The Invisible Artist
Arrangers in Popular Music (1950-2000)
by Dr. Richard Niles


Michael Gibbs is unique among those considered here in so many ways. He was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1937. Many of the arrangers considered here came from jazz backgrounds but worked primarily in pop. Michael Gibbs is a respected jazz composer who came to pop almost as an afterthought. Writing influential works for jazz legends such as Gary Burton, Jaco Pastorius, Chick Corea, Carla Bley, and Stan Getz, he has released ten acclaimed albums under his own name.(1)

Other distinguished jazz colleagues include Kenny Wheeler, John Surman, Alan Skidmore, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Steve Swallow, Charlie Mariano, Philip Catherine, and Tony Coe. As a jazz composer he was at the forefront of the so-called ‘fusion’ movement of rock with jazz working with ‘rock’ musicians such as Chris Spedding, Jack Bruce, and John Marshall in his jazz ensembles.

The Encyclopedia Of Popular Music comments, “Gibbs was among the first writers to convincingly incorporate rock elements into orchestral jazz, and shared with one of his major influences, Gil Evans, the ability to organically integrate carefully arranged and scored frameworks with the most ‘outside’ improvisations. Gibbs is both a meticulous arranger and a frugal composer. Everything he delivers is carefully thought through and not a note is wasted.”

His close association with Gary Burton(2) began when they were fellow students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Although the combination of jazz and rock is generally attributed to Miles Davis with his album In A Silent Way (1969), Burton points out that he recorded the first “fusion” album, Tennessee Firebird, in 1966, performing with country musicians. He followed this record with Duster (1967), Lofty Fake Anagram (1967), and Genuine Tong Funeral (1968), containing rock elements and compositions by Gibbs. Burton has been a champion of Gibbs’ compositions throughout his career.

Gibbs says that he approached his work in the pop/rock field no differently than his approach to jazz. I asked how he first became interested in music.

“I started playing piano in Rhodesia at the age of seven. I was learning basic classical but my mother always played what she called ‘syncopation,’ a kind of gentle stride piano. This of course led to jazz and pop. About the age of thirteen I decided to quit the classical teacher and the grading system and go to a jazz teacher. He had me listen to Louis Armstrong and ‘modern’ jazz like Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Dave Brubeck, and Oscar Peterson. This music was complicated to me but with his guidance I started to get interested in it.

“Music was still a hobby to me, not something to be taken seriously. When I failed my science studies at the age of seventeen, my Dad asked me if I wanted to go back and repeat it. But by that time I had been hanging out with jazz musicians from America who brought records and magazines like Downbeat and Metronome. I discovered that you could study jazz in America at a place called the Westlake School of Music. That’s what I decided to do and that’s when music became serious.

“That was 1955 and in ’56 Charlie Parker died. I had never listened to him before, but with his death there were lots of programs about him, and I realised there was a lot more to jazz than what I was hearing on the West Coast. Then I started considering a school in Boston called the Shillinger House, which became the Berklee School of Music. Coincidentally, Westlake folded, and by this time my interests had expanded widely. So I saved money for two years and in January 1959 I went to Berklee.

“It was just an amazing, wonderful experience. I arrived on a Friday. I’d come from Zimbabwe where the difference between summer and winter is about ten degrees. Fortunately, I traveled from London where I had bought an overcoat.

“I met Bob Share, the second in command of the school, and he said, ‘There’s a recording session today. You can watch if you like.’ So there I was with all these musicians recording jazz, and Herb Pomeroy(3) was there! But that weekend I walked around and heard church bells tolling and I became so homesick I was ready to go home.

“Fortunately, I stuck it out ‘til Monday and as soon after I enrolled in school I found myself singing Four Freshman arrangements. I thought, ‘These people are serious! This isn’t just for fun.’ I was actually singing this jazzy four-part harmony. It was so thrilling.

“I met Gary Burton in my second year, 1960, and it’s one relationship that has lasted a lifetime. There were only 250 students at the school and there was a little clique of Herb Pomeroy’s best students. Each year Herb’s student band made an album, and I got to play in it and do arrangements for it. It gave me visibility and tremendous confidence. And when I left Berklee it gave me tremendous credentials to begin work.

“While Gary was a student, he got his first record contract and he asked me to write for it. Tommy Flanagan, Phil Woods, and Joe Morello were on it. I was still a student, and this was an incredible break and really helped me. I was still trying to be a jazz trombone player. But Gary saw that my ability was limited and seeing I had more ability as a writer, he encouraged my writing. In fact he formed a band with trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone. I lasted two rehearsals when he replaced me with a much better player.

