There is no time to waste for Melvin Gibbs.
The Grammy-nominated bassist best known to the masses for his late-’90s stretch with punk experimentalists the Rollins Band is busy preparing for a Dec. 16 Kennedy Center debut with his genre-defying trio Harriet Tubman. At the same time, he’s putting the finishing touches on a new album by the Zig Zag Power Trio, a collaboration with Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun.
But while investing a few minutes on the phone from his home in New York, Gibbs makes clear there is nothing more important to him right now than the climate-change issues being explored in Justin Brice Guariglia’s large-scale photography of dying Greenland glaciers in the exhibit “Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene” at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.
“The exhibit spoke to me on many levels. My son is dual citizenship — he’s Norwegian and American — and I’ve spent time in Norway and I’ve spent time around glaciers, so that spoke to me,” says Gibbs, who first saw Guariglia’s work when it premiered in an exhibition earlier this year in New York.
“[Guariglia] is documenting the human effect on the Earth in a real, compelling way, a real, illustrative way,” he says. “It gives it, I don’t want to say a spiritual component, but it puts a certain amount of empathy in there that people don’t have. People don’t have empathy for the planet.”
On Thursday, Dec. 7, Gibbs and saxophonist Stephon Alexander — a Brown University physicist and author of “The Jazz of Physics” — will be at the Norton Museum to perform original music inspired by the images in “Earth Works.” The 7 p.m. concert, titled “After Nature: Speculative Auralizations of the Anthropocene,” is free, as part of the museum’s weekly Art After Dark events.
For Gibbs, there is music, a form of communication, in the slow-moving topography Guariglia has photographed.
“When you’re dealing with pictures of the Earth on that scale, you can see patterns of the Earth, repetitions in the patterns and changes in the patterns. That’s compelling from the standpoint of someone who comes from an instrument that’s to a large extent rhythmic, which is what the bass is,” he says.
Gibbs and Alexander met a couple of years ago in that way that creative New Yorkers do, via the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Brooklyn neighbor who Gibbs knew “before everything.” The duo was introduced by Basquiat’s one-time agent, Diego Cortez, whom Gibbs met through noise-rocker Arto Lindsay and Alexander knew through composer Brian Eno.
But perhaps their meeting was inevitable: Alexander’s book is subtitled “The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe” and draws parallels between the intuitive, improvisatory explorations of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and Albert Einstein. Coltrane’s complex mathematical, musical innovations were well known to young Brooklyn jazz musicians like Gibbs, who learned to play from Reggie Workman, Coltrane’s former bassist.
“We’re both kind of nerds in a certain way,” Gibbs says of Alexander. “I thought the idea of his book ‘The Jazz of Physics’ was really compelling. It was exactly the book that I would have wanted to read when I was 18 or 19.”
Gibbs and Alexander will perform at the Norton Museum accompanied by melodic “treatments” on a laptop, a piece that will run 50 to 60 minutes, with time set aside for conversation. The music will be based on hard science, Gibbs says, which might include data on the height of tides in South Florida during the past 50 or 100 years.
“We will use the actual math, and we will look for mathematical patterns that are analogous to musical patterns. Depending on which set of data is the most musically compelling, we’ll use those to generate rhythm patterns and scale patterns that you’ll hear during the music,” Gibb says.
Asked to describe what the piece sounds like — the two performed a version of it at Guariglia’s New York opening — Gibbs is dissatisfied with “ambient” and “Eno-esque.” He warms to parallels to “Andromeda's Suffering,” the majestic 1972 composition by Alice Coltrane, John’s second wife.
“I’ll tell you, there was a person [at the New York performance] who spends a lot of time around glaciers, and he said it sounded like he was inside a glacier,” Gibb says, laughing. “It’s the sort of music that would give you the feeling that you were in a space with these glacial objects, a place where you would start to feel what they’re going through.”
Melvin Gibbs and Stephon Alexander will perform 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, at Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. Art After Dark events are 5-9 p.m. Thursday. Admission is free. Call 561-832-5196 or go to Norton.org.