Andy Atwill, Frank Gibson Jr. and Neil Watson performing at Golden Dawn. Photo: Nick Atkinson
“I met him at school. I was walking round the quadrangle one day and saw the word “Monk” chalked on the wall and I thought, man someone else knows about Thelonious in this school! So I set about finding him and we began playing duets in an old disused science room that had an upright piano in it. I’d brought some drums to school.” That 17 year old drummer was Frank Gibson Jr. and 50 years later he’s between sets at Ponsonby night spot Golden Dawn launching pianist Murray McNabb’s final album, Every Day Is A Beautiful Day.
“I think about him often” continues Gibson Jr. “I could tell you some stories you couldn’t write about. One of his nicknames was Murky McNabb, another was Mr Gone, or Star Wars. Some called him The Monk Who Never Speaks….you can use your imagination, but he was really interested in life. He’d wake up in the morning, have a coffee and start practising. He’d write down all of the tui’s bird calls.” Gibson Jr. talks in a fast metre. It’s relaxed, yet rapid, like his bullet-splaying drum-fills.
Joining Gibson Jr. and McNabb for the poignant final album takes was guitarist Neil Watson “I remember being in the control room for those last sessions and asking, what are we going to play Murray? He said ‘I think we’ll start playing A, maybe Frank can play an open four Elvin feel, then we’ll move to D-something and we could play a fast rhythm?’ …and that was it!” says Watson. “Those were all the parameters we had. We went in and we basically did it off the cuff. It was pretty special. He was in hospice at that stage. Frank Gibson Jr. went and picked him up and as soon as that final flute part from the track Standing Babas was played Frank took him straight back to hospice and I don’t know how much longer he hung in after that, it was just a couple of days. It’s amazing though, when he sat down behind the keyboards there was nothing wrong with him. It was unbelievable. All of that pain and sickness disappeared while he was performing” remembers Watson.
A little over a year after those sessions the two remaining members of that last trio have assembled a fiery quintet to launch McNabb’s last album while playing a selection of his compositions gathered from a lifetime of performing.
Two songs into the first set the band fire up one of McNabb’s most recent numbers Exit Through The Entrance a ten minute down tempo journey that abandons bar-lines and key signatures for a time before returning to a spare and typically concise McNabb melody. This exploration sets the scene for a rendition of the title track to McNabb’s 2009 album Austral Surfer which begins with a drum solo that evokes breaking waves before dropping into a sinuous tune performed by Stephen Morton-Jones on alto walking the unison high-wire with Neil Watson playing a lap-steel perched on the busy Golden Dawn bar. The tension is infectious as Watson uses a slide to stretch the melody into a singing harmony. Almost quarter of an hour later the tune concludes with an avalanche of notes. While the plan was to take a break after that track the packed room demand another jam.
When the band finally takes a break it's tricky to pin down local jazz legend and McNabb’s key collaborator Frank Gibson Jr. He’s the boss and he needs a cigarette. I’ve organised a quiet room above the venue to record a brief interview, but he prefers the street. It’s a cold night, but Gibson Jr. is plenty warm in a black t-shirt after a long exploratory performance of his close friend’s compositions. “He was straight ahead. It was always to the point” Gibson Jr. says of McNabb. “All the time I knew him I yelled at him once. I called him back later and said geez man, I shouldn’t have yelled at you. He said that’s ok. I said, no it isn’t! But we never had a cross word. In the end it was an intuition, a lot of years going on. That’s the thing about improvising, it’s like a wordless conversation.” Frank and I can’t talk long. He’s got another set to play. I ask him a final question. What’s going to happen next? He smiles then says “For the next…. well, however long it goes on for, there’ll be more of Murray’s compositions and all of the players will be featured.” Those familiar tunes bring members of McNabb’s family to tears as they stand closely-packed inside Golden Dawn’s tapering, wood-lined bar.
Every Day Is A Beautiful Day by the Murray McNabb Group is out now on Sarang Bang Records.
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