“But he didn’t just cast me aside, because he got me writing for the band, and I found satisfaction in that. I didn’t give up the trombone, but I stopped expecting to be the next J.J. Johnson. That’s why Gary is so great, because he can see these things in people. He got several record dates then, and for years after I left Berklee he continued to ask me to write. Later, pieces I had written for him became the basis of compositions for my own big band.

“My student days were the early ‘sixties and I went back to teach at Berklee in the 70s. The great thing is to see my Berklee students, like yourself, now doing so well—and some of them are even giving me work!”

I asked how Gibbs had begun doing pop work. “I have to make a living! I still like a lot of pop, although it’s not life or death for me. But I do enjoy it. I first got into it in the late Sixties when Gary Burton was doing a gig in London. He gave me a Beatles record, and a record player to play it on! Obviously I knew the Beatles music, but it was his endorsement of it. He said, ‘When you’re listening to this song, check out the pedal point!’ We talked about the music in the same way we talked about jazz. So the line between pop and jazz, or any music was always blurred. And I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve known Bill Oddie(4) for years, and he’s a great pop fan. Through him I started listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Band, along with my own jazz. I think my first pop gig was writing instrumental backgrounds for a Uriah Heep record.”


Gibbs was my composition teacher at The Berklee College of Music (1974-1975). He taught there until 1983, introducing students to his methodology that included such techniques as polytonality, polymetrics, and polyrhythmics. He discussed ways to create tonal color rather than harmony. He showed us that timbre itself was a compositional element.

Many of his pieces give players freedom within the composed work. This freedom goes beyond simply improvising based on chord scales. Players are sometimes instructed to hold notes for the length of their individual breath. Gibbs creates “blankets of sound” played so softly as to have no apparent attacks. Some of his pieces have no meter indicated and players play note values as they feel them. Where it would be normal practice to write a concerted background pad for a section phrasing together, Gibbs might instruct one player to play his part in a more expressive manner. Players in a section are instructed to crescendo and decrescendo independently rather than as a section.

Gibbs was influenced in this by the methodology of Twentieth Century composers, Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and Charles Ives.(5) He was also influenced by the work of Olivier Messiaen.(6)

Contemporary composers often use scales as a basis for composition. Messiaen’s “Seven Modes of Limited Transposition” are given below, as this is relevant to Gibbs’ use of the concept in a (perhaps unexpected) pop/jazz context. By using this type of technique, Gibbs was indeed carrying on in the “Third Stream” tradition of Gunther Schuller.

Example 159. Olivier Messiaen’s Seven Modes of Limited Transposition
–from Michael Gibbs lecture to Berklee students (1974)


Gibbs explained, “Most of my gigs come through the producer, and Elton John was through Narada Michael Walden. Elton did an album of duets with various artists and each duet had different producers. The one I did with Narada was “True Love” with Kiki Dee. Because Narada was coming to London to do it and I was his guy, I got the gig to do the strings. I didn’t actually work directly with Elton, but he was there hanging out.”

Gibbs kept things very simple throughout and the strings do no more than provide pads and play the melody doubled by glockenspiel. But there is a glimpse of the Gibbs predilection for instrumental textures in the intro as strings trill and swell and flutes flutter in the Lydian mode.

Example 160. “True Love” (Cole Porter) Arranged by Michael Gibbs


Gibbs worked with Elton John again with producer George Martin. This record, The Glory Of Gershwin features many well-known pop artists performing Gershwin’s songs with virtuoso harmonica player Larry Adler.

Gibbs’ experience shows that there can be difficult situations, even when working with the most experienced and capable producer. “George is not only a producer, but also an arranger—extremely professional and so together. It was awesome to watch him at work because he did so little. You were unaware of him functioning, yet the end result was totally as a result of him.”

One might think that if a producer hires a talented and experienced team, the end result was assured. “Sometimes,” Gibbs said, “but not without guidance. I remember a record made years before I went to Berklee, where they put together all the winners of the Downbeat poll—Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, and Miles Davis—and it was very flat. It needs someone like George Martin to make all that talent come alive.

“Unfortunately, I had only one meeting with George and Elton, and one with George and Sting. In fact, they had the meeting and I stood in the background taking notes. George and Elton had the discussion as to how the song would go. Elton was quite ill so they quickly agreed to do ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ as a medley. Now, I don’t know whether I misread the instructions, but ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ has a long verse. I still don’t remember any discussion about leaving the verse out. So I did the arrangement with the verse.

