Q&A: Marc Ribot On His Headlining Run At The Village Vanguard, Heading Into Unfamiliar Scenes, And Coming To New York In The ’70s
By Brad Farberman Mon., Jun. 25 2012 at 8:00 AM
While working in organist Jack McDuff’s band in 1979, guitarist Marc Ribot learned not to “hit the obvious note,” a guideline he’s followed ever since. As a sideman, he’s strummed for the likes of Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, the Lounge Lizards, and John Zorn; on his own, he moves from solo guitar to film scores to Cuban music to punk-jazz, not to mention tributes to Albert Ayler and John Cage. Tuesday through Sunday, the six-stringer surprises yet again by bringing an adventurous trio into New York jazz temple the Village Vanguard, a venue better known for swing than skronk. Featuring drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Henry Grimes, the latter of whom last played at the Vanguard in 1966, the Marc Ribot Trio is partial to noise and aggression—or, as Ribot puts it, music that “punches you in the face.”
You always have such great band names: Shrek, Los Cubanos Postizos, Ceramic Dog. Is the Marc Ribot Trio a more personal project?
This band is a real collaboration. It’s based on improvisation and whatever comes up in the improvisation, which, given the players involved, can be a whole lot of material. Sometimes we find ourselves playing standards or a blues piece. I started out playing with Henry and Chad in Spiritual Unity, which was dedicated to the music of Albert Ayler. So that may come up too.
And you’re also playing pieces from John Coltrane’s Sun Ship album.
I got quite into some of the late Coltrane materials. So that’s in there. That’s possible. Very possible.
Now, this is your first time leading a band at the Vanguard?
Yes it is. I played there only once, really. [I did] a week’s run with Allen Toussaint. It’s a great place and I’m excited to have the opportunity.
Is playing at the Vanguard a milestone for you?
You know, it’s funny. The possibility of playing there came up when I did the Allen Toussaint gig. To tell you the truth, I never really viewed it as a possibility, and even after I was invited, I thought, well, do I have a project that belongs there? Which was not slighting me or it. I respect what I do and I greatly respect both the history and the present of the Vanguard. In fact, when I first came to New York, I used to sit on the steps of the Vanguard, listening to, like, Jim Hall or whoever was playing there until I’d get kicked out. [It was a] cheapo way to kinda sit on the steps upstairs and catch some of the set. [laughs] Before somebody came and chased me away. So in that sense, you might say I have a long relationship with the place. I always figured that I was a jazz musician in the same sense that Cindy Sherman was a fashion model. So I wasn’t sure if I was right for the Vanguard.
But then, this past fall, I did this tour with Henry and Chad… My music has had a close relation with jazz for a very long time. For example, the music of Albert Ayler, which was considered jazz by some critics at the time and was not considered jazz by other critics at the time. One of the things that interested me in Ayler was translating it to the guitar. And so at times, we sounded more like some kind of punk band than what was recognized by most people as jazz. So I wasn’t sure whether it would be a good fit. But I did a tour this last fall, with Henry and Chad, and I started thinking, “You know, maybe we do have something to say within the tradition.” And so that’s why we’re here. It’s a funny thing to think, you know, after practicing for forty-five years. [laughs] Some people are just late bloomers.
You say you never even considered it a possibility. Why is that?
I thought that what we were doing was related to jazz, but I wasn’t sure if it was jazz. I never thought I’d be invited, first of all. I thought we were kind of outside the parameters of what the Vanguard was doing.
That brings up a greater idea I wanted to discuss with you: The divisions of the New York City jazz scene today. A certain group of people plays at the Stone, and they might not necessarily play at the Vision Festival, even though there’s an overlap. Then there are people who play at Lincoln Center and the Vanguard who might not play at the Stone or the Vision Festival. And then a hundred little scenes in between. But you seem to float pretty freely from camp to camp.
