Frank Gibson Jr’s beat has gone well beyond Drum City: he clocks in at Drum World. Few drummers anywhere have a CV to compare.
Among the highlights have been touring and/or recording with Nat Adderley, Frank Foster, Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, Leo Sayer, John Scofield, Dusty Springfield, Sonny Stitt, the Temptations, Rick Wakeman, the Walker Brothers, Dionne Warwick, Ernie Watts and Jimmy Witherspoon. He appeared on Lonnie Donegan’s 1978 comeback album, Puttin’ On The Style, which featured Rory Gallagher, Elton John and Brian May sharing drumming duties with Ray Cooper and Ringo Starr, and Gibson’s 1982 album Parallel 37 features a who’s who of New Zealand players plus international guests Milt Jackson, John Scofield and Bobby Shew.
“Yeah, I guess I’ve been lucky in that respect,” Gibson says, “playing with so many big names, in both rock and jazz. And not just overseas artists either – I’m equally proud to have played with Alan Broadbent and Andy Brown, Bruce Lynch, Mike Nock, my great mate Murray McNabb. And not just jazz players – I’ve appeared on albums by Larry Morris, Patsy Riggir, Shona Laing and Hammond Gamble Band, performed with Anika Moa …”
Yet he is quick to praise other drummers and downplays his own achievements. When I suggest that he is possibly New Zealand’s premier skinsman, he reacts with, “Oh, there’s been some great Kiwi drummers. Maurice Greer was innovative – he was the first drummer I’d seen mount his drums on frames and the first drummer I’d seen mic his kit … Bruno Lawrence was highly underrated, truly world-class as both a jazz and a rock drummer … “
Born in Auckland, 19 February 1946, Frank Gibson Jr was named after his father, a renowned drummer, and he grew up surrounded by music and musicians. Frank Sr was also a concert organiser and Frank Jr’s earliest memories include playing Noughts and Crosses while “uncles” such as Johnny Bradfield, Neil Dunningham and Bob Griffiths warmed up backstage at the Auckland Town Hall.
At age six he was rapping drums patterns on the floor using pencils and sticks, and at age eight he performed a drum duet with his dad at the Auckland Town Hall. Further performances followed (billed as “Little Frankie Gibson”) and in 1957, with rock and roll in full swing, he was a member of the Juvenolians, two or three years younger than the other members but the most proficient young drummer in town; there were talent quest wins and regular performances around Auckland; regular dances at the Thames Sailing Club saw crowds of up to 800.
Looking back, Gibson says, “Music took me somewhere else and it was only later that I asked myself, ‘why do I like that sort of music?’ and I have to be honest and say it was jazz that appealed most.”
Despite that appeal, in the early 1960s Gibson teamed up with pianist Brian Henderson in a rock band who called themselves the Tremelloes (“we wore sparkly shirts and played songs like ‘Splish Splash’”) but one day in 1963 at Mt Albert Grammar, Gibson was attracted by graffiti scrawled on a school wall, just one word: ‘Monk’. “I figured it could only refer to Thelonious,” Gibson remembers, “and I soon learned it had been written by [pianist] Murray McNabb.”
Together, Gibson and McNabb performed as a duo, initially at school concerts and later securing a residency at Troika restaurant, six nights a week. The pair would continue to play together, on and off, over the next 50 years, right through to McNabb’s death in 2013.
By 1965, Gibson’s expertise was getting noticed. His first recording session was on Gray Bartlett’s ‘Theme From The Munsters’ and he started performing with jazz trios led by pianists Alan Broadbent and Mike Walker.
Performing with Walker one night at Montmartre, saxophonist Bob Gillett, the wild and eccentric American expatriate, complimented Gibson but was dismayed at his actual musical knowledge. Gibson recalls, “I didn’t read [music] very well, which didn’t impress Bob. He turned to Spike [Walker] and said, ‘teach him how to read!’”
Like many young Auckland jazz musicians of the era, Gibson was greatly influenced by Gillett. “Bob Gillett was possibly a genius: he knew music inside and out. Everyone in New Zealand jazz owes Bob a debt, whether they know it or not.”
In 1967 Gibson and bassist Andy Brown ventured to Sydney, picking up work at El Rocco and other jazz nightspots, most notably as part of Bernie McGann’s trio. Back in Auckland for the new decade, Gibson was reunited with McNabb and in 1971 the pair formed Dr Tree, New Zealand’s pioneering jazz-fusion band, also featuring guitarist Martin Winch, trumpet player Kim Paterson, bassist Bob Jackson and percussionist John Banks. At least that’s the line-up on the group’s 1975 self-titled album; a number of others performed with the group during its five-year lifespan, including Frank Gibson Sr.
By 1977, aged 31, Frank Jr had made his name, at least in his homeland, but bigger things lay ahead. In London a nucleus of New Zealand musicians were making an impression in Britain – Billy Kristian, Bruce Lynch, Dave MacRae, Brian Smith, Chris Thompson. Gibson decided to try his own luck and, largely through the Kiwi contingent, was soon working.
“Britain wasn’t all that different to what I’d been doing in New Zealand,” Gibson says, “only bigger, and more rock and funk than jazz – recording sessions, touring bands, a bit of television work.”
Billy Kristian directed him to an audition (successful) for a six-part TV series featuring David Essex, followed by recording sessions for the Lonnie Donegan album and the Walker Brothers (Nite Flights, the trio’s final album, bombed at the counter but has been since cited as an inspiration by David Bowie, David Byrne, Iggy Pop and, in particular, Brian Eno). Gibson had a brief stint with Pacific Eardrum and recorded and toured Britain and Europe with short-lived disco queen Tina Charles, and then Rick Wakeman; Gibson and Bruce Lynch recorded Wakeman’s Rhapsodies album in Switzerland, followed by a European tour.
In 1978 Gibson scored a big one as a member of Leo Sayer’s band, including a down under tour. Sayer was hot at the time and the accompanying star treatment reflected that. “The Leo Sayer gig was great for me, not least because of the money – 600 pounds a week!”
By 1980 Gibson was back home, forming Space Case with the nucleus of Gibson, saxophonist Brian Smith and old sparring partner Murray McNabb on keyboards. More jazz funk than the fusion of Dr Tree, Space Case recorded three albums for Ode. Other musicians to perform and record with the group included Andy Brown, Bruce Lynch and Kim Paterson; noted American bassist Ron McClure and Brazilian trumpet player Claudio Roditi made guest appearances on Space Case Two.
With Space Case performing just sporadically, Gibson and Lynch concurrently played with the original Hammond Gamble Band and with either Lynch or Andy Brown on bass, and Frank became the first-call drummer for visiting jazzmen.
In 1986 he was reunited with Alan Broadbent for Broadbent’s Song of Home, recorded in New Zealand, and the pair have teamed up for five albums since, as well as performing together in concerts in New Zealand, Australia and the US. Gibson is regularly called in to perform or record in Melbourne, Sydney and Los Angeles with the likes of Mike Nock and Diana Krall. In all, Gibson has appeared on over 200 albums.
Over recent years Gibson, a gun-for-hire as always, has also fronted his own occasional groups, taught jazz history and the art of drumming (including five years at Perth’s Edith Cowan University as a full-time lecturer) and conducted workshops alongside the likes of Louis Bellson and Jack DeJohnette. As Mike Nock has said, “He has an enviable international reputation.”