A Fireside Chat with Marc Ribot
“ Basically, we have fun. We play. We jam. We like to make people dance whenever possible. In fact, if I could make people dance every night, I wouldn't care if I ever played to a sit down jazz audience again for the rest of my life. ”
I love pleasant surprises. Like watching the new X-Men movie and expecting tragedy to unfold on screen and instead, getting quite an entertaining couple of hours for my cynicism. That is the same pleasant experience I had in listening to Marc Ribot's Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, one of my top ten recordings of that particular year. So I have been waiting on pins and needles for his follow up, Muy Divertido. Ribot sat down with me from his East Coast home to speak about his new record, his days as a member of the New York downtown scene, and his relationship with Ornette Coleman, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Marc Ribot:: I actually started playing trumpet like kids do when they are in school. I wanted to play guitar starting when I was ten and a big influence on me when I first started was a friend of my family was the Haitian born classical guitarist Franz Casseus. I wasn't interested in classical music per say, but starting from when I was six or seven, I heard him play at family gatherings and it just amazed me to hear a real musician playing the guitar like that. I didn't know anything about classical music beyond what I heard Franz play, in fact, I never became deeply interested in classical guitar, but I mean, at the time, when I was a kid, I was listening to the same stuff everybody else in New Jersey heard on AM radio in the Sixties, Beatles, Rolling Stones, whatever, but that had guitars in it too.
AAJ: You were an intricate member of New York's downtown scene since its inception, how have you witnessed the scene grow and revolutionize?
MR: Well, when I first arrived, I worked with a lot of different composers who I thought were interesting. I guess, if I could say one way that it's changed, I hit town around 1979 and at that time, I wasn't immediately interested in the downtown scene. Actually, I got here in '78. I wasn't immediately interested in the downtown scene. I was more interested in playing what I thought was jazz at the time. But, I quickly became interested. It seemed at that time, although there were a lot of composers doing a lot of different, interesting things, their one common experience was the experience of trying to play in free-prov situations that a lot of the players had in common. It was interesting because free-prov was not a brand new idea, but people like Zorn, at the time, Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Firth, Derek Bailey, were doing interesting things with it. So now, I don't think that that's, in terms of musicians who are practicing in the Lower East Side, I don't think that that's that central an experience. At that time, the writing was influenced by years of playing free-prov, which needs to be distinguished from free jazz, which is something entirely different, not entirely different actually, but partially different. I think that some of the, for example, there was a lot of parallel and similar experimentation going on in the Sun Ra Arkestra. I think that the players, even though there wasn't that much direct jamming going on between the Sun Ra people, who were in Philadelphia at the time and the New York downtown players. I find it a great pleasure to jam with, to jam, Jesus Christ, to improvise with Marshall Allen or other players who have been trained on that scene. There is a lot of common language. But to get back to the question, at this point, electronica is much more of a central experience, a central thing for the musicians who are actually living in this neighborhood and the clubs. The early Eighties downtown scene is just not that, I mean, there is still a lot of working musicians and composers, but I'm not sure as to what extent it still comprises the scene.
AAJ: What differences are present between free-prov and free jazz?
MR: Well, first of all, Fred, free jazz is a very illusive term because the people who are mostly associated with, who I associate anyways with free jazz like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were in fact, although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition. It is very explicitly talked about in Ornette Coleman's harmolodic idea. It's true, I think to all of the free jazz players. They were developing new form, really. So the name, free jazz, implies people just abandoning form, whereas, in fact, the reality was the opposite and is the opposite of people who are inventing new ones, which is what interested me most. I felt a lot of interest in the music of Albert Ayler in particular for that reason exactly, was the free-prov players were attempting to play music that at least tried to be completely of the moment and completely without any connection to previous music.
AAJ: What is the biggest misconception of free jazz and free-prov?
MR: I think the misconception is when people think free jazz, they think it means people doing, just a bunch of dudes blowing their brains out and doing what they want to do, which it is, or which it can be, but really, it was people confronting a specific problem, which is they wanted to get beyond what had become the formulaic rules of bebop and finding different compositional answers. Yes, people improvise very intensely, but they improvise within a set of rules. I think that the public at large, when they hear the words free jazz, don't associate it with sets of rules. The sets of rules for Ornette's harmolodic music, I mean, I haven't actually studied with Ornette, but it's clear that it is based on taking motifs and freeing it up to become polytonal, melodically and rhythmically, it is tied very strongly to the motifs in the head. That's what it's about. That's what you listen for. That's what I listen for when I listen to it. It was a brilliant solution because it enabled the music to get, was able to if it needed to, get really dense, but at the same time, it could remain true to maybe just a blues riff. In fact, some of the tunes seemed to deconstruct, maybe I'm completely out to lunch so to speak, but I could swear that is taking apart a Sonny Stitt tune, or maybe that's a Gene Ammons' tune, I think, but anyway, but treating it harmolodically enabled it to go to a lot of other places. It opened up the language while staying true to where the language was from. That's the exact same thing as saying, "Hey, man, let's smoke a joint and party." Mind you, people may very well also have smoked a joint and partied, but I wouldn't know. In Albert Ayler's case, there seemed to be, I don't know how Albert Ayler got there. I have no idea how he got there, but because at the time he was doing this, I think only university ethnomusicologists would have had these tapes, but he seemed to have a lot in common with certain types of South American black marching band tradition. There is a CD devoted to Africa and one devoted to South America and Asia. So there is amazing parallels between some ethnomusic traditions and what Albert Ayler was doing. And again, even though Albert Ayler simplified the chords of bebop, he also had really well-thought out form. Bebop forms are very simple, A-A-B. They tend to be intro, A-A-B-A, blowing, A-A-B-A, or B-A, and out. Albert Ayler had theme and variation type form. It would be intro, A-B-A-C-A-D. He would have very complicated form and so, again, that is different than the commonly held idea is. But I don't know what the commonly held idea is, so I don't know why I am arguing against it (laughing). I am basing it on what I thought when I was eleven.
