Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Guitarist Marc Ribot's talent and curiosities take him far afield from "downtown" New York music scene where he cut his teeth. He has performed and recorded with a diverse group of artists which includes Jack McDuff, McCoy Tyner, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Allison Krauss. He leads multiple groups and is a devotee of the musics of both Albert Ayler and Arsenio Rodriguez.
Marc Ribot (pronounced “REE-bow,” according to his website) was born on May 21, 1954 in Newark, New Jersey, at Beth Israel Hospital, where his father also works. The Ribot family relocated to Orange early in his life, and eventually settled in South Orange.
The boy's aunt, Rhoda Unger, was a pop songwriter and his uncle, Melvin Unger, ran a costume jewelry business. His great-grandfather, according to family fable, was a failed rabbi from a small town near Minsk in Belarus. Ribot was raised in the Jewish faith, and attended Hebrew school for four years.
Ribot's first instrument was the trumpet, which he took up around age nine. He switched to guitar after he got braces, which made it difficult to play a brass instrument, although he later recorded on both trumpet and cornet. He also cites his discovery of Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones as drawing him towards the guitar.
From the age of 11 until he was 14, Ribot studied with Haitian classical guitarist Frantz Casseus (1915-1993), who came to New York in the 1940s to meet Fats Waller (but never did). Ribot returned to his studies with Casseus in the 80s, and released Marc Ribot Plays Solo Guitar Works of Frantz Casseus in 1993.
Around 1969, Ribot began playing in rock bands and moved to Boston, and later Maine, before coming to New York City in 1978. He moved to New York with two goals: “One was to make enough money to pay my rent, and the other was to play like, to sound like, Grant Green.”
In 1979, Ribot spent four or five months in a quartet with jazz organ pioneer Jack McDuff. He recalls playing with McDuff at Newark’s Key Club, while rival organist Charles Earland was playing across the street at Sparky J’s. Other musicians he was exposed to in Newark included Jimmy McGriff, Houston Person and Etta Jones.
Ribot then toured the "chitlin circuit” of black theaters around the U.S. with McDuff, and remembers those audiences fondly. “Most of the fans were working-class black people who were really jazz fans, and really could tell the difference between when it was happening and wasn’t,” he told Anais Prosaic, director of the documentary The Lost String. “I mean most, you know, most white audiences seem to think, seem to mistake the guitar for a trumpet, and they think it’s really something that’s fantastic if you play a really high note on guitar, as if it’s any more difficult than playing a low note.”
Following his stint with McDuff, Ribot joined a group of New York “soul/punk” musicians known as Brenda and the Real Tones. The Real Tones played as the house band at Tramps in 1981 and 1982, where they backed artists who included Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Syl Johnson, Chuck Berry and Solomon Burke. Ribot recorded for the first time on Soul Alive!, a 1981 concert by Burke recorded at the Phoenix 1 Club in Washington, D.C. He also completed a short tour of Europe with Wilson Pickett during this period.
Concurrently, Ribot began to investigate New York’s “No Wave” scene, where punk commingled with influences from jazz and experimental classical music. Among the artists Ribot cites as influences at the time are guitarist Robert Quine, who played with Richard Hell, Airto Lindsay with DNA and the Lounge Lizards, and Fred Frith.
Ribot replaced Lindsay in the Lounge Lizards in 1984, and stayed through 1989, recording three albums with the group: Big Heart: Live Tokyo in 1986, No Pain For Cakes in 1987 and Voice Of Chunk in 1988. On “The Punch And Judy Tango” from Tokyo, we observe one of Ribot’s favored styles on his instrument: an edgy, abstract take on surf guitar that combines the emotional, “outside” riffing of the avant-garde with the noir and reverb of Dick Dale.
In 1987, Ribot joined the Jazz Passengers, a group formed by former Lounge Lizards saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. He appears on four of their releases, including 1990’s Implement Yourself and 1996’s Individually Twisted. In 2001, Ribot revisited his tenure with the Passengers when he recorded on an album of Duke Ellington tunes with Passengers vibraphonist Bill Ware. Their take on Juan Tizol's “Caravan” is notable for its introduction (nearly a minute of ominous, unaccompanied guitar), and its ensuing five minutes of swing, with Ribot playing walking bass lines, and soloing fluently in a straight-ahead jazz vein.
