Setting Sights

Gerry Gibbs

Usually the hippest music happens when nobody in the room is consciously trying to sound hip. Drawing inspiration from an oft-derided genre, this drummer/leader has made another unexpected—and, yes, hip—addition to his already eclectic body of music.

Story by Jeff Potter
Photos by Paul La Raia

When Gerry Gibbs tries something different, it shouldn’t surprise. After all, the drummer/composer/arranger’s career includes sideman stints with giants of straight-ahead jazz, avant-garde, fusion, R&B, and funk. Case in point: At age nineteen he performed with Woody Shaw, Alice Coltrane, and Parliament Funkadelic in one manic ten-day stretch. His own nine discs, which include Live at Luna by the eighteen-piece Thrasher Big Band, have explored diverse acoustic and electric formats. And recently he introduced his alter ego, Reni Beats, an electronic music forum for which he serves as mastermind/composer/programmer and video animator.

But Gibbs’ newest release, the third album by his Thrasher Dream Trio, will assuredly trigger some double takes. “I wanted to do a record of elevator music,” Gerry explains without a flinch. The result is Live in Studio (Whaling City Sound), a swinging, spontaneous, and spirited disc featuring well-known, robust melodies, many of them from movies, including “The Summer Knows,” “Theme From a Man and a Woman,” and “More.”

The trio’s “dream” moniker is no exaggeration; Gibbs is joined in the group by jazz mega-greats Ron Carter on bass and Kenny Barron on piano. Raising the ante are star guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The trio’s self-titled 2013 debut featured jazz standards, while its Grammy-nominated follow-up, We’re Back (2014), offered jazz interpretations of ’60s and ’70s R&B classics. For this latest departure, Gibbs opted to record a live performance at Systems Two studios in Brooklyn.

Undeniably, Gibbs is an artist who trusts his intuition. Once inspiration strikes, he’s unstoppable. With his new discbarely wrapped, he says, “I’ve got fifty records in my head that I want to do before I die.” Again, that’s no exaggeration.

MD jumped at the invitation to attend the Systems Two session and spoke with Gibbs soon after.

MD: Your aim was to approach this record differently from the previous two.

Gerry: The initial idea with this recording was to do it in a looser way, where everyone’s not buried in the arrangements. I decided I wasn’t going to arrange the tunes; I would just come in with lead sheets, and whatever happens, happens.

Then I decided to do it live, with a selected audience, and play all “elevator” songs that I grew up listening to. I didn’t want to pick typical standards that these guys have done a million times, or the normal “hip tunes” either—Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock.

I’m a huge lounge-music fanatic—music that I heard in elevators and in dentists’ or doctors’ offices growing up. There’s a station in Palm Springs, KWXY, that I listen to constantly. They play this kind of music. It’s like a time warp. They’ll go from playing Gene Autry to the theme song from M*A*S*H. It inspired me to do this record. Since I’d been listening to so much Dean Martin and Doris Day, I just thought, That’s what I’m going to do! I could have made an avant-garde record if I wanted to, but I wanted to do this right now. I picked a very weird lineup of tunes: Mancini, Burt Bacharach—tunes that are really beautiful but still have strong melodies and chords for blowing.

MD: Was the “winging it” approach a factor in your guest choices?

Gerry: Cassandra Wilson is one of the singers. There’s almost nothing she can’t do. She can even sing the most angular, bizarre music and nail it.

Roy Hargrove and I have a long history of running into each other at jam sessions over twenty years. We’ve liked playing with each other in those situations because we both know a million tunes, including a lot that people don’t know. He’s perfect because of that: This record was conceived as a jam session with friends. That’s why I wanted a live audience—not an audience of strangers, but musicians, because of the energy you get. I wanted an audience that knows and plays this music so that the energy would be even deeper for us.

Also, I wanted a very soulful sound for this record. Roy is one of the more soulful trumpet players today, and Cassandra is one of the more soulful singers. There’s nothing academic in either of them.

MD: Did the looser format result in some surprises for you?

Gerry: I didn’t find any big surprises, because I knew exactly who was on the record and what they would bring to it. But actually, every time I play, I never know what’s going to happen with me. Many drummers I’ve talked to have a lot of things worked out that they want to showcase when they’re doing a record. I never think like that. I’ve had people comment that I didn’t do a certain thing on a record that they’ve heard me do before. Well, if it didn’t happen musically, then I didn’t go there. So I never know what my drumming’s going to sound like until I start the record, because everything I play is influenced by what happens harmonically and melodically with the other instruments—much more than with the rhythms.

