One of the most versatile instrumental talents to ever emerge from New York City's downtown experimental jazz scene, guitarist Marc Ribot has established himself as a both a celebrated sideman and bandleader over the last four decades. First coming to wide recognition for his angular, bluesy contributions to the seminal Tom Waits album Rain Dogs in 1985, Ribot would go on to work extensively with Waits, fellow NYC experimentalist John Zorn, and an array of artists including Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips, Robert Plant, and Marianne Faithful.
On his own, Ribot has tackled a daunting range of music. He has paid tribute to his mentor and guitar teacher Frantz Casseus (a man widely regarded as the father of Haitian classical guitar), explored film music with solo guitar, interpreted the songs of legendary Cuban composer Arsenio Rodríguez with the band Los Cubanos Postizos, and crafted noisy tunes with his feral avant-punk power trio Ceramic Dog. Ribot recently released Live at the Village Vanguard on Pi Recordings. The album documents a fiery 2012 concert by his trio comprised of bassist Henry Grimes (who played the same venue with fire-breathing saxophonist Albert Ayler 45 years earlier) and drummer Chad Taylor.
That group will offer its ferocious interpretations of songs by Ayler and latter-era John Coltrane when it closes out a four-night residency by Ribot this week at the SFJAZZ Center. The run will also include the guitarist playing a solo soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin's film The Kid as well as performances by Ceramic Dog and Los Cubanos Postizos (previously announced guest David Hidalgo of Los Lobos was forced to cancel his Saturday appearance). All Shook Down recently spoke with Ribot about his early work with Tom Waits, the influence of Albert Ayler on his music, and more.
Like a lot of people, my introduction to your guitar playing was your work with Tom Waits. Was it playing with the Lounge Lizards that led to you working on Rain Dogs?
Well, Waits was living in New York while he was researching Rain Dogs. I think it was actually the producer Hal Wilner who brought Waits down to a Lizard gig. I think I had met Waits before when he came down to check out Brenda and the Real-Tones once, this punk R&B band that I was involved in with Brenda Bergman in the early '80s. But I remember Tom sitting in on New Year's Eve at this club 8BC that led a short but fabulous existence on 8th Street between B and C back before the area was boutique-friendly. I remember he sang "Auld Lang Syne" on a particularly insane New Year's Eve gig [laughs].
Anyway, he must have heard me play and got in touch and called me to do some tunes on Rain Dogs. A lot of people played on that record. Robert Quine did and Keith Richards, of course. But somehow I wound up doing the tour and we got along. So it was good.
Looking over the collaborators Waits has used in the past couple of decades, you are one of the only people from back in the 1980s that he has continued to play with on newer recordings...
Well, all I can say is Tom is an experimenter. He likes to try new things and check out new sounds. I feel a great empathy and affinity to his music. If he feels like making a record, I'll be there [laughs].
Your guitar is really central to a couple of songs you did with Waits, like "Jockey Full of Bourbon," "I'll Be Gone," and "Tempation." How much direction did he give you as far as your contribution in the studio?
Well, I've said this many times and I don't really have anything new to say about it, but he works from a dramatic kind of concept where the instruments are like characters in a play. He's not looking for if you played an F or and F sharp. He's looking for "Would that be the band playing in the bar that the narrator is ranting in?" So I guess it was [laughs].
The music was not scored. Tom isn't giving you direction. He doesn't tell you what to play. You come up with something that makes sense and if it makes sense to him, he doesn't tell you to try something else. And if it doesn't, he tells you to try something else.
To get into the live trio album, it is the closest thing I've heard to Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages in terms of a guitarist's take on latter-era Coltrane and Ayler...
That's a huge complement, because I'm a huge Sonny Sharrock fan. He's one of the great and under-appreciated guitarists of the last hundred years. Like some other guitarists, I'm more inspired by sax players than other guitarists. I forget who said it, but someone said, "They don't play guitar; they play a very weird saxophone." For all I know it might have been Sonny Sharrock.
