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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.

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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