Crowned “the best bassist in the world” by New York’s Time Out magazine, Melvin Gibbs is a much-in-demand rhythm-maker who generates extraterrestrial grooves and down-to-the-dirt folk ditties with equal measures of finesse.
Transcending musical genres and eras with a stroke of the thumb, Gibbs learned to tear the roof off the sucker from the best in the business. His impressive aptitudes flourished under the tutelage of funk’s grandmasters, including Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell, free-jazz legend Bill Frisell, saxophonist John Zorn and the late great jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock. A spirited mover and shaker, Gibbs’s hard hands and metronome mind singled him out as a star member of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s funk-jazz outfit Decoding Society (alongside Living Color’s Vernon Reid). Later he’d go on to perform with the ambitious power trio Harriet Tubman, New York club mainstay Defunkt, Punk-Funk All-Stars and the avant metal dogfight Rollins Band. And that’s just to name a few.
“Performing in New York, I was exposed to musicians from all over the world,” he says. “Africa, the West Indies, Brazil, Eastern Europe... I don’t mean to sound conceited, but there isn’t much that falls outside of my musical comfort zone. I’m used to having a lot going on simultaneously. My band is sort of a synthesis of polyrhythmic expansion and intellect. Just as Fela Kuti and Tony Allen transposed the music of James Brown and the civil rights movement into their traditional Nigerian rhythms, I’m contextualizing funk for today and keeping the continuum of rhythmic communication alive.”
Uniquely qualified when it comes to interweaving funk, jazz, soul and hip-hop with African and Latin American influences, Gibbs reveals the sympathetic beats and mercurial melodies that commune just below the surface of different cultural traditions. His soulful manipulation of modern grooves and old world beats have given the Brooklyn native and Berklee graduate an original songwriting style that is quintessentially American. Referencing the collective knowledge of three generations of funk musicianship, the first album by Gibbs’s band Elevated Entity, Ancients Speak (Livewired Music), debuted in 2009. Enthusiastic about his role as a producer, creator and entertainer, he continues to mesmerize and challenge convention with his spectacular Afro-centric folk-funk fusions.
“The word ‘folk’ in general raises a lot of interesting questions,” Gibbs says. “Originally, it meant people making music for themselves outside of the classical realms. The dichotomy of folk versus, so-called high-brow music saw the term changed to apply to specific genres like Negro spirituals and Appalachian music. Now there’s a whole new set of people, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are doing folk music at a new level. For many years I’ve been a member of the Black Banjo Group, so playing a folk festival isn’t that much different from what I’m used to.”
The Grammy-nominated Gibbs currently travels and performs with his festival-ready entourage of six hand-selected musicians. Coalescing under the moniker Elevated Entity, Gibbs and company survey the evolution of funk through the lens of the African-diaspora. Cultural archivists such as Yoruban musician/singer Abraham Amayo (Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra), keyboardist James Hurt (Blue Note), rapper MC Kokayi (Dastardly) and Brazilian percussionist Dende Machadohe provide Gibbs with an inexhaustible wellspring of musical ideas to draw upon.
“I’m really excited about how far funk has come in the continuum. With my new band I can take on African melodies and reconstitute them. Arguably, you could say that we’ve taken the folk definitions of traditional instruments and modernized them. As far as what we do with it on stage, we’re going full gambit.”