It's funny. I didn't start really listening to Sonny Sharrock until after I was well along this path. And I think if I had, it might have saved the trouble. Because I feel there's a lot of similar intention. For me, it's a rich territory.
What is it about Ayler's music that touched you?
Well, there are a lot of different things. I've spoken exhaustively on the subject, but what it boils down to first of all, Ayler's stuff was a cool way out clichés for me. The compositional elements of his larger ensemble pieces are very interesting. They're not A-A-B-A like the standard jazz head. They're A-B-A-C-A-E-A-F-G [laughs].
If you listen to "Bells," it's not through composed, but these different sections keep coming up and being returned to in a really interesting way. What Ayler was doing in one sense was much simpler chordally than bebop. These are basically three-note chords rather than the four-note chords with a lot of extensions like you find in bebop and standards. So in that sense, it brought it closer to rock, which is where I was coming from harmonically.
So you could play with the energy of rock without raising a big signifier saying "Ah! This is jazz. This is sophisticated." You could be brutal and rude and immediate in the sense of a rock band. And at the time, I didn't want to be signaling sophistication. I didn't want to be expressing harmonic complexity at the time.
So in one sense, it was a more restrictive, simpler language than bebop. On the other hand, through noise, atonal, and polytonal elements, it was more complex. Linguistically, I would say it skipped the middle range and went right to several extremes that I liked. So that's one way of looking at Ayler.
Another way of looking at Ayler is that, in his time, he was not considered jazz by everyone. He was considered a variation of spiritual music, and I'm not entirely sure this is wrong. Clearly he came out of jazz. But I'm not concerned with the labels. What impacted me was that there was a certain intensity. And this also tied into rock at its best. There's a sense that you're participating in a ritual that brings people out of their normal state. And I like that, too.
The story of Henry Grimes re-emerging after such a long absence was something I was unaware of until I heard about this live album. How did you connect with him? Did you reconvene Spiritual Unity specifically to play Ayler's songs with him?
Yes, I did. I heard from Margaret Davis, now Margaret Grimes, that Henry was back in town and available for gigs. I was very happy because he had played on some of my favorite albums. It was amazing. I, like many other people, had just assumed he was not playing anymore if he was even alive at all, so it was fantastic to see him resurface on the scene. And I thought that a good way to make an introduction, and a good common ground would be using the music of Albert Ayler. That was the basis of Spiritual Unity.
There are a number of Bay Area connections I came across looking over your discography. Both bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith from Ceramic Dog have local ties, but you've also worked with Fred Frith and Charming Hostess, among others. Did ties to one collaborator lead you to working with the other locals?
Yes, Ches Smith lived in the Bay Area and in L.A. and knows a lot of people in the West Coast scene, but we all travel around a lot. If I'm not wrong, I think Fred was living in New York for a while. This is a community of musicians who do a lot of collaborations. I don't know all the Bay Area players from the Bay Area, but I know some of them from when they were playing in New York. A lot of them spent time living in New York. You have to add the amazing Ralph Carney to that list, too. He's a Bay Area institution.
Ceramic Dog did a split single with Deerhoof for the latest Record Store Day. They're also originally from San Francisco, though I guess at least one member has moved to New York. How did that end up coming about?
I met them through Ches and Shazad and had been a fan of the band before, so I was happy to meet them. Greg [Saunier] from Deerhoof also produced the last Ceramic Dog record, so there's that, too.
The one time I've seen you perform live was as part of the John Zorn residency here at Yoshi's in San Francisco a few years ago. You played with the Electric Masada and it was insane. Do you know if Zorn has any future plans for that group?
That you will have to ask Mr. Zorn. Like Waits, he's a big experimenter and is always moving on to new projects. But that band has been going for a while and, even though most of the stuff was recorded a while ago, live it has reached a very intense point [laughs]. The musicians are all amazing and when John wants to jam, you know it!