By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO — A longtime fixture of New York City’s downtown experimental jazz scene, guitarist Marc Ribot first came to fame during the mid-1980s as a member of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and as a session player on the brilliant Tom Waits album Rain Dogs. His sinuous guitar melody made the tune “Jockey Full of Bourbon” one of the record’s highlights.
In the three decades since then, Ribot’s reputation as a vital session player and talented band leader in his own right has only grown. The go-to guitarist on a host of projects helmed by fellow NYC experimentalist John Zorn (Ribot’s blazing guitar is frequently at the forefront of the intense sonic vortex produced by the Electric Masada band), he has also collaborated with a diverse array of artists including Elvis Costello, Joe Henry Sam Phillips, Marianne Faithful, T-Bone Burnett, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss.
On his own, Ribot has produced an equally remarkable range of music. He has issued solo guitar albums paying tribute to silent movies, film noir and his mentor and first guitar teacher, Frantz Casseus. He has also led numerous bands touching on everything from dissonant punk jazz (his trio Ceramic Dog with Secret Chiefs 3 members and local musicians Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums), Cuban son montuno (fronting the group Los Cubanos Postizos playing the songs of legendary Cuban composer Arsenio Rodríguez) and the ’60s avant-garde jazz of saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Coltrane with the bands Spiritual Unity and and the Marc Ribot Trio.
That group is the subject of the recently released Live at the Village Vanguard. The recording documents an incendiary 2012 concert by the trio featuring onetime Ayler bassist Henry Grimes (who played the same venue with fire-breathing sax player almost a half century earlier) and drummer Chad Taylor. Ahead of a four-night residency at the SFJAZZ Center that features Ribot performing solo as well as with Ceramic Dog, Los Cubanos Postizos and his eponymous trio, the guitarist spoke to KTVU.com about his early musical influences and experiences playing professionally.
I have some questions about the new live album, but wanted to ask a little about your musical background. What were your earliest interests in music as you were growing up?
You mean about music in general?
Yeah, when did you develop a passion for it?
It’s funny, because I was just talking to someone about this. I was interested in music from an early age. My guitar teacher Frantz Casseus – a classical guitarist who I found out later was well known in Haiti as the father of Haitian classical guitar – was a friend of the family. He used to come and sit around and play music at family events. I guess he was bored [laughs].
My aunt, the late Rhoda Roberts, was a songwriter and always talking about music. And I was a kid in the ‘60s, so we were all very excited. There was a period of time when the radio sounded pretty damn good, even AM radio. So in general I was excited. But as far as me personally playing music, this happened – I think as with a lot of other guitarists – because I was a teenager who wasn’t good at talking. I was a little socially maladapted [laughs].
So where other kids might have been out having a wonderful time with lots of friends, I was a little, nerdy kid practicing my guitar. The specific moment when I formed a bond with a guitar was when my uncle, who was a very broad minded and big-hearted guy, had arranged a kind of informal exchange student program with myself and another young guy my age. He knew the family, who were in Mexico City.
I went down there for two and a half months just before I turned 13. It was a wonderful experience in a lot of ways, but I was alienated and lonely as hell. When I got back, Frantz could hear the huge difference in my playing and said right away, “You must have been very lonely.” [laughs]
And he was right! But anyway, that was the beginning of my relationship. I think for many people who become guitarists, the guitar is both an invitation and a solution to solitude.
Besides your teacher, who were the first guitarists you noticed?
That’s easy. I think first was Keith Richards. And it wasn’t until many years later that I traced Keith Richards back through Hubert Sumlin and a lot of other blues players who I listen to to this day. Other than him, I listened to a lot of the other guitarists who were around when I was a kid. Like I said, my first garage band was in the ‘60s. Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence.
Eric Clapton, though again, it wasn’t until a few years later that I understood that Eric Clapton was…let’s just say quoting certain blues things. It wasn’t until later that I traced it back to a heavy B.B. King influence.
You are a versatile player with a broad palette, but there does seem to be a jazzy bent to a lot of what you’ve done. When did you venture more into jazz as a fan and a player?
I was born in Newark and grew up in Orange and South Orange, New Jersey, both of which are on the border of Newark. I was mostly listening to rock, but when we would drive around at night, we’d listen to radio stations that came out of Newark. I didn’t imagine how I could play this music, but we would listen to Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff and other people being played on the radio in Newark at that time and I thought it was cool.
I didn’t quite get how to play it. None of my high school buddies were playing jazz at that time and the Berklee School of Music probably existed, but that was about it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you want to play jazz? Go to jazz school.” [laughs] That wasn’t what it was about.
