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Michael Gibbs And Bill Frisell Team Up On A New Big Band Record


Jazz composer and arranger Michael Gibbs was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and has lived mostly in England, with time out for stints as a student and teacher in Massachusetts. One of his students at Boston's Berklee College in the 1970s was guitarist Bill Frisell. Now Gibbs and Frisell team up on a new big band record. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's the album some Frisell fans have been wishing for.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bill Frisell, twanging the blues on Benny Goodman's "Benny's Bugle." Some Frisell fans grumble that with all his rootsy Americana projects, he doesn't record much jazzy jazz these days. For them, there's the new CD "Michael Gibbs & The NDR Bigband Play A Bill Frisell Setlist." It's Gibbs's pick of songs the guitarist wrote or recorded with Frisell as one guest soloist. The other is drummer Jeff Ballard, who really lights a fire under that German radio orchestra. This is Bill Frisell's "Freddy's Step."


WHITEHEAD: Guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Jeff Ballard with the NDR Bigband. You can tell arranger Michael Gibbs likes Carla Bley's wit and dry romanticism. He also loves the densely transparent harmony of composer Gil Evans - a sound like all the notes of a scale hanging in still air.


WHITEHEAD: Michael Gibbs will tip his hat to his heroes, but he has his own ideas, and he gives Frisell, the composer, the attention he deserves and attentive readings. Gibbs's arrangement of "Monica Jane" echoes the guitarist's pleasantly sour harmony. The moaning brass makes a smart connection to Charles Mingus's ballads.


WHITEHEAD: The NDR Bigband has a few capable, if not always memorable, soloists. Most of the improvised thrills come from the American guests. As with most big bands, the horns will fall away to give a soloist a clear shot. Here's Frisell on Lee Konitz's "Subconscious-Lee" based on "What Is This Thing Called Love?"


WHITEHEAD: Bill Frisell can be a creatively disruptive force in an ensemble - the Thelonious Monk of the guitar. Engaged as he is here, he barely plays that delightful trickster role. Sitting in someone else's orchestra, he behaves like a proper guest, even though they're playing his setlist.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Michael Gibbs & The NDR Bigband Play A Bill Frisell Setlist" on the Cuneiform label. On Monday's show we'll speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner, who's been pouring over the tens of thousands of documents released in recent years from and about the Nixon White House. His new book is "One Man Against The World." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.