What a thrill to finally meet Marc Ribot, a lynchpin of New York’s creative music scene since the 1980s. One of my primary curatorial strategies is to identify important musicians who I want to hear who rarely get to western Massachusetts. The great guitarist met all criteria.
Ribot remembered playing a club in Springfield with Brother Jack McDuff in the late 1970s and visiting the Iron Horse in Northampton 30 years ago. That’s been it. Ribot’s work with the Lounge Lizards, John Zorn, Tom Waits and his own work leading a dizzying variety of projects, has cemented his reputation as a critical figure in music. The 185 people who filled Bezanson Recital Hall is another testimony to his reach.
The timing for his December 8 Solos & Duos Series concert could not have been better. Ribot was artist in residence at The Stone for the week ending December 4. Each night, before collaborating with Milford Graves, Dave Douglas, Henry Grimes and others, he played a set alone. His solo chops were in good shape, he told me, and the days off meant he was not burned out.
Over 70 minutes, he treated the crowd to a spellbinding, musical kaleidoscope. After the show, we gathered in the lobby calling out melodies we heard during the concert. “Somewhere” and “Singin’ the Blues” were full-blown and unfolded over time; many others were snippets that passed as quickly as they arrived: “Happy Birthday”, a Christmas theme, a couple of Albert Ayler tunes, a Monk quote. Ribot also devoted considerable time to a composition by Frantz Casseus, the Haitian-American guitarist and composer who was an early mentor. It was the most gorgeous section of the evening. In a moving and personal article, (http://bombmagazine.org/article/2540/) Ribot wrote that before Casseus died in 1993, Ribot and his family promised to look after his work.
There was a music stand in front of Ribot, but he spun his concert with his head down and eyes closed. The only time he referred to a score was during a couple of abstract John Zorn game pieces. Seated around 10 blue balloons, Ribot popped them on cue, as the audience perked up and smiled.
Ribot not only employed balloons, which he rubbed as well as punctured, he used pencils, knives, slides and a radical de-tuning of his 1937 Gibson HG-00 to produce worlds of other-worldly sounds. The blues he played through this altered instrument were oddly familiar but seemed made of other matter. Sections of the concert referenced flamenco music, European classical styles, various blues feels, even Indian techniques. But it was none of that. It was a synthesis of all of it, by an amazing polyglot with imagination. Just as the guitarist has to relax his fingers to be fleet, the mind also has to be free of stress to allow ideas to flow in real time. Ribot demonstrated this with beauty and grace.
Ribot saved a cherry to put on top of a transcendent evening of music. After returning to the stage to acknowledge a standing ovation, he called his long time friend Marty Ehrlich to join him for an encore. The alto saxophone master and Hampshire College professor easily fell into an improvised conversation, and then Ribot began to frame “Body and Soul.” For the next five minutes, these two veterans pulled the song’s contours precariously, landing the tune on its feet each time, in ways only seasoned artists can.