Harmonic and melodic ideas are what influence everything I play, no matter how simple or complex. When I write or arrange music, it never comes from the rhythm first. Never. Most drummers’ records I hear today sound like they are much more influenced by rhythms first, and the harmonic and melodic ideas get put on top. I can’t conceptualize like that, because using harmonic and melodic ideas first will give me so much more to work with, to react to rhythmically. It will dictate a wider palette of dynamics, sound, colors, and, most important, the feel I put behind the music.

MD: For a straight-ahead session, you were using quite a large kit with a huge array of cymbals. And you had two snares at the ready.

Gerry: The other snare drum was tuned really low so it sounded like the heads were all bent up. I’ve used it with Ron and Kenny before. But this time it was never touched. The music didn’t go there; nobody played anything harmonically or sonically that dictated its use.

There were eleven cymbals, including hi-hats. I used several kinds of China cymbals and a few styles of rides. Actually, only two cymbals were crashes. Two or three cymbals never got used, because, once again, the music didn’t go there. If, for instance, Ron took a solo where a thinner cymbal might have worked, I would have used it—but he didn’t do that.People commented about the setup on Facebook: “Geez! Gerry, could you have added more cymbals or drums?” Then I played the record for someone and he said, “It sounds like you’re just playing on a small drumset.” It’s like the parts of the piano that never got played: It was there, but the pianist didn’t go as high or low as he could have. And I’m sure Ron didn’t play every note available to him on the bass.

Roy Hargrove, Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Cassandra Wilson, and Ron Carter take a break during the recording of Live in Studio at Systems Two studios in Brooklyn.

MD: You played your kit outside the booth, wide open on the floor. Was that a “live” sonic choice, or was it for better personal connection and interplay?

Gerry: Mostly the latter. I knew we would play differently hearing all of the instruments in one room—especially dynamically. Also, it was really important to capture the sound of Ron’s bass playing live.

With Ron and Kenny, we all have a sound that may be a little bit different when we record, but we’re all very sound conscious when we play, using dynamics. So it was actually easy to record this way, because dynamically it’s not about us separately. It’s about us creating a sound together, so it doesn’t matter how it’s recorded. We’re all very capable of controlling our instruments to have a cohesive sound.

MD: Would recording out of the booth always be preferable to you?

Gerry: They’re just different [settings], so you have to play differently. I don’t mind wearing headphones and being locked in a corner. Each situation brings out something different in your playing.

Whatever adjustments I have to make, I don’t feel limited by that. Even if I don’t hear the music that great on my headset, it’s easy for me to adjust based on intuition. Either you’re an extension of the music or the music is an extension of you. I’ve always looked at it that music is an extension of me—which is either good or bad, but that’s just the way it is. So nothing can really throw me. If the room’s really echo-y, I’ll play in a way that makes it work. If the room is dry, I may have more options. To me, it doesn’t matter. Making adjustments is a skill in itself.

I look at drumming as something that’s always going to be influenced by everything around me—it’s not about trying to controleverything. If you play like that, you can hear it in the music. The drums are just an extension of what I’m hearing, what I’m feeling emotionally and psychologically. I use that and it comes out in the drums. That way, it’s never the same.

Gerry’s Live in Studio Setup

Gibbs picks and chooses drums and cymbals for each gig he does; here’s the setup he brought to Systems Two studios in Brooklyn to record Live in Studio.

Drums: 1980s Sonor
A. 5.5×14 snare
B. 1933 Slingerland Radio King snare
C. 8×12 tom
D. 9×13 tom
E. 14×14 floor tom
F. 16×18 floor tom
G. 18×18 floor tom
H. 18×20 bass drum

Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador tom and snare batters, Diplomat snare-sides, and Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter

Sticks: Vic Firth 7A nylon-tip, Zildjian brushes

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 22″ Oriental China Trash
2. 14″ 1950s hi-hats
3. 20″ 1930s K ride with rivets, owned by Tony Williams (with his signature on bottom) and given to Gibbs by Jim Keltner (with his signature on top)
4. 16″ Paper Thin crash
5. 20″ 1930s K ride with rivets
6. 20″ 1950s A ride with rivets (from Billy Higgins)
7. 15″ Custom Hybrid Trash crash
8. 22″ Swish Knocker
9. 13″ Re-Mix Jungle hi-hat top
10. 20″ prototype China
11. 22″ K Custom High Definition ride with rivets

Drums and cymbals modified by Stan Keyawa at the Pro Drum Shop in Hollywood, California