Marc Ribot's musical translations
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 10, 2002) – On his most recent album, Saints, guitarist Marc Ribot juxtaposes renditions of avant-garde compositions by the likes of Albert Ayler, John Zorn and John Lurie alongside versions of jazz standards and tunes by pop songwriters such as Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

But if someone sat you down and played the CD for you, you’d be hard put to recognize such well-known tunes as “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” or “Somewhere.”

Instead, what you’d hear would just be faint traces of the melodies, as if they were warped through time and bent by Ribot’s idiosyncratic technique into mere palimpsests of the originals.

All the same, a rootsy sensibility akin to garage rock, soul and the blues, informs everything Ribot plays. Thus it’s not surprising to learn that Ribot came up playing in bar bands and as a sideman in soul revues.

In a recent phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment, Ribot – who performs a rare solo gig at Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Saturday night – spoke about his unique approach to his instrument, which has graced albums by pop music innovators including Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Waits, T-Bone Burnett and Medeski, Martin and Wood, and by experimental downtown artists like Arto Lindsay, Don Byron, the Jazz Passengers, Elliott Sharp, Chocolate Genius, John Zorn and DJ Logic.

Ribot said he wouldn’t have traded anything for his early experience on the bar-band circuit in Maine. “I moved to Maine when I was 19 and I was a very prole musician,” he said. “I played in bands that were sort of sub-top-40 bands, not because we had any artistic ambitions, but because we were too lame to figure out what was on the top 40.

“On the other hand I’m really glad that I had that experience. I wouldn’t trade having played for people in bars dancing. I think that’s terrific, and I feel it gave me a language that --- it’s good to speak a language before you attack it or change it or destroy it.”

Ribot, who was born in Newark, N.J., in 1954, moved to New York in 1978 and began serving as sideman to luminaries like Wilson Pickett and jazz organist Jack McDuff. With McDuff, Ribot got his first taste that adventurous jazz and nightclub music could amicably coexist.

“We used to play a lot of working class jazz bars, and the music that was on the jukeboxes in those bars was very interesting because it covered a lot of things that people would think of as soul and r & b as well as jazz,” said Ribot.

“One of the people who had a hit tune on that circuit, on those jukeboxes, was John Coltrane. ‘My Favorite Things’ was literally a hit on that circuit, right alongside Otis Redding. It was on those jukeboxes not because he was doing a serial set of modulations, or because there was a tone row at work -- which shocked a lot of people who didn’t think that jazz musicians were that formally knowledgeable or working with that formally rigorous an approach – but because it had soul. The two are not mutually exclusive.”

With this in mind, Ribot set out to record Saints. The title comes from the Albert Ayler tune that kicks off the album, but it might also refer to the composers whose work Ribot interprets on the album.

“I wanted to sort of capture the language of the free improv players, people like Eugene Chadbourne and Fred Frith and Derek Bailey. What I was doing live was mixing those up with the standards and the intent was -- at least on a good night -- that the musical values of the John Zorn pieces would rub off on the standards and vice versa.

“The goal isn’t reproduction, it’s translation. To translate it into something, not just arbitrarily changing it, but to take something that meant something to someone else somewhere else at some other time, and make it mean something to me that I like or need. And so in the process, things get altered to different degrees. The tunes -- some get altered quite a bit.

“Basically it’s one, big, chewed-up improvisation in which big chunks of half-digested musical past float to the top.”

Ribot is also known for his recent albums with his group Los Cubanos Postizos and as one of the first-call guitarists on projects of the downtown avant-garde, including John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards.

But he says his reputation for playing difficult music is a misconception. “I’m certainly not an academic player or musician where the meaning of what I play is only apparent if you analyze the score,” he said. “With a lot of music that has a reputation for difficulty, what I hope is that there’s a lot that can enjoyed on a couple of different levels. I like to think that even if you had never heard the standards being covered, you would be able to feel some of what’s going on emotionally.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 10, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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