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Published: 1999/10/15
by AJ Abrams

Marc Ribot’s Linguistics of Improvisation

Marc Ribot is one of the most diverse guitarists in rock and jazz today. The list of musicians and bands he has toured and recorded with covers nearly every genre and type of music. His resume speaks for itself as he has worked with: Allen Ginsberg, Chuck Berry, Cibo Matto, David Sanborn, Elvis Costello, The Jazz Passengers, John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, The Lounge Lizards, Marianne Faithfull, MMW, Patty Scialfa, Rob Wasserman, Sam Philips, Syd Straw, T-Bone Burnett, Tom Waits, Trey Anastasio’s Surrender to the Air, Wilson Pickett and Tricky. He has also sat in with nearly every downtown avant garde jazz musician in New York City. Most of his own eclectic and experimental albums are influenced by the downtown scene. But his recent album of Cuban music, “Los Cubanos Postizos” was picked up by Atlantic Records and became a hit. Ribot took some time out between tours and recording sessions to talk with me about some of his more recent projects and the jamband scene. This interview barely scratches the surface of his busy career and musical outlook.

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AJ: Tonight is a Zorn/Medeski/Ribot/Wollesen concert. Every time you guys play there is a special aura in the club both on stage and in the audience. What makes this group so special?

Marc Ribot (MR) – It’s fun for the whole family! There is a bit of pain and a bit of pleasure. Medeski grooves in a way that is very pleasurable. Medeski and Wollesen have a nice hookup. The organ trio and organ quartet format is about a certain type of pleasure.

AJ: Is the music at the Z/M/R/W shows composed or improvised?

MR: It is all improv. And one of the points of these gigs is to develop our skills as improvisers. But it is a certain type of improvising. It has developed a language and direction yet we have never had a rehearsal and I doubt we have ever even had a soundcheck.

AJ: What do you think of the young hippie/Phish fans that have been attracted to the jazz scene through MMW?

MR: It’s Grateful jazz. (Laughs) I wish I made up that phrase. I thought it was already a genre. Actually, I’m all for it. I think it’s great that people have acquired the skill of listening to improv through MMW and Phish. You don’t get candy every 30 seconds. But if you wait you eventually get really good candy. Most listeners don’t listen to it (improv) in their entire life. Most don’t want to wait when there is a ton of bullshit out there where you wait and wait and nothing happens. You get something at improvised gigs that you don’t get at any other kind of gig. The beginning of a piece is very special moment because you don’t know what is going to happen. With rock or classical, there is still a set list. When one song ends the next song exists somewhere in the player’s memories or on sheet music. But at improvised shows before you start the next one, the next one doesn’t even exist. There is no sound and no idea of sound. It is a very bleak moment. It is also one of the things that keeps them coming back.

AJ: You used to be in the Real Tones, one of Chuck Berry’s backing bands. Chuck Berry used to use a different band in every town. Did this on the fly approach help prepare you for entering the downtown improvising scene in the mid 80s?

MR: The Chuck Berry stuff was not really improv. It’s more a set language and set compositions. Knowing Chuck Berry for guitar is like knowing the bible. Whether you believe or not, you just have to know it. It was easy to play with him because his stuff is part of the vocabulary of the guitar. We respected him enough to learn his tunes. We got out his records to practice.

AJ: You have done countless projects with John Zorn. What is it like working with such a prolific musician?

MR: He is a major composer, so it’s flattering when he calls me to play on something he has written. And he is also a major improviser. I wasn’t around for the early days of improvising in the mid 70s. I was from a rock and blues background and came upon the downtown improvising scene late. So, I learned a lot from John Zorn, Anthony Coleman, Elliot Sharp, and some of the others.

AJ: What does it mean to you to be a Jewish musician and play in Zorn’s Jewish inspired project Bar Kokhba?

MR: In Bar Kokhba we tried to discover what deep structures of Jewish thought were present in the musical practice but were not self-consciously Jewish.

AJ: One of my favorite live concert moments of all time was during a Bar Kokhba show at the Knitting Factory. Up in the VIP section of the balcony was the President of Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Lou Reed, and tons of Secret Service agents. The VIP crowd was getting quite loud and talkative during the reflective and hauntingly beautiful music. Zorn yelled up to them. “Shut the fuck up and listen to the music you jive ass mother fuckers!” What memories do you have of that night?

MR: (Enormous laughter) Oh boy. Well we almost got international fame. It just shows that you can be a human martyr, spend time in prison, and still get yelled at by John Zorn. It’s only rock and roll.

AJ: What gave you the idea to form Los Cubanos Postizos?

MR: I wanted to do a project where I played a lot of guitar and had my hands on the instrument. I was tired of writing songs, which led me to the conclusion of playing someone else’s songs. (Cuban composer Arsenio Rodrigez.) I thought it would be a fun back room project to do. I would study the music and learn it slowly. But then we got signed at our third gig so it turned into big deal.

AJ: Does it bother you that Los Cubanos Postizos is one of your most successful projects, yet it is not your own music?

MR: It bothers me in the sense that I sold 42,000 records and didn’t make a penny. Then again, it’s easier to do other people’s stuff. With most recordings you make money as a composer. You make money as an artist but only if you sell a zillion records. It takes a very long time to make cash.

AJ: What has been the reaction from Cubans in the audience?

MR: Well, our drummer is Cuban and his dad likes it and thinks it’s very street. But then again, he has a vested interest. I think it must be strange for a Cuban listener. We’ve done some festivals with many Cubans in the audience. I think a third of them thought it was ridiculous and walked out. But the rest thought it was funny and enjoyable. These songs are standards in Cuba. But we are doing them very weird compared to how they are normally done. It’s like hearing someone do a weird version of the Beatles or Duke Ellington. Imagine if I left a cassette of The Beatles with a bunch of pygmies and then the cassette player broke. But they tried to perform the Beatles record anyway. Our songs bear the same relation to Cuban music as the Pygmies music compared to the Beatles.

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