Melvin Gibbs Isn’t Looking Back

The Harriet Tubman bassist’s career is memoir-worthy, but his gaze is set on what’s to come

Melvin Gibbs (photo: Alan Nahigian)

For the past 21 years, self-described “explorer of rhythm” Melvin Gibbs has—among many other things—held down the massive low end in the collaborative power trio Harriet Tubman. The effects-laden grooves he concocts for that band, paired with the string-bending guitarscapes of Brandon Ross and the polyrhythmic assault of drummer J.T. Lewis, yielded a sprawling masterwork last year. The Terror End of Beauty, a glitch-infused collision of rock, jazz, funk, and blues, rightly found itself on just about every best-of-2018 list.

But that was last year. On this frigid winter day in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, the dreadlocked bassist is perched in front of a computer alongside drummer, producer, and rap upstart Kassa Overall. They’re in the midst of what they’re calling an “idea day” for one of Gibbs’ panoply of boundary-pushing projects that will surely keep him busy throughout 2019. Among those projects: the jazz-fusion Zig Zag Power Trio with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and drummer Will Calhoun, a duo with theoretical physicist and saxophonist Stephon Alexander that explores climate change, a long-awaited album from the Bitches Brew-manipulating Melvin Runs the Hoodoo Down(with the late Pete Cosey on guitar), and the return of his African-based spiritual music ensemble, Elevated Entity. On top of that, Tubman is intent on making a new record in 2019. “Striking while the iron is hot is important because it took so long for everyone to, you know … care,” says Gibbs, laughing.

What’s being cooked up in Overall’s home studio today is potential material for yet another band: Melvin Gibbs Magnum. Also in the Magnum mix are keyboardist Paul Wilson, longtime creative partner DJ Logic, and D.C.-based artist/producer Kokayi, a touring member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements. It’s apt that Gibbs has Godfried T. Toussaint’s book The Geometry of Musical Rhythm by his side; the surgical focus with which all hands are manipulating the rhythms reverberating from the speakers is akin to a science experiment.

“One of my things is African-American rhythm,” Gibbs explains of Magnum’s beat-driven vision. “That’s where this book comes in. There’s this geometric idea called ‘translation,’ which is when you take a shape and just twist it—it’s the same shape but it looks different because you twisted the direction. That’s what happens with African-American rhythms: They’re all the same, rhythms that came from Africa, but they’ve all been twisted slightly. What we’re gonna do is take this really basic rhythm and we’re gonna twist it. I’m exploring an intergenerational idea—I almost want to make a jazz version of Jay-Z’s 4:44. When he made that record, I was going, ‘Ah! This is the same idea!’”

Clearly, Gibbs and Overall are sound brothers in arms. During our lengthy chat, they bounced ideas off each other with abandon, and the 60-year-old Gibbs seemed to embrace his role as elder statesman to the thirtysomething up-and-comer. But neither musician views their relationship as having a teacher/student dynamic. “I don’t know if you’d call it a mentor influence, but it’s really like same-tribe, likeminded thinkers,” Overall says. For his part, Gibbs says the camaraderie reminds him of his teenage days with Vernon Reid at Medgar Evers College.

The résumé that Gibbs has compiled in the four decades since those days is worthy of a lengthy memoir. This Brooklyn lifer has been at the forefront of one revolutionary movement after another: hardcore punk (he saw Bad Brains’ first-ever NYC show), No Wave (he was in an iteration of James Chance and the Contortions), the Black Rock Coalition (he was an original member), the downtown avant-garde jazz scene, and—through his five-year membership in the Rollins Band—’90s alternative rock. Sonny Sharrock, Ronald Shannon Jackson, John Zorn, and Arto Lindsay are just a few of the pioneers Gibbs has helped anchor with his thick electric bass lines; he also co-led both Power Tools (with Bill Frisell and Jackson) and SociaLybrium, a hard-funk group with Bernie Worrell, DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, and J.T. Lewis. If that isn’t enough, he cofounded Defunkt, the No Wave/jazz unit led by trombonist Joseph Bowie (younger brother of Lester), and played an impromptu gig for Ornette Coleman in his Prince Street loft in his early twenties.

But while Gibbs has reams of stories he could tell about his past, he chooses to look forward instead. Asked whether he’s turning his attention to this latest stack of projects because The Terror End of Beauty is now in his rearview mirror, Gibbs says Tubman will be just as active as ever: “It’s always simultaneous. Tubman is gonna be Tubman. This year, as far as live, we’re going to try to do as much stuff as possible. We’re going to build on what we’ve done. I think on the next record we’re going to keep it focused but kind of widen it up.”

Zig Zag Power Trio is also high on Gibbs’ agenda; for him, Reid, and Calhoun, it’s a reunion of sorts. Back in the ’90s, during alt-rock’s heyday and Gibbs’ Rollins Band stint, they joined forces for a record, albeit one that got stuck in the vaults. In 2018, with Calhoun acting as catalyst, they released Woodstock Sessions Volume 9 via the online direct-to-fan music platform, PledgeMusic. Although the record fell under the radar due in part to Reid and Calhoun’s commitment to touring with Living Colour, Gibbs is prepping its relaunch this year through Bandcamp. He’s clearly enjoying hooking up with his old pals and jamming on old-school jazz fusion.

“It’s great to be with Vernon,” he says, “and it’s interesting because, in the interim, I heard BADBADNOTGOOD and my first thought was, ‘This band sounds exactly like what me and my guys were doing in the neighborhood when we were teenagers.’ It was like jazz fusion has made its comeback, so it’s good to get with Vernon because we had a jazz fusion band when we were in school: Vernon’s band, Point of View. One of the things that we’re doing with Zig Zag is we’re playing a bit of [Ronald] Shannon [Jackson]’s music, we got some blues and we’re doing some Junior Kimbrough. We gotta have that Mississippi connection. There’s original compositions by the guys but also our favorite compositions by our mentors.”

Long ago, Gibbs introduced Reid to the NYC avant scene, enlisting him in Defunkt and playing alongside him in Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. Naturally, Reid has nothing but praise for his old friend. “Melvin Gibbs is among the most original conceptualists and practitioners of the art of electric bass to ever pick it up since Monk Montgomery scandalized jazz and revolutionized pop with the very first Fender Precision,” he wrote in an email. “Early on, at the start of his extraordinary career, Melvin had clear insight into the bass as an essential inter-relational voice in whatever size ensemble, or stylistically diverse musical setting, it appears in. Nigeria, the Georgia Sea Islands, Motown, the South Side of Chicago, Jamaica by way of Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn on the way to Mars, are just a few of the living destinations made aurally present in the propulsive bass lines and unique grooves of Melvin Gibbs.”

Typically, Gibbs talks about his style in a way that makes it seem much more simple, at least on the surface. “One of the things you learn about bass is that you have to make a choice: You’re gonna have a massive bass sound or you’re gonna have a virtuoso super-choppy, super-notey thing,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted the massive sound. What’s happened is I’m goin’ to the thing I call ‘the least viable notes.’ What’s the least amount of notes I can use to get across what I’m doin’? That’s the other focus: to get things to really sound bass. Bass is important to me. The technical thing, of course, I came up on that. But I really want to have the big bass, and you can’t have the big bass and a lot of notes. You gotta choose.”