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Marc Ribot

Bishopsgate Institute, London, 28/10/2011

by Tim Owen

November 01, 2011


Henry Grimes is both the living inspiration for, and the fulcrum against which Spiritual Unity leverage a direct connection to the late, legendary saxophonist Albert Ayler.

Marc Ribot’s style speaks eloquently of his New York City home; not just of the late 80s ?downtown’ scene from which he emerged, but also the earlier 70s loft jazz scene which channelled the visionary spirit of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler into the present, the Latin ?Nu Yorican’ scene, and the music of the Cuban diasporas. In his playing all of these inspirations are suffused with the charged emotion of the delta and urban blues. Ribot has worked this heady brew into the music of bandleaders as distinctive and distinct from each other as John Zorn, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello. As a bandleader in his own right, however, I’ve often been less than fully convinced by the ways he’s sought to synthesise his influences. Rootless Cosmopolitans, Shrek, The Prosthetic Cubans, and Ceramic Dog were all cool bands in different ways, but none were really great.

I haven’t heard Ribot’s SunShip, with another guitarist, Mary Halvorson, Chad Taylor and bassist Jason Ajemian, but I guess its music is related, in spirit at least, to the music he makes at Bishopsgate tonight with Spiritual Unity. The band, which features Chad Taylor on drums, is essentially a vehicle by which Ribot can connect through bassist Henry Grimes to the music of Grime’s one-time band leader, Albert Ayler. Grimes is both the living inspiration for, and the fulcrum against which Spiritual Unity leverage a direct connection to the late, legendary saxophonist.

When, in 2002, Grimes re-emerged from years of obscurity, he was reportedly playing on top form in miraculously short order. Well I saw Spiritual Unity in 2006, and Grimes seems even more robust and purposeful now than he did then. His playing reminded me of an interview Ribot gave at that time, which is worth quoting at length, because I couldn’t put it any better:

“[Henry Grimes] can be productively written into a history of jazz, into a history of wider improvisational music, into a history of punk rock in terms of the intensity of the experience?and also productively written into a history of religious/ritual music…He’s really a Cecil Taylor of the bass. And he has his own version of playing grooves related to some strain of sixties funky jazz that we think we remember, but we don’t. When I play with Henry, it’s as if I’d only seen synthetic fabrics my whole life, and I’m confronted with a hand-knitted wool sweater with all its oddities and imperfections?different, yet infinitely warmer. He’s the living embodiment of the difference between groove and metronomic time” [All About Jazz: ]]

With Spiritual Unity, Ribot mainlines Ayler, John Coltrane and the blues in their pure form. I mean no disrespect to trumpet player Roy Campbell, whose articulacy enriched considerably the music the band recorded in 2004, but his absence permits the trio to close ranks and rip into their source material with a more single-minded focus.

Ribot rips out music in torrents. He’s not the flashiest of stylists, but has a raw, unforced eloquence that’s inimitable even, as here, when at its driest. James ?Blood’ Ulmer is the only other guitarist I might compare him with, but where Ulmer overtly plays out a take on harmolodic blues, Ribot’s style derives as much from the ?punk’ aesthetic as it does any purely musical influences. Chad Taylor, on drums, has a deceptively economical style that generates intense kinetic energy, making him Ribot’s ideal accompanist for this approach to this material.

Ribot announced that he wouldn’t pause to identify the tunes, and was true to his word. He played Ayler’s “Spirits” and I thought I heard Howlin Wolf’s “Spoonful”, but I wouldn’t put money on that. It was a blues, for sure. I thought Ribot announced Sun Ship as the encore, but Mike Hobart for the FT [] tells us it was Bix Beiderbecke’s “Singin’ the Blues” followed by Coltrane’s “Dearly Beloved”. Hobart has the band playing “Sun Ship” earlier in the evening, in a “meditative” rendition; if so no wonder I couldn’t place it.

The evening opened with short sets from pianist Matthew Bourne, who played just four vignettes, and the processed cello and vocal of duo Mayming. In the paltry quarter hour allocated to him Bourne presented a showcase of sharply contrasting works, of which the highlight was a percussive treatment of the piano casing and strings, one of the most original and direct approaches to the style I’ve seen. His other pieces contrasted free jazz flow, a lyricism overtly indebted to Keith Jarrett, and a hushed attention to the resonance of softly struck, decaying chords. Mayming were charming but rather amateurish, their live processing veering from whimsical to crude and sometimes shrill. They were an unlikely and unwise selection for the main support slot.

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