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Interviews

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

By Published: March 27, 2006
AAJ: And didn't play during that time.

MR: Yeah. I guess it's a cliché to say it, but the way the United States treats its artists in general, and its jazz artists in particular, is criminal. But what was a personal tragedy—not just Henry's, but everybody's loss—resulted in something interesting. When you hear Henry play, because he wasn't around during the intervening years, it's kind of like if you could punch a hole in the wall and hear someone practicing in 1967. The things we think we know about those times—a lot of them, through hearing Henry, have been called into question. Henry gigged with a lot of people—he was the known walking-bassist who played with a lot of regular jazz and swing people. Didn't he play with Sonny Rollins? You can check. [Yes, on a variety of dates between 1958 and 1963.] But he was a major player on the scene before Albert Ayler. And then, I think he went into a certain thing, and once he went there, he couldn't go back. He didn't want to go back. Henry's a great musician. I'm hoping to do some duo playing with Henry.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the pieces on Spiritual Unity. I suspect that they can probably change so much from performance to performance that you might not even recall what happened on the recording.

MR: You're quite correct about that. I mean, what we were going for was Ayler's process. The pieces are interesting in themselves, but they were meant to trigger a certain kind of improvising. That's what we're looking for. There's the piece and the things that were done with the pieces. One of the techniques that seems to be used is playing the head and then jumping off the deep end. That's one of the processes. Another is repetition. But having said that, the pieces are interesting. For example, if you look at [Ayler's original recording of] "Bells, there's a long melody, a melody that in playing, in the playing of the two A sections, is already longer than the usual recording of the time. It takes them something like six or seven minutes to get through the head.

It's a very slow, beautiful piece. There's different collecting sections, and small improvising things at the end of each A section. Then the piece modulates to a different key. There's a B section and then the B section returns as a jump chorus in between improvisations. Then a third, entirely different melody is introduced. So this is already a much more complicated form than your average bebop head. The other thing you could note right away, the first thing you hear when you hear "Bells, or a lot of these, is that they're based on triads. So the form had to be more complex because he wasn't relying on the trick of making it develop much harmonically—so it developed formally instead. Mainstream jazz developed harmonically from more or less simple chords to very complicated four-part, five-part, six-part chords.

AAJ: Changes.

MR: Well, there were changes with Louis Armstrong and early jazz too. But at most you got a seventh chord. As jazz developed harmonically, you got raised flat ninths, raised elevenths—generally it moved towards harmonic complexity. So did Brazilian music, but there's always been music that developed in a different way. For example, Cuban music and Albert Ayler music developed along a line where you get much more complicated forms. Cuban son, let's say—Cuban jazz uses jazz chords—kept the same basic harmonic repertoire as rock and roll, three-note chords, maybe sometimes a seventh. But its forms developed further. I think there's an inverse relationship and of course some composers use both, but generally music either developed along formal lines or in terms of harmonic complexity.

AAJ: In terms of your actual recording of "Bells, which was done live at Tonic the night before you did the session that produced the other pieces on the album—I'm curious about whether there was any discussion beforehand, whether there's any cueing going on. There's a moment during Roy's trumpet solo where there's a collective quieting down on everyone else's part until he's almost a cappella. This made me wonder just what, if anything is predetermined and whether things are being cued.

MR: I've played in bands where there's a lot of conducting but this isn't one of them. There's a very minimal amount. There are parts in the composition in which we all wait for another part. When we all wind up in a certain place, we all know we're going to hit the next part and so we all look around, listen around before somebody dives in. Very little cueing but there was discussion—we talk about using the full range of the thing, from collective improvising to a cappella. We've talked about trying to get out of the clichés. Any instrument can be the soloist, any instrument can be the rhythm section—so why not bass soloing over guitar—just trying to get out of the enslavement of the rhythm section. So while that's a general goal, there's very little overt cueing going on. Sometimes, during a soloist, let's say Henry's solo, Roy and I will enter as a group, collectively soloing behind him, and then exit. For that, we'll cue each other; someone will conduct us in and out.


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