All I can say is, I admire a lot of different musicians. I mean, I’ll be going to as many Vision Festival events this week as I possibly can. People who pick up records of New York ’60s free-jazz and think, “Oh, that was a historical period,” a lot of them are unaware that that scene is alive and well. It’s a living music. Whether people identify with the “free-jazz” tag or not. It wasn’t just an aesthetic that came from Mars. It came from people who lived in a particular place, which was New York. Which is New York. It’s a music of New York. And I felt very close to it for a variety of reasons. A lot of the projects, you see certain players emerge in again and again. In particular, William Parker. As with any improvised music, some sets will speak to you, others will not. But when I hear what’s going on, I think, “This is the real shit.” And I’ve heard great stuff. So I feel very close to that scene. And I’ve played for a long time with John Zorn.
I mean, I think it’s always been that there’s different musical aesthetics. And it’s natural that there’s different scenes. Where things get dicey are where there are ideological and social constructs that are getting in the way of what would otherwise naturally be musicians and musics with similar aesthetics. The well-known case of that is the Lincoln Center case, in which Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch defined a very clear set of definitions of what jazz is. In some ways, I appreciated that someone was doing the work to create a set of definitions. However, unfortunately, it excluded the best composers of our time. And many of the best musicians of our time. And, again, for a critic to attempt to define and delineate—that’s what critics do. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think that musicians of all types should make an effort to question their ideologies and follow their aesthetic pursuits into scenes that are unfamiliar. I think the best musicians do that.
I think a lot of musicians have particular tags placed on them but are open if they’re invited to do other things. Like when you did those free improvs with McCoy Tyner. He’s not necessarily known as a free player…
Which was part of my interest in Sun Ship. Because very arguably, he was part of one of the records that launched the genre.
Those improvs came off really nicely. And there’s that video online. He doesn’t seem unhappy to play free with you.
No, no. Like I say, he’s one of the people that invented it. He said that he hadn’t gone that way in a while. Are you kidding? He’s a genius at it.
Let’s talk about playing with Henry Grimes, and how that all started.
Before I met Henry, it started with me listening for a long time and being amazed by Albert Ayler records. Gary Peacock does some great playing on some records, but I eventually came to realize that some of the most amazing stuff was Henry Grimes. I’ve mentioned this in interviews before, but talk about genre-crossing. One of the people who pointed that out to me was Robert Quine, the former Lou Reed and Richard Hell and the Voidoids guitarist. Arguably, along with the people in Television, [he] invented the idea of the punk rock guitar solo. Quine hipped me to this record called Swing Low Sweet Spiritual. And I think on CD, it’s called Goin’ Home. It’s the only record in which Ayler really plays standards and spirituals. And it’s very different than other Ayler records. But the bass playing on that is revolutionary. It kind of invents a new role somewhere in between a traditional, supportive bass function and a counterpoint/soloing function. And that’s Henry.
And I, along with many other people, assumed that Henry was no longer with us, because he was not appearing anywhere. And so I was really amazed when I got an email from Margaret Davis—now Margaret Davis Grimes—saying that Henry was back on the scene and was looking for gigs. So I right away said, “Oh, let’s get together!” So we created this Spiritual Unity project, ’cause I thought, “Okay, this is good. Let’s start off with a common language. This is something that we both know and [we can] use it as a starting place.” And that’s exactly what we did. Henry didn’t just come back. He had a remarkable and dramatic story of his absence. He’d somehow gotten cut off from the music world and had been living hand to mouth, basically. For a long time. Over twenty years. And some friends helped him out. I know William Parker gave him a bass. And helped him get back to New York. And Margaret Davis helped him out a lot. Different people. It was a very dramatic story. But you should ask Henry about that. He can tell you. I don’t feel quite comfortable talking about his experiences. I am comfortable saying that it’s great that he’s back. It was interesting to work with somebody who is a legend from that time but who has been away since. Because jazz musicians tend to talk about the greats as monsters. “That guy’s a monster.” There’s this myth of the monster who has got technical perfection in every way and is great at every form. Henry’s a superb musician. But he’s also, without question, a human being. [laughs] No monsters, you know? No scary monsters. All human. And all musician.