I didn’t really play jazz when I was in high school, but later on I moved up to Maine and started playing in bands for bread going around and playing whatever could be played. I did get a couple of gigs with a guy, I think his name was Gene Williams or something. He was an organ player. I started doing some pick-up work with some R&B bands and funky jazz related things that were playing in bars in Maine.
And I realized “Whoa! This is a whole different thing!” I remember this band that was up from Boston that had a drummer who would play trumpet with his right hand while playing snare drum with his left hand. And there was a sax player, so they would do horn section stuff that way. I remember the first time I took a solo with a horn section riff behind me, I thought “Man! This is the bomb!” [laughs]
So I’d say I got interested in funky jazz and the kind of jazz that related to the kind of blues playing that I came out of pretty early on in my early 20s. I went to school at the University of Maine in Augusta for like a year and a half or something. I studied with a guy named Thomas Hoffman up there, that was mostly classical, but I also studied with an excellent bebop teacher, Tony Boffa. I think he’s still teaching in the Portland area; a great bebop teacher and player. I took some lessons from him.
I wasn’t in music school long, but in music school we all started to get the idea that jazz was cool because the people who played it played much better than we did. Teachers were always talking about jazz and jazz theory. Later on, I realized that the fact that people have a lot of virtuosity and play much better than you is not a sufficient reason to love music. You have to have some sort of emotional connection. It’s a nice thing to pique someone’s interest, but that’s basically a student concern. “Wow, that guy can play really fast! How does he do that?” That’s a student concern; that’s not something you do as an artist.
So I tried to learn partly for good reasons and partly for bad reasons. For us in Maine, studying at the university sometimes or dropping out or whatever while playing whatever kind of Top 40 or rock band gigs we could find, jazz had a special meaning for us. It represented a kind of freedom that we didn’t feel we had. Because when you’re playing in a bar in Maine and someone yells “Play me a country and western tune!” you gotta play certain tunes or you’re gonna get your ass kicked. [laughs] So we felt that jazz, from a distance, looked like this incredible freedom. And it is, but not in the way that I imagined.
So I moved down to New York to be closer to music in general and gigs, and also to be closer to creative music. What I found was there was great music going on at the time in the loft jazz scene, but I kind of connected with the young struggling jazz musicians trying to get a gig scene.
I eventually did get a gig with Brother Jack McDuff, meanwhile going to jam sessions that were kind of horrible [laughs]. Sitting nursing a beer all night just to get up and play one tune and immediately have the next guitarist play better; at least that was true in my case. What I found when I went down on the mainstream scene, you were definitely had to learn a set repertoire that you were expected to know. You had to have certain tunes memorized. There was a definite cannon that was followed. So in a sense, instead of freedom, there was a very strict kind of informal academy, whereas in rock at the time, things were really going crazy with punk and no wave.
So it kind of reversed my idea of what musical freedom was, so I started listening to those bands. For a variety of reasons, I listened to Arto Lindsey and the Lounge Lizards and I was really impressed. This was already kind of the jazz end of the no wave movement. Later on, I wound up working in the Lounge Lizards and it really opened up my perspective coming from a more mainstream funky jazz position.
I had been in Brother Jack McDuff’s band for a short time, like four months or something. But I eventually got a gig with the Lounge Lizards and that really opened up my perspective. Soloing was not changes based as in bebop. There was a lot of atonal vamps, atonal comping, free vamps and one-chord vamps. There were a lot of pieces in which the “event” was something other than a harmonic change, which is what it is in standards and straight-ahead jazz.
In the meantime, I had listened to a lot of Jim Hall and was doing a lot of restaurant gigs and whatever kind of gigs I could get as a solo guitarist. I had played classical from when I was a kid and had worked out a lot of chord soloing. I was listening to a lot of Jim Hall and George Van Eps. I was very attracted to the guitar as a solo instrument and I still am.
So I started to listen to Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman and the kind of jazz things we had in common. This was a punk band, but it had a lot in common with what was going on in free jazz.
You’ve touched on this, but one of the interviews I came across from a Guitar Player interview where you said when you were playing with Brother Jack McDuff, you had a realization that you weren’t going to be George Benson…
Let’s say it wasn’t in my physical cards for several reasons. When I was in my early 20s when Jack McDuff wanted me to play like George Benson, I would have done anything to comply. But I did my very best [laughs].
Marc Ribot plays a four-night residency at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium starting Thursday, May 29. For more information visit the SFJAZZ Center website.