more recent recordings with the Thrasher Dream Trio.
GG: Yeah, I was a part of the Thrasher Dream Trio with Ron Carter and Kenny Barron, then I started Thrasher People two years ago and we released one record. We were doing the music of Weather Report on one CD, and another CD of original music. That’s what we've done so far with the Thrasher projects.
AJ: Well, this is a big step. Our People seems to pull in a lot of ethnic influences and it's got an incredible lineup of people including Alex Collins, Gianluca Renzi, and Mayu Saeki. Tell us how this came together and what pulled all of these disparate and interesting musicians?
GG: Well I had just finished my last record (Live in Studio) and I always have a few people that I let hear it before it comes out. One of those close friends is Billy Childs and he was a real big fan of that album, being that he was huge Weather Report Fan. We were talking, and he said, “You know, you have targeted radio for your last four CDs and they all went to number one… all four of them in a row. You should go back to making whatever's in your head at the time.” I walk around with like 40 records in my head at all times, so there were a few things that actually created this record for me. The first thing I thought was that maybe I would try to do something like that since I'd been thinking about it for a while. I also had a band that could play 40 instruments between the five of us. Maybe we couldn't put together a hundred-piece choir, but we overdubbed the five of us singing 25 times. Alex Collins and Mayu Saeki did the vast majority of the inner voices because they're both actually trained. We all sing but they were the real singers. The third thing was a little bit political for me with what's going on in this country. The name Our People speaks to that fact that that everybody is “our people.” That's something that I'm not hearing, everything is ‘your people/our people,’ and ‘these people/those people.’ These people shouldn't be coming here, these people shouldn't be doing this, and so on. The idea of “our people” meaning all people was a large part of the concept. Additionally, I knew I wanted to record in my own home studio, giving me the freedom to be able to record as long as I wanted without the constraints of a budget because some of these tracks have like 100 to 130 faders with all the voices and instrumental parts. It took us five days, at maybe 10 hours a day to record it. Originally, it was going to be part of a 3-CD set that Whaling City had agreed to let me do. The first CD would include my arrangements of all Chick Corea’s Return to Forever in an acoustic jazz setting. On the second CD, I was going to be turning my father’s (Terry Gibbs) big band arrangements into a trio setting with piano, bass, and drums. Our People was set to be the third CD. The thing is, once I had conceptualized the record, I thought that it would get lost in the shuffle if it ended up being the third CD. So, I decided to suspend the other two CDs, release Our People right now, and deal with the others another time. So I ended up calling the guys on the phone after Neil gave me the okay and I told them the new plan. Everybody was on board and, when I asked what everyone’s schedule looked like, it happened that everybody was available Monday through Friday the following week. That alone was incredible because it’s so hard to get five people in New York to commit to a schedule. Then, I spent the next two days writing all the music at the computer, had it digitized and I sent it to them right away. After that, I spent two days transferring the music to paper while the guys looked it over to see if there was anything that they might want to practice or get under their fingers. Then all of us piled into my home recording studio and if you look in the CD booklet, there’s a picture of what my studio looks like. For that session, it looked like a maze in a big music store. All the guys had to crawl underneath everything in order to get to the other instruments. It was very methodical. I had posted giant cardboard paper with all the things that needed to be done for each song and guys would tell me what they wanted to do. One person would record vocals, then another would put down the saxophone part, then somebody would put on a glockenspiel part and in the meantime people would sit on the couch and we would just keep doing that over the course of the five days. That was how it all happened.
AJ: It's a fascinating story to hear about because when you listen to it, it just sounds simultaneously spontaneous, well-written and well-orchestrated. So that means you were working with some extraordinary musicians who know how to get things done, focus, say what they need to say, and get out of the way I suppose.