What, specifically, do you like about Henry’s playing? And how does it mesh with your playing?
The things that I love about Henry’s playing are, first of all, he’s a great improviser. Full of ideas. One of the things that you see in some beginning improvisers are that if you play a note they have to play the same note just to show, “Hey. See, I heard you.” [laughs] Henry manages to counterpoint whatever’s going on, but he doesn’t have that insecure reaction at all. He counterpoints while following his own trajectory, and it always works. I work with a lot of people, and some great bass players, but I found that there was a special connection with Henry and with Chad. Chad has amazing ears. So between the two of them, if there’s an idea that comes up, it’s like instant composition.
When did you start working with Chad?
I met Chad a while ago. We did an improvised trio gig with Fred Anderson. And it was so much fun. And I kept saying, “Man, I gotta do this again.” So I tried to book stuff in Europe but it was hard to get [Anderson] out of Chicago. I guess he felt a responsibility to hang out and run the Velvet Lounge. It just needs to be said that the fact that the United States would allow a place like that to close is criminal. [laughs] When I realized that the trio with Fred wasn’t gonna happen, I said, “Okay, we’ll find another way of making this work.” And that was about when I heard that Henry was on the scene again. I thought, “Aha!” Chad has a very cool musical background. ‘Cause he’s been through the Chicago AACM experience, and has been part of that community, but he’s also worked with a wide range of Chicago musicians. He knows the people on the Tortoise scene. His own groups. Chicago Underground Duo—he’s half of that. So he comes with a great set of influences and experiences that he brings to bear.
How is he different from some of the other drummers you regularly use, like Ches Smith or J.T. Lewis?
I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of great players. [Chad is] super quick in an improvising situation. Like, he makes what I do sound intentional, almost. [laughs] We have something in common, that he also started out on classical guitar. He’s the only musician I ever met who heard me playing the way I play now and said, “You started out on classical guitar.” Because it’s not obvious. [laughs] I guess it takes one to know one. I dunno, it’s just one of those things. You could get mystical about it, and talk about ESP and all that. But with this trio, it’s a great rapport.
And of course one of Henry’s last gigs in New York was with Ayler at the Vanguard.
You know something, I didn’t actually put that together. In that case, all I can say is: Welcome home.
That Ayler album In Greenwich Village…
So In Greenwich Village was a Vanguard gig?
That was at the Vanguard in ’66.
Oh my god.
Then Henry went to California in ’67.
You know, I hadn’t put together that chronology. Well in that case, we’ll be sure to acknowledge that fact. ‘Cause that album is one of my favorites.
Can you talk about your relationship with Ayler’s music?
I listened a bit to Albert Ayler starting when I was in the Lounge Lizards. The Lizards were definitely influenced by Ayler. Without question. In fact, I think [John] Lurie did a record in memory of Albert Ayler. So I was aware of Albert Ayler. And then when I started doing my own band, I think on my first record there was this tune “New.” Or “New New,” or something like that. [It’s called “New Sad.”] I think Anthony Coleman said, “You know, this kind of stuff you’re writing has a certain relation to Albert Ayler’s stuff.” I said, “Hmm.” I started re-listening. So this would be, like, late ’80s.
What I started hearing when I started listening was… First of all, I dug it compositionally. In Ayler’s writing, it doesn’t depend on complex chord changes. It didn’t go the route of the bebop solution, of greater and greater harmonic complexity. He solved the problem by doing more and more interesting forms. So if you listen to the form of “Bells,” there’s ABAACADAE. There’s all kinds of jump choruses and other sections coming in. Combined with or alternating with free sections. So this was much more interesting to me than the jazz cliché of AABA, blow on the changes, BA and out. If you’re really lucky, you get an intro and an outro. It was more interesting formally. It solved the problem of how you could do an extended form without being really boring. Which is what half an hour playing on AABA usually is. And also, it solved the problem of how you could do this within a language that had a common border with rock. It showed how a rock band could do this. Which, as a guitarist, interested me. ‘Cause of the history of guitar. Of guitar sounds.
