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Marc Ribot: That's the Way I View It From New York

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Marc Ribot Guitarist/composer Marc Ribot's played with Elvis Costello, Arto Lindsay, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Tom Waits, John Lurie, Wilson Pickett, Anthony Coleman, Don Byron and about a million other musicians. As a leader, he's led such groups as Shrek and the Rootless Cosmopolitans and written and performed a wildly varied body of work on his own recordings. His fusion of blues and r&b with improv and punk rock was one of the cornerstones of the Downtown/Knitting Factory sensibility of the 1980s and while some might still think his sound is defined by his brittle, jaunty lead guitar on Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon, his playing actually draws upon a wide stylistic and tonal vocabulary. Last year saw the release of Ribot's quartet CD Spiritual Unity, a remarkable and bracing set of pieces by iconic tenor player Albert Ayler. I spoke to Ribot about the Ayler project, his film scoring experience, his solo guitar work, and Chuck Berry. You'll find he has a lot to say.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about Spiritual Unity. This is your group devoted to performing Albert Ayler pieces—not to suggest your approach is about a sort of slavish repertory—and you've recorded an album under the same name. I know you've admired Ayler for a while; you've previously recorded solo guitar versions of Ayler pieces like "Holy Holy Holy and "Saints.

Marc Ribot: Yeah, and we used to cover some Ayler material in my band Shrek—we recorded "Bells.

AAJ: So what attracts you to his work?

MR: Well, you know, more than repertory of the pieces, it's an attempt to get at the process. Ayler's process, I think, is very special and has to do with the ritual uses of music. His own records are not these polished, finished, aesthetic gems—although Goin' Home, [the Feb. 24, 1964 session also released as Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual] is certainly, in my view, perhaps the most beautiful record ever recorded [laughing]. This is a grandiose statement. But still, with a lot of it, the recording quality is lousy. What gives it its thing is that it's an artifact of an event. You understand that something happened in that room. It doesn't matter that the recording quality is not great. It doesn't matter that things go off-mike and on-mike—these things, in a way, prove the authenticity of the CD as an artifact, of a ritual event that happened.

AAJ: Sometimes it seems that the crummy sound quality adds to the mystery of what happened.

MR: Yeah. It's like being in the back of the room at some kind of human sacrifice. You don't see exactly what's going on, but you know something is going on.

AAJ: There's that often-used phrase about Ayler dying "under mysterious circumstances, but to me, the mysterious circumstances are the performances. They're really conditions and environments that a player inhabits and participates in as opposed to a set of changes to memorize. That seems to be how you've interacted with them on the Spiritual Unity recording. So how do you approach the music? Is anything allowable? Besides the musical themes, what makes something an Ayler piece? Are there rules?

MR: Yeah! Definitely. Whether or not Ayler is "jazz or not is, in my opinion, up for grabs. He can be productively written into a history of jazz, into a history of wider improvisational music, into a history of punk rock in terms of the intensity of the experience—and also productively written into a history of religious/ritual music. Whether he's jazz or not, I don't know, but he definitely seems to have come out of the free jazz movement. You know, this term fools a lot of people. They seem to think it means, "gosh, now we can do whatever we want. But in fact, every one of the major free jazz players invented a new formal system of improvising. They made formal changes. In other words, because free jazz players by and large threw out bebop-style chord changes as the event that propels the music forward—and in some cases threw out the idea that music needs to be propelled forward...

AAJ: Not the worst idea ever advanced.

MR: But, like all ideas, open to critique. I started getting involved with these ideas while I was guitarist in the Lounge Lizards, and it was a big moment for me when I understood that a solo could be static; it didn't have to be structured in the kind of dramatic arc that a blues solo was. So, yeah, it's an idea that is open to challenge, critique and being played with. Which is what it's all about—playing. So Ayler, like Ornette Coleman, did create—I don't know if you would call them rules—some techniques and did have some compositional devices that he used to implement them. Among the compositional devices is collective improvising, very interesting and loose forms of counterpoint. For example, if you listen to the tune "Witches and Devils, listen to what Donald Ayler is doing on trumpet on that one. It's a brilliant form of counterpoint. Listen to what Henry Grimes is doing on "Goin' Home —a different role for the bassist. So the changing of the traditional roles of instrument, different forms of counterpoint, different kinds of collective improvising. The choices on a bebop record were head—you know, A-A-B-A, blowing, B-A and out.

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