“We got to the session and Elton hadn’t prepared it. George, who is usually unflappable, was, well—flapped! ‘Why did you do the verse?’ he said angrily. I mumbled something to the effect of ‘Why not?’  Elton was so cool about it and saved my ass. He’s not just a ‘pop star’ he’s a capable musician. He just said, ‘Don’t worry. Give me the words. I’ll learn it.’ So he got a bit of paper, scribbled down the words and we did it, and George calmed down. Then Larry came in and said, ‘Oh I’m so glad you did the verse!’  And I thought, Well, of course! I only know the song with the verse! So there was George’s idea, Elton’s idea, my idea, and Larry’s idea—and none of them were really mixing.”

In contrast to his previous work with the Beatles, Martin would appear to have had the clear intention of making a traditional and rather unadventurous record. Gibbs therefore keeps the arrangement of this medley very simple indeed, especially if one compares the writing to his compositional work. But there are two places where Gibbs has written passages that demonstrate his own techniques.

As this record must feature Adler, Gibbs has included a number of interludes and answering phrases for his harmonica. The following example works well with the strings. Adler’s harmonica style is defined by his phrasing—sliding into notes. Gibbs writes a line for him accompanied by violins that compliment this with a rising flurry of notes derived from the F semitone-wholetone scale over an F7 chord. This small example contains the following elements:

  • Adler’s swoop upwards
  • The contrast of Adler’s eighth-note triplet against the flurry of notes in the strings against the quarter-note pulse of the rhythm section.
  • The use of the polychord: a D triad over an F 7th chord.
  • The use of a scale that would be refreshing to those not versed in jazz, the pop audience this record was intended for.

With this combination of techniques Gibbs takes the listener up one dynamic level into the next verse very effectively.

Example 161. “Someone To Watch Over Me” (Gershwin/Gershwin)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs

At the end of the second part of the medley, “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” Gibbs shows some of his particular style with an unusual ear-catching ending.

Example 162. “Our Love Is Here To Stay” (Gershwin/Gershwin)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs

As Elton John sings the tonic Eb, Gibbs constructs a cadence made up of quarter-note triplets resolving to a tonic Eb major 7th chord. This two bar section is notable for the following reasons:

Once again, Gibbs uses the quarter-note triplets as a metric contrast to the (rather tame) swing played by the rhythm section throughout. By leaving out the downbeat (because it is already being sung by John) Gibbs ends up with eight quarter-note triplets.

The eight quarter-note triplets are constructed by Gibbs as four descending groups of two notes, intervals of a perfect 5th – F# to B, D to G, Bb to Eb, and a repetition of the first F# to B an octave lower. Each two-note group is transposed downwards by a major 3rd. This is what we might call an “interval of limited transposition,” as after three transpositions it repeats itself one octave lower. The first note of each two-note group outlines the triad F#, D and Bb—a Bb7#5 chord. This functions harmonically as the dominant of the tonic Eb we started on and intend to land on.

The orchestration of these notes is important to the effect Gibbs creates. Using a “cool” sound much favored by Brazilian composers(7), the triplets are played by alto flute and vibraphone in unison. In addition, the notes are doubled by the string section playing the triplets as a “pyramid.” In a pyramid, each note is played and held. By the eighth note, all eight notes are sounded and heard together forming a vertical cluster.

It is further relevant to point out that those six notes (ignoring the octave doublings) form an unusual pentatonic scale based on Bb. This pentatonic scale is a “mode of limited transposition” (although not one of Messaien’s seven modes), as the notes will repeat themselves every time they are transposed up or down by the interval of a major 3rd. Perhaps because of the time it took for Gibbs to conceive of the structure of this two-bar ending, he admitted he was not totally prepared for the session himself.

“In the medley there needed to be a bridge connecting the two songs and it was 5 o’clock and there was a cab waiting to take me to the studio and I hadn’t written it yet. I had a week to do these four arrangements but I need lots of time. I know some people can do four arrangements in a night, but I’m not one of those people.

“But I’d sketched something out, knowing there were other songs they could do before mine. I showed the sketch to George and he wasn’t too pleased that I hadn’t done it! But at the end of the first session he took some time to sit at the piano and go over what I’d done while we shared a whiskey together. He was very warm and nice, but on a later string date he wrote the interlude himself and it was nothing like what I’d written.”