I’m not gonna get into definitions of rock or jazz, but let’s just say that some of the guitar sounds that I like aren’t mainly associated with jazz. And I’m not alone in that regard. I mean, Sonny Sharrock. James Blood Ulmer could say some similar things. Whether [or not] they would say them, we’re exploring similar territory. So both things interested me. And then in terms of improvising, he got away from the structured and by then very rote roles of the jazz band. Like I said before, Henry’s role was definitely a contrapuntal, fellow improviser. Definitely not the role of the bass as “Okay, you do the work of the rhythm section and the soloist is free.” And that was John Cage’s famous critique of jazz, that it accomplishes the freedom of the soloist at the expense of the slavery of the rhythm section. It was a critique which was already not true at the time that he made it, partly thanks to Albert Ayler and others. So in a way, this was a step forward; in a way, it was a step backwards to New Orleans, to the more open roles of different ensemble members in New Orleans jazz. More contrapuntal. A more collective soloing.
And another thing about Ayler as a soloist—about both Aylers, Donald and Albert, as soloists—they had done and pioneered use of noise elements and purely sonic elements as part of the soloing. I mean, by the time I came on the scene, like, late ’70s/early ’80s, that’s what was going on. In new-music, contemporary music, contemporary classical, jazz, and in punk rock. So there was a common moment there. It’s funny, I’m used to saying all these kinds of things; I’ve done seminars on this, and I say them. But there’s something that actually is the real thing that I got out of Albert Ayler, which was this spirit of his soloing. Which is indefinable. But kinda punches you in the face.
What was it like coming to New York in the late ’70s?
I came to New York from Maine. Where I’d been working, basically, however I possibly could to survive. Mostly in rock bands. But playing jazz whenever I could. When I came to New York, I wanted to get whatever gigs I could to pay my rent. I assumed I wanted to be a jazz musician. For myself, as with many young musicians, jazz seemed to be the music of freedom. And I think it is, actually. But what I found when I came to New York was that there was this whole CBGBs thing happening, with a lot of originality and craziness going on in rock. And at the same time, the gigs that were open to me, as an entry-level jazz player, were… Well, let’s put it this way: I was very lucky to work with Brother Jack McDuff. But there was a set repertoire that needed to be mastered. A set set of tunes that you definitely had to know. So I think it’s a great discipline, and I don’t regret having tried to go through it, but once I was actually involved in it, it didn’t seem exactly like the music of freedom anymore. [laughs] Not at that level. That combined with the fact that I’ve never been a technical virtuoso…
Well, some of us would beg to differ…
Well, look, if you’ve been doing this as long as I have and you can’t play, there’s really something wrong. [laughs] But really, to be honest with you, really what it was was that there was a certain way of hearing the eighth-note. For a long time, I thought, “Oh, man, why was I having such trouble?” In other words, Brother Jack McDuff would on many occasions glare at me because my eighth-note feel was not swinging in the way… Like, Count Basie was kind of the gold standard, and still is. And for good reason. And for a long time, I was quite tormented by this fact. And it’s still something that I work on, to be honest with you. Eventually I came to realize that these different ways of hearing the eighth-note, and these different ways of understanding a solo, weren’t strictly just questions of skill or aesthetic choice. I mean, if you really start listening to the borderline people who were playing just before Chuck Berry, who came out of jump band blues or swing, and just before Ike Turner, you’d really try to think, “What’s the difference? Where did it really cross over into rock?” Because it’s almost some of the identical riffs. The difference that you hear is that with those earlier players, you feel that, with a solo, even if it’s a short solo, they have all the time in the world to get to the end. And with the rock players, you feel even if it’s a long solo, they’re in a rush. Like, I don’t mean strictly playing ahead of the eighth-notes. But it’s like they better finish the solo soon or they might die. And for a long time, I thought, “Oh, well. It’s a question of skill or technique or chops.” I think it’s really a different way of understanding the world. Or maybe a different world to be understood. And then I became a lot less judgmental about it.
