Melvin Gibbs
Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

Melvin Gibbs Breathes New Life Into Protest Music on ‘4 + 1 Equals 5 for May 25’

Long-time New York jazz sideman Melvin Gibbs breathes new life into protest music on the short but highly potent EP, 4 + 1 Equals 5 for May 25.

4 + 1 Equals 5 for May 25
Melvin Gibb
Northern Spy
25 May 2021

If you were ever a follower of the Rollins Band, Arto Lindsay, the jazz fusion trio Harriet Tubman, or the late Ronald Shannon Jackson, then you’re already familiar with the name Melvin Gibbs. A mainstay of the New York City downtown jazz scene since 1980, Gibbs has lent his bass guitar expertise for Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Sonny Sharrock, and DJ Logic, to name a few. Gibbs has recently made great strides in creating works under his own name, both for large collaborative works in hard-edged fusion like Raw Meet, Ancients Speak, and Phree-dem Downloads, as well as mad-scientist experiments in the lab by his lonesome with Bandcamp, tracks like “Still Dreamin'” and “E-volution”.

Gibbs’ most recent work is also his most ambitious in terms of style, scope, and theme. After the death of George Floyd, Melvin Gibbs visited the intersection in Minneapolis, where the unarmed black man breathed his last as police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. The musician was struck by the sense of peace he felt at the intersection of 38th and Chicago and how said peace squared against a community learning to deal with tragedy and injustice. He released “Holy Ground: 38th and Chicago – initial thoughts” on 1 October 2020.

Forsaking anything resembling jazz, rock, or hip-hop, Gibbs strung together a thoroughly haunting three-minute soundscape searching for resolution. On his Bandcamp page, he admitted that it was a work in progress that was about to go through some kind of mutation in the future. On 20 April 2021, the same day Chauvin was found guilty of all charges against him, Gibbs released “It’s Been a Long Time Coming”. It is a recording of the judge asking the jurors of the trial if their findings are their “true and correct verdicts.” All reply “Yes.” The full verdict is then read. It lasts three minutes and one second.

The first anniversary of Floyd’s murder, as well as Melvin Gibbs’ birthday, is on 25 May. He decided to commemorate both by trying to musically synthesize his feelings and his previous works into a new EP named 4 + 1 Equals 5 for May 25. Gibbs’ motivation for doing this is simple and yet unbelievably lofty. “Another thing that was striking to me as a person who creates cultural objects was that there didn’t seem to be any music out there that actually captured the moment. The music of past eras of protest and the movements they engendered just didn’t rise to the occasion. There was no music that captured the complexity of the current cultural moment,” he writes of the album released digitally by Northern Spy. “As an artist, I saw the fact that there was no music that accurately captured the vibration of the moment as both a challenge and an opportunity. What did the music of the moment sound like? What sounds should this music encompass? What moods and motivations should it encapsulate?”

Indeed, how does one capture the feelings conjured by murder, injustice, frustration, and a desire for peace and bottle it all up in a 21-minute EP? Although there is no easy answer, I’ll concede that anyone willing to tackle such a subject must have a particular concept in mind. Why else would they try? To do otherwise risks criticism and failure. For Melvin Gibbs, the sound is all about the collision of cataclysm and peace. The serene intersection in Minneapolis appears to be a microcosm of how the latter can exist despite the former. Can the same happen on a larger scale? For what it’s worth, a man who has been knocking around the back alleys of the music business for 40 years certainly thinks so.

Melvin Gibbs revisits the large, howling wind tunnels of sound from “Holy Ground: 38th and Chicago – initial thoughts” for the EP’s first track, named “Holy Ground”. This time Washington D.C.-based artist Koyaki provides vocals that, while in the neighborhood of rap, serve more as performance art melding with street preaching energy. His rhythmic shifts are so rapid that trying to type them out verbatim would be a disservice. It’s something to be heard/experienced instead. Most of the track belongs to Gibbs’ harrowing drone, so Koyaki fills up as much space as he can, surveying rubber bullets, kneecaps to aortas, and the emperor’s proverbial new clothes graduating to the role of a red herring.

Melvin Gibbs describes the following track, “Oh My”, as the event’s aftermath. Koyaki gives a more conventional hip-hop performance here, giving voice to the confusion thanks to chokeholds and assault weapons. The third track, “3′ 27”, is named after the amount of time Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck after he took his last breath. Mostly silence, this track uses small samples of testimony from Dr. Martin Tobin at Chauvin’s trial. If this reminds one of John Cage’s “4′ 33”, Melvin Gibbs is inclined to agree with you.

“You can think of it as the BLM remix of that,” he writes. “Get Some” is a reflection on the verdict, a track that weighs heavy on the “cautiously” scale and light on the “optimistic” side. Koyaki’s performance remains barbed amid the “celebration”. The concluding song “Message from the Streets” reprises “Holy Ground” and “Oh My”, with Gibbs bridging the two with a bass solo. If you ever wanted to hear four strings cry and wail, then here’s your chance. Koyaki’s previous contributions are spliced together into what Gibbs refers to as an “Emergent synthesis — a structure that bridges the peace/cataclysm duality.”

The intersection of art and current events remains a thorny topic for some. There is the common dismissal of “stay in your lane” and “shut up and dribble” from certain pundits who feel that artists and athletes lack the expertise to offer any sociopolitical thoughts. There are others who insist that the same nexus only serves to embarrass artists, regardless of where on the political spectrum they land. Still, more think that the stormy political events of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in 2016 would make a great springboard for protest music. But it’s all a distraction. It’s all chatter drawing attention from the problems that lie on the doorstep of too many fellow citizens.

Yes, 4 + 1 equals 5 for May 25 is a tough pill to swallow. Know what’s even more difficult to swallow? The untimely and violent death of an unarmed black man. So is a system that is quick to dish out harsh punishments but can’t reap the hard consequences they sow. This EP does not have an artistic mother or father but has sprung from the ground after a political storm. Hence, you’ve heard nothing like it until now.

RATING 8 / 10