By Lindsey Rhoades
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By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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Downtown icon John Zorn, the avant-garde alto saxophonist and purveyor of the Radical Jewish Culture movement, also has nothing but praise for his frequent collaborator: "Ribot combines a razor-sharp intellect with wild, uncontrollable energy—in the studio playing with a perfectionist's attention to detail, and onstage with the intensity of a man possessed." Such an approach has, of course, gotten him into innumerable adventures and misadventures—consider the time he broke a string on Saturday Night Live while playing with Elvis Costello. "You really haven't lived until you've broken a guitar string or two on live, prime-time, network TV," Ribot recalls, wistfully. "Luckily, I had five other strings, or four. During 'Let Him Dangle,' if you listen very closely, there's a little place in the solo where it kind of goes 'ping.' "
He remembers the highlights, too, of course: "Chuck Berry once said something nice about one of my blues solos. I got to tour with Henry Grimes, got to walk on a mambo line singing 'Space Is the Place' with the [Sun Ra] Arkestra. Things haven't changed much, really, I guess. The Village Voice went to a non-subscription format."
Grimes, the free-jazz bassist who played with Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and McCoy Tyner in the '50s and '60s, began playing with Ribot in 2003, when he resurfaced on the scene after a 30-year absence; along with trumpeter Roy Campbell and drummer Chad Taylor, they formed Spiritual Unity, a group dedicated to reinterpreting Ayler's catalog. "We have a mutual understanding and respect for each other's music," Grimes says. "As far as being a bandleader, he really goes overboard to make everyone comfortable and happy playing."
Last summer, Ribot brought this sense of comfort on a European tour with his Ceramic Dog trio, a group that straddles the boundaries between punk, experimental rock, and free jazz. Drummer Ches Smith recalls one particular incident when the band got lost in the Italian Alps on their way to a gig after Ribot tried to avoid a traffic jam by ignoring their rental car's GPS system and using a map. Smith recalls the roads getting smaller and smaller as they climbed higher and higher, until they found themselves in a small ski village at a dizzyingly high altitude: "It was like, 'We have no idea where we are. Let's get lunch.' " They ate a couple of pizzas and began making their way back down, still ignoring the GPS. "I was starting to wonder what was going to happen to the gig," Smith continues. "There was a series of signs that looked like we were going the wrong direction, and Marc kept telling me where to go. I wasn't sure if we were headed in the right direction at all, and then, suddenly, everything opened up, and we were where we were. I guess it was kind of like our gigs."
The Marc Ribot retrospective takes place May 9 through 16. See marcribot.com for specific