How long were you in Jack McDuff’s band?
Not very long. About four months.
Was this 1979?
Yeah, I think it would’ve been ’79. Four, five months. Not long. But it made a big impression.
Who else was in the band?
There was a Japanese saxophone player named Malta. I don’t know what happened; he went back to Japan. And there was a drummer named Garrett King. And there were a couple of different bass players whose names I’ve forgotten. Sometimes no bass player, because he was a great pedal player. But he was trying to make it more of a funk band at the time.
What songs were you playing?
We played a lot of his own blues-oriented things, like “Rock Candy.” You know, I should go back and find out. Dust off some of those things.
Is there a recording anywhere?
No, no recording of me and him. I mean, we went into the studio one day, but I don’t think it was ever released. Then, he was doing a lot of standards as well. He’d do four sets a night. And on Sunday matinees, seven or eight sets. So there was a lot of time to do everything. So, you know, “April in Paris.” He had a routine where he’d throw a handkerchief up in the air and hit the last chord when he caught it. [laughs] It was great. Yeah, “April in Paris.” I think we did “Stella.” Like I said, it was a long time ago.
What did you learn from McDuff?
Well, I learned what I wasn’t doing. [laughs] It was a great school because not only McDuff was demanding, the audience was extremely sophisticated. And really demanding. And it was the only situation that I’ve played in before or since where the audience rewarded restraint. It’s an unfortunate thing, but a lot of rock audiences in particular, they seem to mistake the guitar for a trumpet. And they think if you’re playing high and fast, that you’re doing something really difficult. Whereas the audience on that scene, at that time, if you held back, if you restrained yourself and didn’t go bananas right away, or didn’t hit the obvious note, they would get drawn in, and then they’d pay attention. And dig what you were doing.
In some ways, especially as an improviser, it’s a lot easier to go crazy.
What were some of the New York venues you played with McDuff?
You know what? [We] never played in New York at all. Never played in New York. We played the Key Club and Sparky J’s in Newark. We would go to places like Rochester, New York, on a one-night stand. We toured the Midwest. I remember a place called the Playboy Club in Gary, Indiana. I highly doubt it’s still there. Indianapolis. Some places like that. Dayton. Places in the Midwest. We played down in Baltimore. I think Philly, too. That was the first time I ever played in Europe—we did a short European tour. Something in Belgium, something in Holland, had a week’s run in Munich. I don’t remember. There was a couple other things.
To finish, I just wanna throw a couple of names at you. Can you tell me how you started with the Lounge Lizards?
Saxophonist Roy Nathanson was a friend of mine and he knew Lurie. They were doing some playing together. They knew each other at a time when John and Evan were reconstituting the Lounge Lizards post-Arto Lindsay. And so he just called me for a gig. And there was no rehearsal that I remember. It was at the club the World, down on Houston Street. Or maybe it was First Street or something. That was a long time ago too. It was a big, huge, raw space. And the only instruction was, “Play like on Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson album.” So I did my best to do that. We played. And then I was in the band.
And how did you start working with Zorn?
I met Zorn when I was on my way to Japan with the Lounge Lizards. Zorn was also on the plane. And I remember I was full of admiration, because he had brought a sandwich from the Carnegie Deli. ‘Cause he believed that airplane food causes jetlag. And one of those sandwiches is all you need for a trip to Japan. You’re good for fourteen hours. And then later on I met Zorn through Quine and we wound up doing some playing. He called me for some sessions and the rest is… well, I don’t know if it’s history. But there’s a lot of records.
Marc Ribot Trio, with Henry Grimes and Chad Taylor, headlines the Village Vanguard from Tuesday through Sunday.
178 Seventh Ave., New York, NY