Photo: David O’Shaughnessy
Guitarist Marc Ribot‘s been around. Beginning in the early ’80s, he’s balanced his own skronky, avant-garde-ish solo work with sideman and session gigs for half the rock and jazz world, including the Black Keys; T-Bone Burnett; Cibo Matto; Elvis Costello; Elton John; Marianne Faithfull; Allen Ginsberg; Diana Krall; Medeski, Martin & Wood; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; Stan Ridgway; David Sanborn; and many, many more. He maintains several long-running creative relationships, most notably with John Zorn (for whom he’s recorded dozens of times, and is a member of both the Bar Kokhba Sextet and Electric Masada) and Tom Waits (he’s played on Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years, the live Big Time, Mule Variations, Real Gone, Orphans, and Bad As Me). As a leader, he’s made over 20 albums, ranging from solo work to nearly metallic noise-rock to Latin dance tunes with Los Cubanos Postizos. His latest release is Live at the Village Vanguard, a trio disc featuring bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor—the same rhythm section heard on his 2005 album Spiritual Unity (by the band of the same name), a tribute to Albert Ayler featuring the late trumpeter Roy Campbell.
For this interview, Ribot was asked almost exclusively about recordings where he’d been a sideman or a session player, with the exception of Spiritual Unity and Live at the Village Vanguard.
Solomon Burke, Soul Alive! (Rounder Records, 1984; recorded 1981—buy it from Amazon)
I was playing in the band at the time—I don’t remember whether that record was ’81 or ’82, but I was playing in the band the Realtones, which later became the Uptown Horns band, and we were kind of the house band at an R&B revival series at the old Tramps on 16th Street, near Union Square. And Solomon Burke was playing as part of that series. So we backed him up a couple of times at Tramps, and then he got us a gig in Washington, DC at a club called the Phoenix II or something, and we got down there and there was a sign at the entrance to the club, “Be Part Of Exciting Live Recording.” [laughs] So it was like a three- or four-day run, and the playing was really fun. I remember the opening act was a group of male strippers called the Macho Dancers, that was perfect for Solomon’s target audience—not gay, mostly straight women. Solomon was a huge, unbelievably charismatic, like the most enormous rock star you could imagine. He cast a spell on people. So we recorded there, and we negotiated—there were some business irregularities surrounding the recording, as you can imagine, and it took some doing to get paid, but in the end I’m very happy we made the record.
Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (Island Records, 1985—buy it from Amazon)
Well, Tom was living in New York at the time, and I think—I didn’t realize who was actually hipping him to these gigs, but he was from L.A., and he showed up at some of the gigs I was doing earlier, with Brenda and the Realtones; that was the band I told you about, we had a singer named Brenda sometimes—mostly, actually, the band started off as Brenda and the Realtones. So he came and checked out Brenda and the Realtones—he sat in, I think—and then he sat in with the Lounge Lizards a couple of years later. I remember he sang “Auld Lang Syne” one particularly crazy New Year’s Eve, I guess that would have to have been pretty early, maybe ’84. So he must have heard me at those gigs, and then he called me to play on the record. It might have been Hal Willner who brought him down to those gigs, by the way. [In the studio], he wasn’t a—I don’t remember him saying which mic he wanted used, but he was very specific about how he wanted the sound. If it didn’t sound right to him, he didn’t let any engineer or anyone else tell him differently; he kept pushing until he got the sound he wanted.
The Lounge Lizards, Big Heart: Live in Tokyo (Antilles, 1986—buy it from Amazon)
There was a lot of back-and-forth, mostly forth I guess…eventually a lot of Japanese bands like the Boredoms started playing in the U.S., but that was a few years later. There was a huge interest in all things New York at the time in Japan, and Japan was just booming economically. So the first gig the Lounge Lizards played over there, I remember we were the band for this fashion show of weird East Village designers, most of whom were completely unknown outside of an eight-block radius in the East Village. Probably now they’re all super famous, I don’t know. So yeah, these very inside, cult things from the U.S. could work in Japan. The reasons for that interest are interesting themselves, but I don’t know—I’m glad it happened.
The Lounge Lizards had this funny relationship to jazz. It was a kind of mutant reading of Thelonious Monk; I would say that’s what the whole band was. In fact, if you think about it, that’s what all No Wave music was, or a lot of it—anyway, the parts I was involved with. If you read Thelonious Monk as progress, well, that made you a mainstream jazz person. If you read Thelonious Monk as a kind of stripping down, then you could wind up with something like the Lounge Lizards. I came into the band at an interesting moment, because the original role for guitar there was created by Arto Lindsay. And Arto, as everyone famously knows, does not play guitar in the traditional manner. I mean, he does something amazing with guitar, and what he does draws on a lot of listening and draws on his having spent a lot of his childhood in Brazil and absorbing that percussive tradition. And it also just draws on having a lot of guts and a willingness to do absolutely anything. And having an ear. He has an ear, and he’s willing to use it even though it’s not trained in the usual way. For example, when he tunes his guitar, he tunes it until it sounds good to him, it has nothing to do with the usual ratios that people tune guitars by or the notes the strings are usually tuned to. He stops when it sounds OK to him. And usually it makes a sound kinda like shattering glass. But anyway, I think as the band was developing, both the Lurie brothers were composing more, and they wanted somebody who would pay attention to their compositions. At the same time, I was a huge fan of the Lounge Lizards and of Arto’s playing in the Lounge Lizards. So the way I approached it was this: if they wanted a jazz guitarist, or if they wanted somebody who could play these compositions, I was gonna be someone who knew how to play but also understood why Arto’s playing was more effective than the way I knew how to play. In other words, to put it another way, I was into Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler, and in my opinion, I didn’t have a clue how to play like that, but Arto’s playing came closer to those—to the energy that I liked about the musicians I really liked—than anybody playing anything called jazz guitar.