AAJ: Touch on your six degrees of separation from Ornette Coleman.
MR: I've never actually worked with Ornette. I am a great fan of his music, in particular, the Prime Time band has been, I always thought was a terrific band. The early albums of the Prime Time band, Of Human Feelings (Antilles), In All Languages (Verve), I also liked quite a bit. I mean, these records really knocked my socks off. I've wound up doing some playing with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Calvin Weston. The bassist in Los Cubanos Postizos is Brad Jones, who is also currently the Prime Time band bassist, so although I would certainly love to do some playing with Ornette, right now, our crossing of paths consists of sharing Brad Jones (laughing).
AAJ: Did you even conceive the phenomenal success of Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (Atlantic)?
MR: Yeah, people seemed to like it. I didn't have a clue really, although I suppose the people that signed it might have had a clue. I didn't start it out thinking that this was going to be my next recording project. We never made demos. We never called any record people. We never shopped it. It was just a thing to do for fun and then we got signed. A friend of mine was sick and we played at his benefit and we got signed and so we made a record. I have to say, Fred, it is a little funny to be talking, to start out some interviews talking about Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler because when I was doing the band Shrek, those references were sort of very important band or Rootless Cosmopolitans. For the Cubanos Postizos, they don't really sound, there are some connections, but the Cubanos Postizos quite frankly sounds zero like Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman. Not improvisation, let alone harmolodic or free improv is simply not that big a part of the Postizos. Basically, we have fun. We play. We jam. We like to make people dance whenever possible. In fact, if I could make people dance every night, I wouldn't care if I ever played to a sit down jazz audience again for the rest of my life. I'd happily prefer to play gay discos.
AAJ: Do people dance?
MR: Yeah, on a good night when the people are cool and the situation isn't too restrictive, nothing makes us happier or the people. I didn't take it all that seriously at the beginning and so I had the philosophy that, "Oh, OK, if there is no bread in the tour, we will tour as a trio (laughing). If there is bread, we will tour with all five people in the band." We toured as a trio, but actually, the group started as a trio.
AAJ: So it wasn't that big of a stretch?
MR: No, we had done it trio for quite a while in the beginning. We did that first tour as a trio.
AAJ: Let's touch on the soon to be released, Muy Divertido (Very Entertaining).
MR: I have to give the props, by the way, a lot of props to the producer, JD Foster. I don't know about the misconception of what free jazz is, but I know that very few music listeners quite understand what a producer does and is, and the way a producer takes the responsibility for the ultimate sound of the record and I can say the JD did brilliant work on this record. It almost operates subliminally, like little sections where it goes into mono, zillions of things he did. If you like it or you don't like it, blame JD (laughing). No, I think he did a fine job.
AAJ: Your work with saxophonists is nothing new, but I want to get your thoughts on your recent collaboration with label mate, James Carter.
MR: He's a true virtuoso saxophonist. He hired a rhythm section that is one of my favorites, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. In a way, it was a little surprising because I'd been doing a bunch of gigs with Jamaal and Calvin, but I was happy to find any situation in which I get paid to sit around and play with that rhythm section is one that makes me very happy.
AAJ: What qualities do you listen for in the music?
MR: Wow, good question. You know, Fred, after a while of listening to music, I almost don't hear the music. I hear people's intentions (laughing). It sounds crazy, but you develop an almost instant bullshit-ometer. What I don't like to hear and this may sound bad, but I don't like to hear ambition (laughing). I don't want to hear, if someone loves to play guitar, cool. That's great. If that's what they do, then they should do it, but I don't like to hear that here is the songs that are on the record because the guy's manager told him that he'd make more money on publishing royalties that way. I like stuff that rocks the house and if it's original then great.
AAJ: Do you cringe at the term avant-garde?
MR: I suppose it describes something, although weird would be a better word because avant-garde implies that history has one direction and some person or other is in the front of it. So very few people that I know who try to create new music would have the pretentiousness to call themselves avant-garde. The media uses it to describe music that is either difficult or unusual. I certainly wouldn't use it in connection with myself. Most people who do so called avant-garde music see themselves as working in a certain type of tradition and again, don't have the pretentiousness to imagine that they are standing at the front of the train of history. Literally, avant-garde means front guard, forward guard. Not that many people I know believes there is a forward, let alone a guard. It doesn't have all that much to do with the stuff I've been doing with the Postizos, either in the original sense or the pop media sense.
AAJ: Will you continue to keep the Postizos together?
MR: Well, we are going to certainly continue to play. I'm probably looking at another project for my next record on Atlantic. I thinking of commissioning composers and doing another solo guitar record and commissioning some composers to write short pieces for it and then mix them up with the kind of stuff that I usually do solo, which is degraded versions of jazz tunes played on a toy guitar.