A humble line might be drawn from Bach's Das Wohltemperirte Clavier through John Zorn's The Book of Heads to Marc Ribot's Exercises in Futility. All are essentially sets of exercises meant to highlight certain techniques. And while several players have tackled Zorn's knotty Book of Heads, Ribot is probably the most known, having recorded it for Tzadik. (The work was written for Eugene Chadbourne, who has since recorded it for the label, but it remains unreleased.)
The Well-Tempered Klavier was written as an instruction book for learning the piano, with the pieces getting progressively harder. Zorn's Book is less forgiving, starting at levels darn near impossible. And Ribot's Exercises in Futility methodically unfolds to unpack his own idiosyncratic playing. Over the course of 14 brief tracks (with an added 10-minute solo piece at the end), Ribot puts his unusual virtuosity in a petri dish, muting strings, thwapping the guitar body and generally dissecting what it is that makes him so in demand. It's quite different from his manic recording of the Book of Heads, though, working at the same time as a pleasant recital, rather than the enjoyably frantic Book of Heads.
While there's no guarantee that mastering the Exercises in Futility will put the aspiring guitarist in a position to air-drop into any situation with finesse and aplomb, Italian bassist Giovanni Maier's Technicolor is a good indication of Ribot's ability to do just that. Whether playing with Zorn, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull or Henry Grimes, he is immediately distinctive, always fitting his voice into the new context. With Maier's electric quartet, Ribot shows how to weave searing rock leads and bits of skronk into an instrumental prog setting. The two-disc set (Ribot only appears on the first) tends toward the display of speed and precision that proggers love, falling somewhere between the King Crimson and Frank Zappa camps and shows nice variations in composition. Maier isn't afraid of using some ambient noise and the band is spot on, with Ribot often dissolving into the mix and rising up again.
Alongside his own work, Ribot has made himself into the rare session player who can stand out in any crowd, hired to just be himself. By instruction and example, these discs show how he got there.
Tracks and Personnel
Exercises in Futility
etude #1: five gestures; etude #2: morton 1; etude #3: elvis; etude #4: bombasto; etude #5: lame; etude #6: cowboy; etude #7: ballad; etude #8: groove; etude #9: morton 2; etude # 10: min; etude #11: ascending; etude #12: mirror; etude #13: wank; etude #14: event on 10th avenue; joy in repetition.
Marc Ribot: guitar.
Segovia; El Matador; This is my Voice; L'inafferrabile Fascino Dell'incompletezza; Old File; Miss T.; Manarola Song; Villa Santina; Marc's Mark; Aeropagods; San Fiovanni; Grandi Speranze; Prometeus; Appreggi; One Long Song.
Giovanii Maier: bass; Zeno de Rossi: drums; Giorgio Pacorig: keyboards; Alfonso Santimone: keyboards; Marc Ribot: guitar.