Also in the middle 1980s, Ribot began a relationship with singer/songwriter Tom Waits, and plays on Waits's albums Rain Dogs from 1985, Franks Wild Years from 1987 and 1988’s Big Time. He returned to record with Waits in 1999 on Mule Variations.
Following his departure from the Lounge Lizards in 1989, Ribot started his first band, the Rootless Cosmopolitans. Inspired by Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band, the Cosmopolitans, featuring keyboardist Anthony Coleman and bassist Brad Jones, combined elements of the jazz avant-garde with funk and rock music. The Thelonious Monk-ish “The Cocktail Party,” from Ribot’s 1990 album with the Cosmopolitans, finds the guitarist firing on all cylinders: his playing here is sharp, funky and more concerned with feeling and shape than key or conventions.
“I think that a particular music can be part of more than one history,” Ribot has said. “And I think that there is a certain trend in jazz, I don’t know where it begins, but a trend that I noticed starting with Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band and Albert Ayler… these could also be written into the history of rock. I have tried to imagine the history of rock that includes these musicians.”
Around 1990, Ribot began working with the composer and alto saxophonist John Zorn, and Ribot has appeared on nearly thirty of Zorn’s recordings. The most important of their early collaborations is The Book Of Heads from 1995, an album of solo guitar music composed by Zorn and performed by Ribot. Written by Zorn in 1978, the pieces on Heads require playing with pencils and pulling strings off of the guitar.
Since the nineties, Ribot has led bands including Shrek, Spiritual Unity, the rock power trio Ceramic Dog, and Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos, a group dedicated to the music of Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez.
One example of Ribot's versatility is his 1998 duo recording with French guitarist Noel Akcotché, , Lust Corner, which includes a psychedelic rock reimagining of Ornette Coleman's early free-jazz classic"Street Woman."
On April 14, 2007, Ribot was briefly arrested when he refused to leave the stage at the Tonic nightclub on Norfolk Street on Manhattan’s lower east side. Ribot had appeared regularly at the club, which closed for good the night before to make way for a conversion to luxury condominiums.
In 2008, Ceramic Dog released their debut album, Party Intellectuals, on Pi Recordings. On that album, Ribot and company stretch out on the creepy “When We Were Young And We Were Freaks,” a slower-than-slow ballad which features Ribot's guitar fed through a rotating Leslie speaker, which gives it a “watery” effect, as well as some strange and tender spoken-word portions, also by Ribot. The eight-minute track closes with a cathartic, and multi-tracked display of squealing guitars and noise.
As a sideman, Ribot's skills have been in increasingly high demand, and he has worked with many high-profile rock and pop artists, including Elvis Costello and Marianne Faithfull. Examples of Ribot's recent work can be heard jazz singer Cassandra Wilson's 2006 release Thunderbird, pianist McCoy Tyner's 2008 album, Guitars, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin's 2008 Rice Dice Mice.
Ribot lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Select Discography As a Leader:
As a Leader:
1990 – The Rootless Cosmopolitans – Island Records
1992 – Requiem For What’s His Name – Crepuscule
1993 - Marc Ribot Plays Solo Guitar Works of Frantz Casseus - Crepuscule
1994 – Shrek – Avant
1995 – Don’t Blame Me – DIW
1997 – Shoe String Symphonettes – Tzadik
1998 – Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos – Atlantic
2000 – Muy Divertido – Atlantic
2001 – Saints – Atlantic
2003 – Scelsi Morning – Tzadik
2005 – Spiritual Unity – Pi Recordings
2008 – Exercises In Futility – Tzadik
2008 – Party Intellectuals – Pi Recordings
With the Lounge Lizards:
1986 – Big Heart: Live Tokyo - Antilles
1987 – No Pain For Cakes – Antilles
1988 – Voice Of Chunk – Agharta
With the Jazz Passengers:
1987 – Broken Night/Red Light - Crepuscule
1989 – Deranged & Decomposed - Crepuscule
1990 – Implement Yourself – New World Records
1996 – Individually Twisted – 32 Records
With Medeski, Martin and Wood:
1993 – It’s A Jungle In Here – Gramavision
2000 – The Dropper - Blue Note
2004 – End Of The World Party (Just In Case) – Blue Note
Artist Contact Information:
Contact Liz Penta at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributor: Brad Farberman