GG: I know what everybody does, so it was easy for me to make this into a giant overdubbing session. In a way, it could have been done by bringing in 20 different musicians to play all the background parts, but a large group of musicians may not be able to do as much spontaneous stuff together as we did. When we play live we're able to duplicate sounds using electronic equipment, but I wanted 100% real acoustic voices, strings, and everything else for the record. I wrote the whole record in two days in the order that we actually track it because it was meant to be a continuous piece of music with stops in between. There’s one song in particular that had come to me after I had spent like 16-18 hours for two days straight writing and, when I got into bed, my wife was watching this documentary on the Vietnam War. In one small town, there were 31 kids that enlisted to go fight in Vietnam and all 31 of them died. That was just such a troubling story to me, but I started hearing this melody in my head. So, I got out of bed at 3:30 or 4 o'clock in the morning, went right back into my studio and wrote that song. It was the last song I wrote, but I didn't want to end the record with it so I wedged it into the middle of two songs. I wrote it all in a stream of consciousness. I knew what instruments I had, I knew what everybody could do, and I had that all written down on a piece of cardboard.
AJ: Well, it's really remarkably paced and sequenced. I realized that that tune follows the very up-tempo tune called “Oh, yeah” which has really nice propulsion to it. Just the contrast between the two is quite moving.
GG: Well, thank you.
AJ: Yes, an extremely well sequenced record and it seems like every tune probably has a story to it. I mean, there's one tune that's called “Chick Corea.”
GG: It just sounded like Chick. I have musical influences and things that I dedicated to people because, as I was writing, I would say to myself, "oh that sounds like something he would do or she would do." Chick would put these little one minute, one and a half minute songs on his records that were improv. We actually play that song live with drums and solos and everything, but I have this air accordion that plugs in and has the same bellows that an accordion has. It's something that was built around the 1950s and I really wanted to use it on the record. That song is actually arranged for a string quartet that I'm going to do something with on one of the next records, so it's actually in string quartet form played with marimba, accordion, some old synth keyboards, and hand clapping.
AJ: Well, I'm encouraging anybody that's tuned in to this conversation to go out and get this fantastic music. It’s really extraordinary, you don't know what you’re going to get from tune to tune, and it's perfectly paced.
GG: Well, thank you. It was meant to be a soundtrack. I wanted to make a record this time that wasn't necessarily like a jazz record in that, on a jazz record, you're not really playing with the experience of creating a soundtrack for their drive on the beach or a rainy night or whatever. I wanted to make a record that might be something that people would just put on if they don't know what they’re in the mood for, where it could be like a soundtrack of background music in the car because they’re talking to somebody Another influence for the record was an electronic record that I did a while ago with Flying Lotus. I'm sitting on the record for now because Flying Lotus had asked me about using one or two things, but he wasn't ready yet. Anyway, it's a full electronic record and I wanted to add a little bit of that element to this record but as a complement to us playing. Eventually, I might start writing for movies or something since I’m a write-a-holic and I can write fast. Like I said, I wrote all the music on this record in two days and I have too many songs, too much music that just sits there. I just write because I have to get it out of my system. So that's a direction I would like to move in, and, if it ever came to be, I could hire my own band to be used in something like that because these guys play so many instruments and can move so fast to what I'm writing.
AJ: I don't think I've ever seen a CD with so many instruments credited to so few people. It's really extraordinary. It’s like everybody brings their own mini-orchestra to bear.
GG: That's what they do, and that's what I was looking for. They were able to go in there, read everything really fast, yet then make it personal and methodical without sounding mechanical. Everybody wanted to put their own personal stylings into it, so we were very talkative about where it was going conceptually and how everybody was going to approach each part. It was very exciting for those five days and I knew that I would get that with these guys because that's how it's been. Hopefully it'll translate over, I didn't know what people would think of it after it was done. You know, you have success of going to number one on the radio four times in a row and then realize, if you make this kind of record, that probably won't happen for a fifth time, but I just needed to get this thing out of my system since I had a band that was capable of doing it.
AJ: It's the music that has to be made, and not the charts that have to be made!
GG: Okay, that's good....I'll go with that!
AJ: It's true and this one is going to get a lot of attention. I'm glad the labels behind it and I know they're very proud of it and excited by it. When I heard it, I thought there’s just nothing else like it out there right now. We're happy to give you some exposure and let people know about it.