In Praise of Marc Ribot…


It’s a cold day in late March, and Marc Ribot sits in his fifth-floor Cobble Hill walk-up, drinking freshly brewed coffee and eating cherry tomatoes out of the container. He’s also listening to Allen Toussaint’s new The Bright Mississippi (to which he contributed bluesy, elegiac, New Orleans-style guitar), making sure his 12-year-old daughter, Clara, finishes her homework before delving into her pleasure (reading), giving notes to his sound mixer on an upcoming recording project, brewing a fresh pot of coffee, and helping his manager find various tax documents amid his apartment’s charming clutter.

You’d figure a guy like Ribot gets a lot of 1099s. Later in the week, he’ll give a duo concert with avant-garde bassist Henry Grimes at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea, before whisking himself downtown to play an acoustic set at Tribeca’s City Winery with veteran pop icon Marianne Faithfull the same night. Both shows will sell out. (A few days later, he’ll join Faithfull again on the Late Show With David Letterman, offering a stirringly lyrical eight-bar solo on a cover of the Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife 3.”) He’s kept up this lifestyle for several decades now, cementing a reputation as the hardest-working sideman on the downtown scene, in addition to spearheading countless pioneering jazz groups, cutting almost 20 albums as a leader, and lending his mercurial guitar sound to everyone from Tom Waits to John Zorn to Allen Ginsberg to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Oftentimes, the only connection between the various artists he’s played with is … him.

And now, to celebrate his 55th birthday, Ribot is bringing together many of those eclectic collaborators for a week-long career retrospective. From May 9 through 16, he’ll spend almost every night in a different downtown venue with a different group: the ethereal Scelsi Morning, Latin-jazz provocateurs Los Cubanos Postizos, gut-busting jazz-punk powerhouse Shrek (no relation), avant-noise genre-benders Rootless Cosmopolitans, Albert Ayler tribute band Spiritual Unity, “post-everything” electro-funk trio Ceramic Dog (to which Ribot also contributes vocals), and the debut of Sun Ship, his latest foray into the ever-expanding world of free jazz, named after the John Coltrane album.

“I figured I’d do it before I croaked,” the birthday boy explains of this mini-retrospective. “I don’t trust the bastards to do it afterwards.”

Born in Newark to Jewish parents, Ribot grew up in Orange, in what he describes as “a garden apartment with a lot of kids throwing rocks at each other.” In the third grade, he took up the trumpet, but at age 10, he opted for the six-string instead. Soon thereafter, he began studying classical guitar in Manhattan with Haitian composer Frantz Casseus, who had emigrated to America, met Ribot’s aunt and uncle, and more or less been adopted into the family. This training, however, only spurred Ribot to play in garage bands throughout his youth — a natural move, he says, as “New Jersey was blessed with an abundance of garages.” That style’s ethic has stuck with him ever since: “I just want to rock the house on a Saturday night,” he insists.

After crossing the Hudson, Ribot began his career with the Real Tones, an r&b band that occasionally played backup for Chuck Berry, among others. He then worked his way into the downtown scene, playing gigs with jazz organist “Brother” Jack McDuff and eventually joining John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards. He went on to collaborate with Tom Waits on several records, beginning with Waits’s gritty homage to the American drifter, the critically lauded 1985 album Rain Dogs. From there, the former Lizard proceeded to wend a chameleon-like path through the downtown scene, always adapting his style to the recording environment, which ranged from Masada Guitars, John Zorn’s melding of free jazz with traditional Jewish liturgical music, to Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s phantasmagorical compendium of obscure folk-rock covers, which took the 2009 Grammy for Album of the Year.

Indeed, few musicians embody the melting pot of the downtown scene quite like Ribot. His music is a cerebral distillation of a sweeping spectrum of influences: Afro-Cuban rhythms, ’80s No Wave, Eric Dolphy, Django Reinhardt, Ornette Coleman, Blind Willie Johnson, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Keith Richards, Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Robert Quine … the list goes on. Through his work, music legends rarely seen in the same sentence meet onstage. Ribot describes his process as “trying to re-create through fragments of memory, reaching for some kind of groove that you can’t quite consciously articulate.”

He remains vehemently opposed to the idea of developing what he calls a “brand sound,” instead approaching each song with the meticulousness of a tailor. “Sometimes, it meant my guitar sounding like one thing — other times, it meant my guitar sounding completely different,” he explains. “Ideally, it would mean inventing a new language for every piece. So as much as I might have an identifiable sound, I see it as a kind of failure. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to resist your own commodification. But in the words of Tom Waits, ‘Once people know what it is, they stop listening.'”

Sometimes atonal and percussive, other times lilting and melodious, and occasionally resembling primal scream therapy, the guitarist’s elusive sound demonstrates total command of his instrument. If he ever sounds inexpressive, it’s intentional. “He’s somehow like a studio musician or some sort of session-pro guy — he’s soaked up every style out there,” says Chris Wood, a Ribot collaborator and bassist in the innovative avant-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. “But unlike a lot of session-pro guys, he’s got his own voice, no matter what style he’s playing in. Whether it’s Afro-Cuban or avant-jazz, you can always hear Marc Ribot. He surrounds himself in this kind of chaos — onstage, there’s a sea of tangled-up pedals and cables and charts everywhere — but out of that come the most unexpected, brilliant things.”

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 for details.