It is worth noting here that Gibbs comes to pop, not as a studio savvy commercial arranger, but as a jazz composer. He is asked to do pop records because artists and producers admire his work. But often, the truth is that they actually do not want his work. They want what they need to sell their record.

Where a commercial arranger is regularly producing work to a very tight deadline, Gibbs, unused to pop constraints, needs “lots of time.” Where commercial arrangers train to work quickly, generally writing what they know from experience will work commercially, Gibbs will consider many artistic options before deciding to write his score. There were even more problems on these sessions, but the blame did not lie with Gibbs.

“Sting came along and we did ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ and another song. We hadn’t even finished playing the other song down with the orchestra when Sting stopped us and refused to do it. Mark Knopfler was going to play guitar on that one, but I had never had the opportunity to meet Mark prior to the recording session. He’d learned the first chord as D7 and I’d written A minor 7 to D7, a subtle difference. He said, ‘No, I can’t possibly do this. Everything I’ve been practicing won’t work with your arrangement.’ I thought, why are we having this discussion at this stage? So, that song was OUT!”

Gibbs was pleased that “Sting loved ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ which I arranged for big band. In fact he came out to the studio three times to say, ‘Yeah! Great arrangement!’ He asked me to extend the ending I’d written so he could sing a note a little longer. He was really getting into the piece. Then he asked, ‘Why didn’t you do the verse?’ And I said, ‘Did you want the verse?’ and he said, ‘Of course!’ George joined in and said, ‘Why on earth would you NOT want the verse?’ I didn’t know where I went wrong! I got the opposite message on this song.

“Guy Barker was in the trumpet section. He quickly came down, put a mute in his trumpet and John Horler was on piano. These are great musicians and they worked out the verse in less than a minute. Problem solved.”

This up-tempo arrangement shows Gibbs writing in a style informed by both Dixieland jazz and Duke Ellington. In the extended ending, Gibbs uses an interesting four-note motif lasting three beats, displaced over the 4/4 meter so that it attacks on a different beat in the bar each time:

  • The ‘and’ of the first beat.
  • The ‘and’ of the fourth beat.
  • The ‘and’ of the third beat.
  • The ‘and’ of the second beat.

But by the fifth repeat of the motif it occurs in the same place as the first—the ‘and’ of the first beat. This relates to Messiaen’s techniques in that this three-beat motif (shown below) has a limited number of possible placements in the bar.

Example 163. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (G. Gershwin/I. Gershwin)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs

Gibbs discussed other problems on these sessions.

“On the first song, if Sting and I had even had ten minutes at the piano prior to go over my ideas with him prior to going in the studio, he would either have had me change it or at least tell me then not to bother doing it. But I didn’t have the opportunity to volunteer my ideas, and I just went ahead and did it because I could see George was in a tremendous hurry. He had this album to do and each track with a different artist—famous people coming in and out. He had to keep his focus on Larry and didn’t have time to do all the arranging himself. George’s son Giles was even doing a lot of the production work.”

This exemplifies an important diplomatic lesson for arrangers. The producer will always consider the artist above all of their colleagues and the quality of the music itself. It appears that Martin was not only doing that, but wanted to be seen to be doing it. When Elton John hadn’t prepared the verse to “Someone To Watch Over Me”, Martin did not take Gibbs to one side and quietly question him. He criticized Gibbs in front of the artist (and presumably the whole studio). When Sting said he wanted to do the verse to “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Martin again wanted to be seen to be defending the opinions of his artist.

In fact all these problems were created by the fact that Gibbs was not given the opportunity to meet with John or Sting before he began work. It would have made sense for Martin to make sure that such preproduction meetings took place. However, as Gibbs noted, Martin was in a hurry and budgetary considerations meant there simply was no time for such meetings. Unfortunately, this not only created angst for the arranger and artists, it also wasted valuable time in the studio.


When I mentioned Whitney Huston, Gibbs laughed. “I never even met her! Whitney was coming in the next day and I said, ‘Can I come in and listen?’ The answer was ‘Absolutely not!’

“I did about four songs for Narada, and whenever I did arrangements for him, I was always the second to last thing he did, before the vocal. He used Jerry Hey to arrange all the jazzy horns and disco strings, but I did the orchestral stuff—what Narada calls ‘celestial.’

