Drummer Frank Gibson Jr has been a feature of the New Zealand Jazz scene for over 40 years. He has accompanied and recorded with many of the greats and was one of a small cadre of Jazz musicians who remained visible at a time when Jazz was going through some very lean years. These days we are most likely to hear him performing with his own unit the ‘HardBopMobile’ or with long time friends like keyboardist Murray McNabb or Neil Watson.
I have seen this line up quite a few times and they offer up a solid programme of Hard Bop as the name suggests. While they sometimes play perennial favourites, they generally prefer to dig into the overlooked tunes by the likes of Joe Henderson, Horace Silver or Monk. With this material the band is on very firm ground. Because of their familiarity with the genre and the material, they are able to bring fresh interpretations to the tunes. Their approach is often surprisingly oblique.
Neil Watson is always adventurous on guitar and he has a joyfully quirky approach to tunes, while Cameron Allen (who is a well-respected saxophonist about town) approaches them from a more angular perspective. The remaining band member is the popular Ben Turua (bass) and this turned out to be his last CJC (Creative Jazz Club) gig as he left for Australia soon after.
The gig was heavy on Monk compositions which were explored and probed from every angle. It is not often that Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ is played; by a guitarist even less so. To take it further out they loosened up the vibe and gave it a New Orleans feel. This worked particularly well. Other Monk tunes such as ‘Brilliant Corners’ (why this is not done more is beyond me) and ‘Ask Me Now’ occupied much of the set material. They played Wes Montgomery’s ‘Jingles’, Ge Gee Gryce’s ‘Minority’ and a Sonny Sharrock tune ‘Little Rock’. The free guitarist Sonny Sharrock is seldom heard these days and more is the pity. Perhaps his hard edge and free fusion infused lines have faded with his passing? I detect Neil’s deft hand in this last choice as he has a great liking for Sharrock. Neil Watson also contributed a composition of his own and this probably confirms the rumour that he has been writing some new material of late.
Frank Gibson Jnr is New Zealand’s best known drummer as he has been playing and teaching for most of his life. He has accompanied numerous artists such as Milt Jackson, Emily Remler, Sonny Stitt, Joe Henderson, Randy Brecker, Slide Hampton, Mike Nock and the list goes on. He has also occupied the drum chair for many of Alan Broadbent’s recordings. Whether laying down sensitive brush work or powering an orchestra, Frank has long been a presence on the scene. He is a seasoned leader and it was in this role that he returned to the CJC with his ‘Hardbopmobile’ band. As leader he was able guide the proceedings without being overly dominant. He trusted his band to do the business and they responded in kind.
The ‘Hardbopmobile’ lineup is: Frank Gibson Jnr (leader, drums), Neil Watson (guitar), Ben Turua (double bass), Cameron Allen (tenor saxophone).
Neil and Frank have been playing together for some time and the ease with which they communicate on the band stand is translated into good musical outcomes. I noticed straight away that Neil was not playing his usual solid-body Fender, but he was stroking chords and runs out of a modern version of the D’Angelo 1947 arch-top. Man it looked beautiful, just lying on the piano during set-up.
The set list was mostly out of the Hardbop songbook but a few earlier placed numbers were tackled as well (‘Boplicity’ – Miles Davis). A spirited Wes Montgomery tune was played early on and Neil negotiated the changes and the octave chords in the best possible way. A straight out imitation would have sounded clichéd, but this was a respectful modern take on a classic sound. Like all gifted guitarists, he is able to negotiate complex tunes with apparent ease; dancing and leaning into the music as he delivers a storm of fresh ideas. This is wonderful to listen to, great to watch and but the very devil to photograph.
Two monk tunes were played: ‘Ask Me Now’ and ‘I Mean You’. This is where the tenor player Cameron Allen took the lead. In the former tune he took an angular approach, unravelling it as improvisers do and then diving deep inside the melody. I should probably have been aware of this tenor player before now, because he is very good. We appear to have a tradition of producing good saxophone players in New Zealand – getting wider recognition for them and finding them enough gigs is the real problem.
A couple of hard bop classics were played; Joe Henderson’s ‘Isotope’ and Horace Silvers ‘Senior Blues’. The band interpreted these tunes in their own way and to hear a ‘Hendrix’ like riff being mixed into ‘Senior Blues’ was as surprising as it was effective. I would also like to mention the bass player Ben Turua here. He took a few solos and above all he swung hard.