Music feature - Big band Brass in pocket

Gerry Gibbs' Thrasher Big Band is equal-parts swing orchestra and avant-garde ensemble

Drummer and bandleader Gerry Gibbs (left) performs with his Thrasher Big Band at Luna Fine Music Club. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Gerry Gibbs is hurting. In recent weeks he's suffered from overwhelming, mysterious chest pains, and his groin causes him so much aggravation that he can't carry his own gear into Luna Fine Music Club for a Wednesday night gig.

But Gibbs, a consummate jazz drummer and composer who also hosts a Friday evening show on KRTU 91.7 FM, seems to regain his health when he's on the Luna bandstand. It's a bit like watching an injured athlete running on adrenaline and pulling off feats that shouldn't be possible.

It helps that on this night Gibbs keeps time for his beloved Thrasher Big Band (taken from his longtime nickname, Thrasher), a 17-piece collective he put together a year ago as an homage to '70s big bands led by McCoy Tyner, Jaco Pastorius, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman, among others. It's also a reflection of his eclectic tastes, which range from Weather Report to Cecil Taylor to Billie Holiday. Luna has emerged as the home base for this jazz orchestra, hosting Thrasher Big Band gigs on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month (alternating with the club's Wednesday night jam sessions).

Taking the mic between songs, Gibbs, a skinny New York transplant with long salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail, plays the role of sardonic host, alternately teasing and praising the band, and doing it all with sufficient good humor that it's hard to tell the difference. When he sees three members of the audience leaving early, he turns to the band, and says in mock anger: "You're all fired!" Later, he says of the gig, "This is what would happen if we could get a rehearsal, but since most of these guys are strung out and the other guys are out looking for stuff, we haven't been able to."

To be sure, squeezing this band into one practice room is a logistical challenge, for reasons that have nothing to do with chemical cravings. Seven of the 17 band members are from Austin, and just about everyone, Gibbs included, has outside band commitments. Gibbs is quick to note, however, that contrary to his stage proclamations, the band does find time to rehearse.

The Thrasher Big Band duking it out at Luna Fine Music Club. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

"The band gets together and the guys from Austin car pool," he says. "It's pretty flattering. But it's really a band made up of the best players, not a clique, and guys don't take off very much. They don't want anybody to sub for them. They take their books home - which is apparently unusual for Texas musicians - and make notes in them."

Before he assembled Thrasher's lineup, Gibbs decided that his choices would not be based on local cliques or personal relationships, but purely on the skill level of each player. In some cases, that meant choosing Austin musicians over local players he'd originally considered.

"When I put the band together, I would have some guys say to me, 'Why him?' I'd say, 'Find me somebody who plays better in that chair, and I'll get 'em.' It just all breaks down when everybody realizes that they're sitting next to the best player; it makes them play better."

With a lineup consisting of five saxes, five trumpets, three trombones, Fender Rhodes electric piano, double bass, drums, and the sterling scat-heavy vocal contributions of Joan Carroll, Thrasher offers a reminder of what a powerhouse machine a big band can be, particularly when wedded to the kind of hip, post-bop charts Gibbs put together with his conductor, Adrian Ruiz.

Ruiz' muted trumpet also shines on a boisterous romp through the swing-era standard "Don't Be That Way." The band shifts effortlessly from such traditional fare to Gibbs' bolder material, including "When I Dream," a piece he wrote for legendary pianist McCoy Tyner. A driving tune colored by flute, soprano sax, and tuba, it gradually shifts from a light Latin pulse to brutally hard funk.

"As far as putting the music together, without Adrian, it would have never gotten done," Gibbs says. "I was working on a composition and he called and said, 'Let me come over and help you.' And he was so fast at penciling my ideas at the piano, and he could help me if I'd written something out of the range of a certain instrument.

"You get into some blocks, and if I was to get into a block, Adrian was very good at thinking how I would think. He made it his number-one priority. He has spent hundreds of hours, just sitting at a computer, with me sitting at a piano, dictating everything across to him."

Gerry Gibbs'
Thrasher Big Band
Wed, May 25
Luna Fine Music Club
6740 San Pedro
Among other things, the big-band project has also connected Gibbs to the legacy of his father, celebrated vibes player and bandleader Terry Gibbs. "When I decided to put the band together, I told my dad, and as a present, he gave me a lot of his Dream Band music. They were all Grammy-nominated albums. So that became a real incentive to put the band together. So when I started calling the guys, a lot of them were familiar with these charts."

The elder Gibbs also influenced the final configuration of the group's roster. After he saw Carroll sing during one of his visits to San Antonio, Terry provided his son with a set of arrangments specifically for her. When Gerry replied that Carroll wasn't a member of Thrasher, his father said: "I want her in your band."

At the band's most recent Luna performance, Carroll brought down the house by sharing a vocal duet with trombone virtuoso Ron Wilkins on "Four," followed by a swinging take on Steve Allen's "Playing The Field."

Gibbs' father also shared notes with Ruiz on the demands of big-band conducting, and the two men have become good friends over the last year. "Sometimes my dad has actually called him late on Wednesday night to find out how the night went for the band," Gibbs says. "He hasn't even called me, but he called him."

By Gilbert Garcia

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