“He really trusted me and seldom ever told me what to do. He had a nice way of putting it. ‘Do your sweet thing!’ If he ever disagreed with something I’d written, he’d always do it in such a nice way. He’d look at me with a smile, saying something jovial like, ‘Do you REALLY mean that?’ He was so nice about it that I’d happily take things out or change things.

“The song was ‘One Moment In Time,’ the song she sang for the 1988 Olympics. Narada wanted The London Symphony Orchestra and only wanted strings. But the Orchestra insisted that he hire more than fifty players to allow him to use the Orchestra’s name. So we used fifty-one strings.”

Sometimes arrangers are given tracks to overdub on that are already at an advanced stage of production.

“Narada sent me the track and there wasn’t a fraction of an inch of space among the synthesizers for me to write anything. It wasn’t just synths he wanted to take off and replace with strings. He was keeping them! It was good stuff. So I called and told him that the only thing I could do is copy what he done on synths and record the strings over them. The only thing I found of my own to do was write a counter-line over the piccolo trumpet at the end, and he said, ‘Go ahead and do it!’”

Unfortunately, this counter-line and most of this fifty-one-piece string section is virtually lost in a cacophonous wash of synthesizers and digital reverb. Arrangers are completely at the mercy of the producer in this respect, and this situation is very common. The production sound used here also uses programmed drums with a very artificial-sounding reverb. The entire production now sounds decidedly dated.


Gibbs warmed to the subject of working with singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. “I loved that project. I met Joni through Jaco Pastorius(8), and he had already done several projects with her. I played five orchestral pieces of mine to Jaco and he liked them. I had already arranged and conducted for his first album and we were friends.

“Jaco had been showing Joni a few musical things and she was so taken by the way it had affected her. She found she was improvising more. She had about a half an hour of one piano improvisation on tape that she edited down to about eight minutes, with a song on either side of it and a vamp at the end. It was a sixteen-minute track. She said she’d had won a Grammy for a track that Tom Scott(9) had done an orchestral arrangement for and wanted to do something like it again.

“Jaco said, ‘You’ve gotta get Mike Gibbs,’ and Joni said, ‘Who?’ But in those days, she was very influenced by Jaco. Their relationship was such that if he suggested something, she did it. I got the phone call and flew to L.A. for a meeting.

“I discussed my thoughts with Joni. The song was called ‘Paprika Plains’ and I told her I’d just flown over the Rockies and had a sense of plains. I was thinking of paprika—it’s hot and red. I told her ‘I know how to get the sound of plains—a sort of Aaron Copland-y texture. But I’m still wondering how to get this red color.’ Joni turned to her producer and said, ‘This is the right guy for the track,’ because I wasn’t talking in technical terms, I was speaking in colors. So we immediately had a good rapport.”

This last comment is significant because it is often the case that artists and producers make their choice of arranger based on personal rapport rather than musical expertise. Fortunately for Ms. Mitchell, she was getting a musical colleague who was both emotionally sensitive and musically accomplished.

“We recorded in New York. What she wanted was that the orchestra only accompany the piano solo. What I actually did was have the orchestra creep in at the end of the first song section, play during the piano solo and creep out during the last section of song. Wayne Shorter(10) and Jaco and drums entered in the last section and I had the orchestra play something they played.”

In the previously considered work Gibbs was working on music with a strict commercial imperative. With this arrangement we see Gibbs able to express his personal style as an equal artistic collaborator with Joni Mitchell, whose focus has always been on the creative aspects of her art.

He “creeps in” with some very effective counter melodies echoing her melodic statements. It is no accident that Gibbs chooses celli for these melodies, contrasting and never conflicting with Mitchell’s alto voice. What Gibbs refers to as an “Aaron Copeland-y” texture is exemplified by the voicing that ends this first section. One of the key elements of American composer Copeland’s work was the influence of folk music, including cowboy songs and revivalist hymns. This voicing, a low, tonic C major chord is voiced in an “open” manner with a fourth at the top containing the 9th of the scale. Many of Mitchell’s piano voicings feature this voicing and sometimes only the fourth in the top two voices.

Example 164. “Paprika Plains” (Joni Mitchell)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs

When Mitchell sings what may be perhaps seen as the “hook” of the song, Gibbs creates a powerful punctuation using tympani, a crashing Chinese cymbal, and fortepiano attacks of the tremolo strings.