Foetus, Gash (Columbia, 1995—buy it from Amazon)
Oh, Jim Thirlwell. You know, it’s funny, I don’t even remember how I met Jim. It just seems like we were both always around, we were both East Village residents at the time. I don’t remember who introduced us, or if he just called out of the blue, but yeah, I went over and did some overdubbing on his record. Anyways, I’m a fan of his music, so I was happy to get the call.
Andrés Calamaro, Alta Suciedad (Gasa/Warner Music Argentina, 1997—buy it from Amazon)
Andrés Calamaro, Honestidad Brutal (Gasa/Warner Music Argentina, 1999—buy it from Amazon)
Oh, man, you have been digging in the archives. He’s a rocker, a real rocker. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but…that was my friend JD Foster was producing that record, I believe, if memory serves. I don’t remember how that connection came about; I do remember that was recorded here. And I remember I had some freedom on that record. Every situation is different; some people are looking for a Tom Waits imitator, or they’re Tom Waits imitators looking for me to reprise those solos, and they’re usually vastly disappointed, or I am.
Dave Douglas, Freak In (Bluebird, 2002—buy it from Amazon)
I don’t even remember if I went in or did the recording in my studio and it was overdubbed. Maybe I recorded it in the studio with Dave, but I think I overdubbed on that. I remember how the record sounds. I like it. We’ve worked together a lot, mostly on Zorn projects. Dave’s definitely—we’re both improvisers, and we both like a lot of the same stuff, and we both work with Zorn a lot, so that creates a kind of common language.
McCoy Tyner, Guitars (HalfNote, 2008—buy it from Amazon)
OK, that was an amazing experience for me, because, well first of all there was the recording itself. I was very intimidated, because I have a relationship with jazz, but I don’t see myself as a post-bop guitarist, I don’t see myself as—well, it was a stretch for me, as you can imagine, playing with McCoy. So I walked into the studio and we recorded a couple of tunes, and it went all right, but not great, and then the other musicians were going out to have a coffee break or something, and I proposed to McCoy that we do some improvising. Even if it was short pieces. And so we did, and I thought, Wow, this went really well. I found McCoy to be—and this shouldn’t come as any surprise—but McCoy was very free and a great improviser. But we improvised in a free sense, and later on, there was a lot of excitement surrounding those recordings, because people told me later that McCoy hadn’t played completely free since Coltrane’s time. It’s funny, because [John Coltrane‘s] Sun Ship is one of my favorite records, and we went on to do a couple of gigs in addition to the record, and a couple of times I played some heads from Sun Ship and McCoy just kinda laughed. He thought it was cool that I was playing it, but he didn’t wanna go there. And I don’t know what it is—I suspect it was a very intense time, and conjuring it up again was just not what he wanted to do.
Marc Ribot, Spiritual Unity (Pi Recordings, 2005—buy it from Amazon)
Marc Ribot, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi Recordings, 2013—buy it from Amazon)
Well, Roy [Campbell], again, he’s just somebody I knew for years just from being on the scene. Maybe the first time I really thought about Roy’s playing was, I think I heard him play a gig with William Parker and was really blown away. But we shared stages off and on for—we’d both been around, let’s put it that way. But Roy was also a political comrade; he was very active in musicians’ rights issues, and a lot of other things, too. Whenever we had meetings or actions about fair pay, like at the old Knitting Factory and the Texaco/Bell Atlantic Jazz Festivals, he was right there; he was there when we were protesting the closing of Tonic; Roy was always present. We miss Roy. We wanted to play the Ayler compositions, and some of them have that kind of polyphony, so I thought it would be good to have two instruments up front so we could do that, and Roy seemed like a really obvious choice, cause I feel like he understood that material and a lot of people don’t.
At a certain point, they’re different concept bands, but Henry Grimes and Chad Taylor, I started working with them in the Spiritual Unity band, but then we wanted to do a trio, which was—the great thing about the Spiritual Unity context was, you can get a kind of polyphony happening, but there’s something nice about the trio context, which is that three is a very stable number for a reason. I’ve found with a trio context, I can just play. Chad is so intuitive as a musician that he’d understand what I was playing before I played it. And Henry always does something great. So I found I could bring in pretty much anything and play it, and it was like instant music, instant band. So I liked that aspect of the trio.