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Jazz Review

Riding a Vast Range With a Utility Vehicle

Constantly shifting, drummer Gerry Gibbs covers a lot of ground with an eclectic four on the floor.


You never know what to expect when Gerry Gibbs comes to town. The last time the Brooklyn-based drummer and son of vibraphonist Terry Gibbs was in Southern California, he organized a weighty combo that included not one but three keyboardists: Billy Childs, Brad Mehldau and Greg Kurstin.

This time through, Gibbs will work three ensembles (including one with four guitars), but it's doubtful that any will be as eclectic as the one that played Sunday at Steamers Cafe in Fullerton.

Featuring alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, Gibbs' quartet was designed for utility. Its keyboardist, Kurstin, played acoustic piano, organ and electric keyboard as well as melodica, trombone, electric guitar and tambourine. Its bassist, Pamelia, also played synthesizer and theremin, an electromagnetic sound machine played by waving of hands in the air around it.

While the theremin may be best known for adding spooky tones to the soundtracks of countless science-fiction movies of the 1950s, its string-like sound blended well with Blythe's alto. With all the combinations of instruments available, Gibbs' group often sounded bigger than a quartet and seemed to take on different identities for different numbers.

Gibbs is unselfish when featuring other artists in his groups. (His Qwest recording "The Thrasher" features saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of John Coltrane.) This appearance was no exception, with music from Blythe's Columbia recordings dominating the first set. A most distinctive saxophonist, Blythe's burrowing tone and ability to roam scales with abandon and establish tension with resonant overtones gave even the simplest themes touches of high drama.

His playing on "Misty," the only non-Blythe composition offered in the first set, was a model of feeling and insightful embellishment.

Kurstin added to the drama with his own solos, especially on acoustic piano. The keyboardist has a way of moving easily between musical periods, showing the dense, sometimes atonal ways of McCoy Tyner one moment, the stride of Fats Waller the next. His organ work added touches of grunge, and he added wiry tones from the berimbau, the large African plucked bow, to Gibbs' thumb piano on Blythe's "Odessa."


Gibbs may be unselfish when sharing the spotlight with featured artists, but his drums, hung with assorted bells, gongs and other noisemakers, controlled the proceedings. A strong drummer who favors polyrhythms and hard-to-the-beat accents, Gibbs moved easily from the light feel of "Misty" to a hard-funk version of Blythe's signature tune, "Bush Baby," which was enlivened with Kurstin's electric guitar and bass from Pamelia's mini-synthesizer.

While the group's sound seemed unbalanced at times, with the drums dominating, there were moments when the unlikely blend of alto sax, theremin, organ and percussion made a fresh noise, one not usually heard from jazz quartets.

Gibbs will feature a more traditional sound when he plays here Friday with a quartet that includes saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Andy Simpkins and pianist Tom Ranier (who was in the audience for this performance) and again on May 23 when the drummer performs with guitarists Sid Jacobs, Larry Koonse, Anthony Wilson and Mike Hoffmann.

* Gerry Gibbs plays Friday at 8:30 p.m. with Tom Ranier, Bob Sheppard and Andy Simpkins at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. $4 cover, two-drink minimum. Also May 23 at 8 p.m. with Sid Jacobs, Larry Koonse, Anthony Wilson and Mike Hoffmann. $4 cover, 2 drink minimum. (714) 871-8800.

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