Example 165. “Paprika Plains” (Joni Mitchell)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs

This attack is repeated and followed by a C major voicing lasting roughly twenty-three bars of an implied ¾ meter. This very wide voicing using strings, French Horns, and woodwinds has players crescendo and decrescendo at different times, creating an emotive, undulating effect. Gibbs explained how he achieved this.

“I orchestrated a pure C triad to be as comfortably resonant in each instrumental grouping, strings, horns, etc. Only the flutes had an added D natural. When the orchestra got to that chord and obeyed the fermata, I gave a gentle slow sweep of my conductor’s arm from left to right as I looked at the orchestra, and asked them to crescendo slightly as my baton approached them and decrescendo as it left them. And thus was created an undulating orchestral triad—like the surface of a still-ish sea!”

Gibbs accompanies Mitchell’s piano solo using various orchestral elements such as oboe, harp, flutes, tympani, horns, and high string voicings. He has had to decipher and reflect Mitchell’s often non-functional harmony and non-standard voicings. The following example shows a pan-diatonic approach using voicings in fourths.

Example 166. “Paprika Plains” (Joni Mitchell)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs

Mitchell specifically asked for Gibbs to orchestrate behind this piano solo. What this implies is that Mitchell knew that her improvisations would be more acceptable to listeners with the “significance” this orchestration would add. Without the way Gibbs clarified the melodic, harmonic, and dynamic content of this solo, it must have been Mitchell’s opinion that listeners might have lost interest as she wandered, however interestingly, through an eight-minute, free-form solo of this nature. If she did feel this, she was most certainly right.

Gibbs continues to accompany Mitchell as she returns to sing. Gibbs commented, “It was very intriguing. I’ve done a lot of arranging for singers and never found myself listening to the words very much. I’ve always gone with the emotion of the performance rather than the words. But her words demanded to be listened to. There was no way I could not listen to the words. I mean each word spoke so strongly. I watched her working. She would sing a song three to five times and create a final performance by making a composite from these tracks, choosing one word from one take and the next word from another. I was amazed and it was a big turnaround for me, a growing experience. And then I listened to all her previous albums and saw that her work is really strong.”

At one point Gibbs uses a septuplet run that echoes the lyric with an emotive “sizzling” string line as Mitchell sings, “eyes on fire.” This is yet another example of the arrangement being directed by the lyric (a concept echoed by Jimmie Haskell and Barry Manilow).

167. “Paprika Plains” (Joni Mitchell)
Arranged by Michael Gibbs



On pop records, commercial considerations are of prime importance and purely musical considerations are far down the list. In music designed to sell products and services, commercial considerations are the only considerations.

In the world of music for television commercials, the arranger/composer must follow a brief provided by many non-musical people. These would include the producer, any number of people from the advertising agency, and any number of representatives of the client who has hired the agency. It may also include the wife, girlfriend, plumber, or daughter of any of the above.

They all have different opinions about what melody or musical sound will sell their product. Even though they believe otherwise, that opinion is utterly subjective and based on their individual taste. I have worked on close to 500 jingles and have never had the luxury of being asked to follow such opinions of less than two individuals. Many of them required me to follow conflicting briefs provided by many more people.

As noted previously, Michael Gibbs is not a typical commercial arranger. His artistic sensitivity makes it difficult for him to work in an environment wholly driven by financial considerations.

“I have no rules for arranging, but my relationship to the material is the source of my arrangements. Commercial considerations are the producer’s job and I try to incorporate the producer’s input. But even if a producer says he wants a Wagnerian sound or whatever, I still have to relate to the music in my own way. I analyze my own reaction to the song. I think that’s why I’m not a producer!

“Regardless of the style of the project, if I get to the studio and it’s either not what I want or not what the producer wants, I always fix it quickly. I get the producer to tell me what’s wrong. If it’s too loud, I soften it. If it’s too high, I lower it. I just look at the score and say, ‘O.K. trombones tacit from bar 28 to 35 and flutes play down the octave.’ And it’s fixed in less than a minute.

“I don’t do many jingles but I did have one nightmare jingle session in New York, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t fix it. There was another arranger there in the studio waiting to do the next song, a contemporary of mine, and he was positively gleeful. He said, ‘It’s so good to see somebody else in this position!’

“With this jingle it was several layers of producers, all wanting to have a say. All of their opinions were coming from a ‘money place’ rather than a ‘musical place’, and I didn’t know how to think. I couldn’t connect. Originally, I got a fairly clear brief from the producer. But in the studio, the communication from the client to the producer to me wasn’t clear.

