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Interviews

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

By Published: March 27, 2006
AAJ: Some breaks, maybe.

MR: Yeah, maybe some breaks, earlier there was some stop-time, maybe trading fours. But you can count the devices more or less on the fingers of a seven-finger hand [laughing]. With Ayler, he expands that quite a bit. There are all the different combinations of collective improvising, which you could call an innovation. Or you could say he was more in touch with New Orleans; he was bringing back some New Orleans things.

AAJ: Polyphony.

MR: Polyphony's a very good word to use in connection. But in addition, there were also solos there. Within the solos—internally within the solos—there were all kinds of different strategies being used. Rather than blowing on the changes, some of the soloing is a really dense playing with the motif, which is closer, I think, to what you do in twelve-tone music than anything that preceded it in bebop. You take the motif, you play it backwards, you play it inverted, you chop it into pieces and repeat the pieces, you octave-displace it. I don't know whether, in a linear way, Ayler was accessing [twelve-tone composer Arnold] Schoenberg or whether he simply invented the same things independently. But that's one of the things I hear going on. I also hear a use of noise elements. But the Ayler's main technique, I think, is this: Ayler walked into a world and was bebop-trained. That meant that these people were trained to process information very fast. If you could play "Ornithology or any of these changes at 180 on the metronome, you were processing information at the limit of human possibility. And contrary to the names that were attached, like "Bird, it wasn't just like the flight of a natural bird. People practiced their asses off!

AAJ: If they didn't they got ridiculed and laughed off the bandstand.

MR: Right. So Ayler was drawing from a pool of jazz players; that's who could understand what he was up to. But his technique was to take these players who had been trained and devoted their lives to processing information at high speeds and instead of presenting them with "Ornithology, present them with extremely simple melodies of one or two or three chords at slow tempos. So you present them with "Bells, or "Truth Is Marching In —with these extremely slow, simple melodies. And they would lose it! They would completely lose it.

There was a technique involved here; this was a calculated and creative decision—also, I should add, probably therapeutic. For them to understand that there was music that was other than this pushing. It destabilized the musicians' expectations of what playing music was, and because it destabilized their rote responses, it gave them access to other creative regions. It broke their conditioned responses. In a 23-minute version of "Bells, where for the first seven minutes, you're playing basically some kind of earth funeral march, I think it created a different mental state. And this is what brings it into the world of ritual music, and the world of religious music. That creation of a different mental state, of a different kind of bond among the musicians and with the audience, is something that's missing from the world of commodified music. You can't commodify that experience.

AAJ: Modern commodified music is all about a complete separation between performer and audience.

MR: Right. So you can't commodify that snapping that occurs in somebody's brain when they've been doing nothing but playing the same repetitive melody, slowly building in that way, when they're trained to jump in on the head and do the opposite. That breakdown can't be commodified. That was an artistic decision and a technique.

AAJ: The group Spiritual Unity—who are on the record and whom you're still playing with—is yourself, Chad Taylor on drums, Henry Grimes on bass and Roy Campbell on trumpet. Did you pick and choose the players for this band?

MR: I definitely put it together. I had played with Chad up at Symphony Space one day and thought he was great—I had a wonderful experience. I can't say enough things about Chad as a player. He was one of the only people who walked up to me and said, "you started on classical guitar, didn't you? Because it's not really that obvious from what I do, but Chad got that because he did, too. He's got a lot of interesting stuff and he's a really sensitive player. So I met him from that jam. I'd known Roy for a number of years in a number of settings. I'd heard him at some benefit playing with William Parker, and they did "Bells, and I loved what he was doing on that—I felt he had a good feel for the music. And then there's Henry. Henry played bass on my favorite, Goin' Home, which was originally Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual. It's a treat for me to work with the musician who played bass on my favorite recording of all time—how many people are able to say that they're able to do that?

So I've been very lucky. I was writing an email to Dave Douglas because he heard the band the other night—here it is, I'm quoting from what I sent Dave: "we did a Django Reinhardt gig a few times. Between me and Henry, no one mistook us for Django imitators. But Henry has unbelievable ears and what he plays will always relate to what's going on in some completely unpredictable and beautiful way. It's tempting to write off the density of his playing as just him going off the deep end, but when you listen to it, you hear the melody of the tune you're playing sped up, counter-pointed, harmonized, attacked, distorted, played backwards. He's really a Cecil Taylor of the bass. And he has his own version of playing grooves related to some strain of sixties funky jazz that we think we remember, but we don't. When I play with Henry, it's as if I'd only seen synthetic fabrics my whole life, and I'm confronted with a hand-knitted wool sweater with all its oddities and imperfections—different, yet infinitely warmer. He's the living embodiment of the difference between groove and metronomic time, which we were all taught were the same thing, right? Wrong.

It's not just that Henry was around then. There are many other players that were around then. It's that he disappeared between then and several years ago.


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