Exercises in Futility – Marc Ribot
On first glance, one might recoil at the appearance of 14 numbered etudes on guitarist Marc Ribot's new Tzadik album, Exercises in Futility. In the veteran guitarist’s hands, though, the notion of parlor demonstrations expands to something far greater. Each track is a trick, of course, but each is born of Ribot’s uniquely barbed musical vocabulary, each a sketch designed to push the 50something young lion in a new way. Assuming one isn’t an avant-garde virtuoso (and I’m not), most of Ribot’s feats are pretty abstract, each one best explained by its own existence.
Beginning with "Etude #1: Five Gestures" (by my count: impressionistic droplets with parallel pick noize, hopscotch plucking, minimalist/complex chording, fluid solo accelerations splattering melody, ambient scratching), Ribot is immediately on display, entirely alone. If, at times, the concept behind Exercises in Futility is a little too unconcerned with musicality, there is a purity to it, like a view into a sketchbook. On "Etude #6: Cowboy," Ribot deconstructs a galloping Roy Rogers lick, pulling at the melody as if he were stretching and collapsing not only time, but the image at hand.
The album is not without its whimsy, but it serves more as a guide than a punchline. Ribot titles the fourth etude "Elvis" and the fifth, "Bombasto," presumably based on something in their figures that reminded their creator of their names. What about the low, humming figures of the former channels the King? (Not sure.) What about the vaguely medieval fanfares that bracket the latter make them bombastic? Or is it a reference to a circus march? The power of suggestion can be helpful, but perhaps not always useful. The work by itself is completely mature, simultaneously inquisitive and refined.
Despite the exquisite, frequently dissonant density of Ribot's inventions, some of it is outright pleasant to listen to — like the rolling "Etude #7: Ballad" — so long as one doesn't mind an occasionally skwonk. In the guitarist's own language, there are frequent passages akin to romantic poetry. But that's probably incidental to the exercise (though the disc-closing "Joy of Repetition," not an etude, is probably more willfully gorgeous). Ribot works with extreme rigorousness here, the type of which probably cannot be fully appreciated without a similar commitment to listening. As far as pretentious/transcendent urban jazz noise goes, Marc Ribot is our man.