“Actually, the producer was an ex-student of mine and 15 years later he’s still doing jingles, so I suppose he knows what he’s doing. But I don’t!”


What does Gibbs do when he receives a song to arrange?

“My first question is, if it arrives today do they want it done tomorrow or next week? If it’s next week, I listen to it twice as soon as I get it and then I do nothing for a day or two to let it simmer. If they want it tomorrow, I start working it out, but I still give it an hour. I need to give it space to do its own thing in my head. I’ll remember something I want to listen to and I steal a bit from somebody else.

“I gradually get ideas and then sketch it on three staves. That way I have room for the melody, chords, my ideas, bass lines, and lower stuff. I sketch out the whole tune as it is on the backing track. Some ideas are immediate, like the intro or pads or a counter-line. With the whole thing barred out, I begin to see the shape and know I need high strings here and brass there. Now it’s a skeleton and I start putting meat on the skeleton.

“Once I know what I’m going to do, I go to full score. I have copyists here and in America. If I’ve got a week, it’s a luxury. Two days is normal. One day, well, I’ll do what I can. I often ask for a harp if I have strings, especially for the change of key. I know it’s overdone but the reason tricks like this are overdone is because they work so well!

“I do like trying to find a new way to do the obvious. With Narada I was always pushing the high note higher. Once I had the violins playing a high Ab, an octave above the Ab four ledger lines above the treble clef. Narada finally said, ‘Michael! What are you doing?’ There were two of them in the chart and he took one out but allowed me the other one.

“In the film world they sometimes ask to hear something before the session. I let directors know the limitations of my home studio early in a project. I just have one keyboard. I once had a director reject a theme when he heard me play it on piano, but he liked it when I played it to him using a string sound. Different directors have different musical abilities. I usually get by without demoing, but I’m always ready if it’s necessary. It depends on the project. The last film I did, the director came to the house on his own and I played him themes at the piano and described what I was going to do.”

Does Gibbs himself think there is a “Mike Gibbs style”? The following example was provided by Gibbs to prove that other musicians clearly think so.

“I’m told there is a Gibbs style. I did two albums for Jan Akkerman. I wrote for three saxes, and I brought Jim Odgren with me from Boston as the soloist. On the plane I told Jim the other two sax players were Michael Brecker and Howard Johnson, and he got really nervous. I love Jim’s sound and I hadn’t asked specifically for Brecker, but he’d been booked.

“On the session, he wasn’t there and Lou Marini(11) was there subbing for him until Mike arrived a half-hour later. By that time we were already into recording. He sat down and started playing the chart, and I stopped because I’d heard a wrong note on his part. He said, ‘Oh, I just thought that was a Mike Gibbs note!’ He didn’t question the note because my reputation is that there are some strange sounds.

“I think of my style as a band that sounds slightly out of tune with notes that are considered ‘wrong notes.’ So I look for ways to do that. That session was over 20 years ago, but on my most recent album, I did an African-type tune that’s very triadic. I was looking for a way to thicken it, like putting corn flour into soup—you don’t change the taste, you just thicken it up. There was lots of doubling, only three notes on every chord, and I had a big band. So I tried things like scoring low instruments high and vice versa, but it still wasn’t enough. I finally found that adding the fourth degree of the scale worked. By having only one instrument play a Bb on an F major triad, I managed to thicken it up without changing ‘diatonicness’ of the basic chord sound. Now this was just for this one song—it’s not a ‘trick’ I use often. I found the way to do it for that song. But I’ve been doing things like this for thirty years.

“Now to some ears this is a ‘wrong note.’ I’ve been doing this tune for years now with different bands and the note is usually in the French horn part. I say to them, ‘Don’t be frightened of the note. Just belt it out.’ But young players are so sophisticated today that they don’t even question it.”

The reason the “wrong” note is placed in the French horn part has to do with timbre. Duke Ellington always instructed his orchestras that if they were playing the bottom note of a minor second interval within a voicing, they should play it softer than the note of the player above them. If it is played at the same volume the voicing will sound brash and dissonant. If it is played softer, the voicing will sound rich and “lush.” Experienced jazz players know this and will follow this procedure as a matter of course.

In a jazz big band, the French horn has a naturally softer timbre than the trumpet, saxophones, and trombones. By putting the “wrong” note in the French horn part, it will automatically allow the “right” note to dominate. To use a food analogy, Ellington and Gibbs do not want to add so much curry to the “sauce” that it obliterates the taste of the food.

