A Fireside Chat with Marc Ribot
“ Basically, we have fun. We play. We jam. We like to make people dance whenever possible. In fact, if I could make people dance every night, I wouldn't care if I ever played to a sit down jazz audience again for the rest of my life. ”
I love pleasant surprises. Like watching the new X-Men movie and expecting tragedy to unfold on screen and instead, getting quite an entertaining couple of hours for my cynicism. That is the same pleasant experience I had in listening to Marc Ribot's Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, one of my top ten recordings of that particular year. So I have been waiting on pins and needles for his follow up, Muy Divertido. Ribot sat down with me from his East Coast home to speak about his new record, his days as a member of the New York downtown scene, and his relationship with Ornette Coleman, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Marc Ribot:: I actually started playing trumpet like kids do when they are in school. I wanted to play guitar starting when I was ten and a big influence on me when I first started was a friend of my family was the Haitian born classical guitarist Franz Casseus. I wasn't interested in classical music per say, but starting from when I was six or seven, I heard him play at family gatherings and it just amazed me to hear a real musician playing the guitar like that. I didn't know anything about classical music beyond what I heard Franz play, in fact, I never became deeply interested in classical guitar, but I mean, at the time, when I was a kid, I was listening to the same stuff everybody else in New Jersey heard on AM radio in the Sixties, Beatles, Rolling Stones, whatever, but that had guitars in it too.
AAJ: You were an intricate member of New York's downtown scene since its inception, how have you witnessed the scene grow and revolutionize?
MR: Well, when I first arrived, I worked with a lot of different composers who I thought were interesting. I guess, if I could say one way that it's changed, I hit town around 1979 and at that time, I wasn't immediately interested in the downtown scene. Actually, I got here in '78. I wasn't immediately interested in the downtown scene. I was more interested in playing what I thought was jazz at the time. But, I quickly became interested. It seemed at that time, although there were a lot of composers doing a lot of different, interesting things, their one common experience was the experience of trying to play in free-prov situations that a lot of the players had in common. It was interesting because free-prov was not a brand new idea, but people like Zorn, at the time, Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Firth, Derek Bailey, were doing interesting things with it. So now, I don't think that that's, in terms of musicians who are practicing in the Lower East Side, I don't think that that's that central an experience. At that time, the writing was influenced by years of playing free-prov, which needs to be distinguished from free jazz, which is something entirely different, not entirely different actually, but partially different. I think that some of the, for example, there was a lot of parallel and similar experimentation going on in the Sun Ra Arkestra. I think that the players, even though there wasn't that much direct jamming going on between the Sun Ra people, who were in Philadelphia at the time and the New York downtown players. I find it a great pleasure to jam with, to jam, Jesus Christ, to improvise with Marshall Allen or other players who have been trained on that scene. There is a lot of common language. But to get back to the question, at this point, electronica is much more of a central experience, a central thing for the musicians who are actually living in this neighborhood and the clubs. The early Eighties downtown scene is just not that, I mean, there is still a lot of working musicians and composers, but I'm not sure as to what extent it still comprises the scene.
AAJ: What differences are present between free-prov and free jazz?
MR: Well, first of all, Fred, free jazz is a very illusive term because the people who are mostly associated with, who I associate anyways with free jazz like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were in fact, although they were freeing up certain strictures of bebop, were in fact each developing new structures of composition. It is very explicitly talked about in Ornette Coleman's harmolodic idea. It's true, I think to all of the free jazz players. They were developing new form, really. So the name, free jazz, implies people just abandoning form, whereas, in fact, the reality was the opposite and is the opposite of people who are inventing new ones, which is what interested me most. I felt a lot of interest in the music of Albert Ayler in particular for that reason exactly, was the free-prov players were attempting to play music that at least tried to be completely of the moment and completely without any connection to previous music.
AAJ: What is the biggest misconception of free jazz and free-prov?
MR: I think the misconception is when people think free jazz, they think it means people doing, just a bunch of dudes blowing their brains out and doing what they want to do, which it is, or which it can be, but really, it was people confronting a specific problem, which is they wanted to get beyond what had become the formulaic rules of bebop and finding different compositional answers. Yes, people improvise very intensely, but they improvise within a set of rules. I think that the public at large, when they hear the words free jazz, don't associate it with sets of rules. The sets of rules for Ornette's harmolodic music, I mean, I haven't actually studied with Ornette, but it's clear that it is based on taking motifs and freeing it up to become polytonal, melodically and rhythmically, it is tied very strongly to the motifs in the head. That's what it's about. That's what you listen for. That's what I listen for when I listen to it. It was a brilliant solution because it enabled the music to get, was able to if it needed to, get really dense, but at the same time, it could remain true to maybe just a blues riff. In fact, some of the tunes seemed to deconstruct, maybe I'm completely out to lunch so to speak, but I could swear that is taking apart a Sonny Stitt tune, or maybe that's a Gene Ammons' tune, I think, but anyway, but treating it harmolodically enabled it to go to a lot of other places. It opened up the language while staying true to where the language was from. That's the exact same thing as saying, "Hey, man, let's smoke a joint and party." Mind you, people may very well also have smoked a joint and partied, but I wouldn't know. In Albert Ayler's case, there seemed to be, I don't know how Albert Ayler got there. I have no idea how he got there, but because at the time he was doing this, I think only university ethnomusicologists would have had these tapes, but he seemed to have a lot in common with certain types of South American black marching band tradition. There is a CD devoted to Africa and one devoted to South America and Asia. So there is amazing parallels between some ethnomusic traditions and what Albert Ayler was doing. And again, even though Albert Ayler simplified the chords of bebop, he also had really well-thought out form. Bebop forms are very simple, A-A-B. They tend to be intro, A-A-B-A, blowing, A-A-B-A, or B-A, and out. Albert Ayler had theme and variation type form. It would be intro, A-B-A-C-A-D. He would have very complicated form and so, again, that is different than the commonly held idea is. But I don't know what the commonly held idea is, so I don't know why I am arguing against it (laughing). I am basing it on what I thought when I was eleven.