self released, 2010, DD album, 53m 7s
£name your price
The entire fusion/ jazz dichotomy has always been a bit of a spurious one. Sure, there are acts that are very clearly fusion, such as Weather Report, or Tribal Tech, and those that are very obviously acoustic jazz, such as, well, any of the huge variety of famous and unknown, creative and cookie-cutter bands that feature double bass, drums, piano and one or two horns. However, where many jazz fans look at history and see Miles Davis summoning fusion from the ether around 1967, there were precedents. Monk Montgomery began playing electric bass with Lionel Hampton in 1951, for example, and there was an existing tradition of the organ trio, as led by Jimmy Smith, Larry Young or guitarist Grant Green, which consists of two electric instruments and drums. This second precedent is the most interesting to me in relation to Future Gibbon, because if you replace electric organ with electric piano, you get the ensemble recorded on Begin Tofu Rub.
The acoustic piano is such a badge of authenticity for jazz conservatives that it’s very common to apply the fusion label as soon as there’s a whiff of a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer, but I think that over forty years in, electric piano could be accorded a place at the table. For me the important distinctions between fusion and jazz lie in some stylistic aspects of texture and orchestration, and more importantly, in its methodology and priorities. Does improvisation serve the arrangement, or vice versa?
Obviously these kinds of distinction are incredibly fine and partial: many bands feature an acoustic line-up and a storm of complex ensemble writing in odd times (such as Dave Holland’s various ensembles), and the above mentioned Tribal Tech combined an idiomatic fusion sound with an uncompromisingly jazz methodology. But Future Gibbon are doing jazz with the instrumental resources they happen to have inherited, just as Wynton Marsalis does, as Chick Corea does, as John Coltrane did, and Stan Getz, and Dizzie Gillespie, and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Forgive me if I’m labouring the point, but I think it’s important to remember that jazz has always been a magpie.
This is clearly a question of balance, and degree, but to my ear, Future Gibbon’s sophisticated and complex arrangements are not ends in themselves. The limited, consistent instrumental palette signals that the playing is more important than the orchestration, and that the players would like us to listen to their interactions with their instruments and each other.
Isamu McGregor’s electric piano is the dominant voice on this recording, if only because he covers so much of the textural ground, providing bass, comping and melody, while the Frank Cogliano’s guitar comping often sounds, while far from superfluous, somewhat supplementary, and his linear playing is an episodic ingredient in contrast to McGregor’s continual presence. John Bishop on drums is rarely conspicuous, and as much because of this as in spite of it, is often the star of the show for the attentive listener. All that being said, I should hasten to emphasise that I’m discussing the individual players’ share of the aural territory, and decidedly not their apparent creative contribution.
Gone are the days when jazz musicians can simply turn up at the studio with a set of changes, blow through them a few times, and cash the cheque. Sure, some great albums got made on the sole strength of their contributors’ blowing, but it takes a little more effort nowadays to make something sound distinctive. The arrangements on Begin Tofu Rub are perfectly judged to the context, in that it is sometimes hard to tell when the ensemble is tightly scored, and when the feel is improvised, and above all, the transitions between the two circumstances are utterly seamless.
The material here is harmonically literate, but it is far from transgressive or demanding, and its most spiky dissonances read quite happily as alterations. There is a lot of the edgy dominant harmony that informs the hipster funk of someone like Herbie Hancock, and much of the blowing from both tonal instruments is bluesy and soulful, which makes the whole album pretty accessible, even, I would guess, to ears that are unused to the sounds of modern jazz. McGregor is often lyrically gestural in the right hand, in a manner reminiscent of that other fusion keyboard pioneer, Chick Corea, while his left smoothly articulates bubbling jazz funk basslines of the sort Paul Jackson made his own, and few other players have successfully imitated.
Cogliano has a pretty personal guitar sound: I find myself hoping he didn’t tweak his tone too much for this album, because I like the noise he makes and I’d recognise it if I heard it again. He has a soft, clear and naturally overdriven sound, that puts me in mind of John Scofield, although it is less perversely thin. Who he really reminds me of though, is someone else I mentioned above, Grant Green, for his ability to move seamlessly between soulful blues and a sophisticated interpretation of complex harmony, and indeed to make no distinction between the two. It’s, also like Green’s, a predominantly linear approach, which works well in this context.
Bishop has the uncanny capacity to pick up on all the complex stress patterns that arise in improvisation, and make the blowing sound like written material, simultaneously commenting on the top line, and serving it up with material for commentary. Drummers are often overlooked, the good ones more so than the poor ones, but I’ve spent some very pleasurable time listening to this album with my ears focussed on John Bishop.
This is, in all, a highly accomplished album, a hip (as we hip jazz fans like to say) and humorous statement that is also heartfelt and emotionally wide ranging. So many of the new acts that get a bit of buzz still seem to be conventional acoustic jazz ensembles, composed of skilled, well-intentioned and well educated players that somehow manage to be decidedly dull; Future Gibbon deserve some of that attention. They are operating in an established idiom, and their work rests on their considerable abilities as players, but within the boundaries they’ve set for themselves they exhibit a probing and intelligent creativity, and a soulful, moving capacity for nuanced self expression.