What is dissonance, anyway?

The definition of dissonance is open to question, but most listeners would identify dissonance in certain intervals or combinations of tones. These would include minor seconds (b9 intervals) and notes outside of the chord scale of the moment. The reason for this is not some sort of musical ultra-conservatism, but the science of acoustics based on the capability of the human ear. The easiest-to-hear harmonics of the harmonic series are what are traditionally perceived as consonant sounds. A fundamental tone produces harmonics of an octave, a 5th, another octave, and then a major 3rd. By the seventh harmonic we get a b7 interval. Higher harmonics become increasingly impossible to hear (unless you are a dog). Perhaps that is why intervals such as b5 (the 11th harmonic), b6 (the 13th harmonic) and b9 (the 17th harmonic) are considered dissonant. These notes are simply farther away from tones that seem “natural” to the human ear. Perhaps that’s what makes these notes, in the opinion of arrangers, so much fun!

I commented that Gibbs often uses a dissonant sound in a consonant framework. For instance he might double the melody with a constant consonant interval like a major sixth. But that note may be dissonant with the underlying harmony. This technique, known as Constant Color Coupling, can be found in the writing of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Other Ellington techniques include the use of Blue Note Voicings and Combination Diminished Voicings. Gibbs studied Ellington’s writing with Herb Pomeroy when he was at Berklee and these techniques had a direct influence of the development of the Gibbs sound.

Anyone can write dissonant or polytonal or atonal music. But no matter how dissonant a Gibbs score may be, it is always rich in melody and texturally sumptuous. It draws listeners into the music where other writers might scare them away. I suggested to Gibbs that what gives his music its special character is that he subverts the natural human expectation of tonality in a gentle rather than violent manner.

“Yes, I really do love the whole realm of tonal music. I’m only now beginning to allow quarter-tonal or other sounds into my ear. If you think of guitars bending notes, it’s already in the air. Years ago I sought alternatives to building chords in conventional ways like thirds, from triads to 7th chords to 9ths etc. I’d taken some classes from George Russell and the end result of his Lydian Chromatic Concept is a chromatic scale, all twelve notes, but in a tonal framework. I adopted that, although I don’t get to it in the same way as he did. I try to re-invent it for each piece. So I don’t necessarily alter the harmony of the piece because that harmony gives the piece its character, its personality. But what’s available to me as an arranger is all the notes of the chromatic scale.”

It is this openness to “all the notes of the chromatic scale” that makes Michael Gibbs such a unique writer in this study. It is also valuable to see how Gibbs employs his own rather sophisticated compositional techniques and those of composers such as Ives, Messiaen, and Ellington to bring color and depth to his “pop” work. It is his knowledge of the many possibilities these techniques offer that allows him to “find a new way to do the obvious” and an obvious (to Gibbs) way to do the new.

©2014 Niles Smiles Music
Used with permission




1. Michael Gibbs (1970), Tanglewood 63 (1971), Just Ahead (1972), In The Public Interest (1974), Seven Songs For Quartet and Chamber Orchestra (1974), The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra (1975), Big Music (1988), By The Way (1993), Europeana (1995), Nonsequence (2001). [BACK]

2. Considered the world’s finest vibraphone player—achieved considerable fame in the 60’s—championed many unknown composers including Carla Bley and Chick Corea – taught at the Berklee College of Music from 1971 and became Dean in 1985. [BACK]

3. Composer, trumpet player, bandleader and respected educator Pomeroy taught Mike Gibbs, Arif Mardin, and the author. [BACK]

4. Comedian from 1970’s TV show “The Goodies,” TV presenter of wildlife programmes. [BACK]

5. Ives (1874-1954) was an innovative American composer whose work has influenced both “legitimate” and jazz composers. [BACK]

6. French composer Messiaen (1908-1992) was also an influential teacher, and his techniques are described in his book Techniques De Mon Langage Musical (1944). [BACK]

7. This doubling was used a great deal by Claus Ogerman in his many arrangements for Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Gibbs is an admirer of Ogerman’s work. [BACK]

8. Highly influential bass player who came to prominence in the late 1970s as bassist for Weather Report. [BACK]

9. Phenomenally successful saxophonist who appeared on a multitude of records in the 1970s and is still active today. [BACK]

10. Saxophonist and composer who came to prominence through his work with Miles Davis and Weather Report. [BACK]

11. Most well-known for playing tenor sax with The Blues Brothers. [BACK]