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CD Reviews: The Music of Jon Gibson

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Jon Gibson:

Jon Gibson must have learned the hard way to include the following disclaimer on his website:

Please note that this is the Jon Gibson known primarily to the world at large as a composer and multi-wind instrumentalist, who has also been affiliated with Philip Glass for many years — and not the other musical Jon Gibson of Christian music fame.

Now that we’ve cleared THAT up, this particular Jon Gibson is the only person who has performed in the world premieres of Terry Riley’s In C, Steve Reich’s Drumming, and Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass — the “Big Three minimalist trifecta, if you will. Many may not realize that Mr. Gibson is also a composer (and visual artist) in his own right. I’ve always been curious to hear Gibson’s own music, but his few recordings have always been notoriously out of print and/or impossible to find.

The other day, while slumming around in the tiny “20th Century” ghetto in the ever-dwindling classical section of Tower Records, I was amazed find two CD reissues of Jon Gibson’s Chatham Square recordings from the 1970s — a veritable holy grail of early minimalism! Knowing they would probably go out of print again as quickly as they reappeared, I quickly snatched them up (despite the hefty price tag — they’re on the import New Tone label from Italy).

Visitations I & II and Thirties was originally released in 1973, and if you are expecting to hear “minimalism” in the Philip Glass vein, this music might sound challenging and surprising at first. Dense with recorded sounds, rattling percussion, and extended sliding bamboo flute tones, Visitations sounds like some kind of field recording from a nature preserve on an alien planet. These pieces are lengthy and a little disturbing, but they reward your patience with a uniquely absorbing sonic experience (sort of like Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, only louder and scarier).

“Thirties (30’s)”, a bonus track not on the original album, is very different: it’s a pulsing, shifting, droning organ and percussion “jam” of sorts with sort of a laid back Krautrock-ish groove to it, believe it or not. (New Music luminaries Gavin Bryars and David Rosenboom happen to be among the many people beating rhythmically on various things in this live performance.)

Two Solo Pieces, the other Chatham Square reissue (from 1977), was included on Alan Licht‘s notorious list of obscure recordings in the debut issue of Halana magazine: the coveted Minimal Top 10. This is the most immediately “accessible” of these albums, and probably the best introduction to Jon Gibson’s music for the uninitiated. “Cycles” is for solo organ, and its slowly shifting harmonic textures may remind you of Charlemagne Palestine‘s epic solo pipe organ drones, only it’s much shorter and more “action-packed” (relatively speaking — very relatively speaking). “Untitled” (the second of the “Solo Pieces”) is for solo alto flute (a sadly neglected instrument) and it’s a captivatingly simple and lovely exploration of pure melody.

We also get three wonderful previously unissued bonus tracks: “Melody III” is another, more “busy” solo organ piece. “Melody IV, Part 1” is composed for a larger ensemble including brass and strings, with gorgeous tone colors and consonant harmonies overlapping and fading in and out — listening to it is a little like watching clouds slowly drifting above desert mesas. “Song 1” concludes the CD, and it’s a livelier, repetitive, almost Celtic-sounding piece for strings (featuring revered eccentric composer/performer/avant-disco producer Arthur Russell performing on cello).

I first heard a tantalizing sample of Gibson’s music when Criss X Cross #3 was included on the amazing collection, From the Kitchen Archives Vol. 1: New Music, New York 1979. Now, John Zorn’s alternately brilliant and maddening (but still a national treasure) Tzadik record label has issued a live concert (recorded at a cathedral in Paris in 1979) documenting a more substantial chunk of Gibson’s solo work. Criss X Cross #3 is there, along with #1 and #4, which are all performed on solo soprano saxophone. While the notes played are apparently derived from numerical systems (represented by that cool image on the cover of the CD, also by Jon Gibson), there is nothing mathematical or clinical sounding about this music. In fact, Criss X Cross sounds a little like a La Monte Young/Paul Desmond-ish hybrid with its jazzy intervals and loose improvisational rhythmic feel.

Also included is Equal Distribution #1 for “flute with harmonizer”, and, while at first it’s fun to hear the solo flute melody transformed into chords by this machine, it gets kind of old after a while (unfortunately, long before the 20 minute piece ends).

For me, the highlight of this concert is the opening track, Call, for solo alto flute (here’s that wonderful rare instrument again). This serene, organic, incantory piece is mysteriously captivating, weaving a hypnotic thread of melody that has an almost Native American character.

Uncovering the long lost music of Jon Gibson reminds us that there was more to the musical revolution now labeled as “minimalism” than the higher-profile works of Glass, Reich, Riley, and John Adams, and also how far most of these composers have drifted away from the stripped-down aesthetic of the movement’s early years. Jon Gibson’s subtle yet remarkable music reveals a searching, unique talent that blends composition and improvisation, electric and organic, rigid structure and freedom of choice, visual and audio, mathematics and spirituality (no, not THAT kind of “spirituality”… that’s the other Jon Gibson, remember?).

This is genuine, unaffected, beautiful music ripe for rediscovery… seek it out.

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