Newark-born guitarist Marc Ribot is largely known for his work as a sideman. He got his start in the Real Tones, a pickup band that backed NYC-visiting soul singers, including Wilson Pickett; since then, his edgy playing can be heard on albums by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips, Syd Straw, Marianne Faithfull, Foetus and others. Ribot has also been part of New York’s avant-jazz scene, as a member of the Lounge Lizards and in collaborations with John Zorn, Anthony Coleman, Ikue Mori, Robert Quine, Elliott Sharp and David Shea. He’s also a charter member of the Hal Willner rep company, having played on, among other things, the producer’s spoken-word-and-music projects with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. When he’s in the driver’s seat, however, Ribot explores volume, noise and his Jewish heritage. (More recently, he’s devoted himself to tropical music.) What unifies his work is an easily recognizable sound: restless, angular leads that take sharp, unexpected melodic turns and a witty intelligence that moves from dissonance into harmony, teetering between chaos and control. Playing as if the solos of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler were transposed to guitar, Ribot calls his style Brutal Atavistic music.
Named for Ribot’s band of the time, Rootless Cosmopolitans (a description of Jews used by Joseph Goebbels and later appropriated for a poem by Allen Ginsberg) is a harder-edged version of the “fake jazz” he played with the Lizards, especially in his duets with clarinetist Don Byron, which have a distinctly Beefheartian air at times. (An argument can be made that if you drain the intelligence and wit from this and the early Lounge Lizards albums, and replace it with smarmy irony, you wind up with cocktail music). The guitar-only deconstruction of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is right on the money, as is his wry take on Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.”
While less cohesive, Requiem for What’s-His-Name has its moments. The jazz side has been de-emphasized, and Ribot’s Captain Beefheart edges take up the slack. He also grants his gimlet-eyed humor some play, in the cracked, stiff blues of “Clever White Youths” and the appropriation of hardcore elements in the anti-anti-Semitic “Yo, I Killed Your God.” But jazz comes to the fore on the album’s best track, a passionate, charged reading of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”
Ribot moves even closer to rock with Shrek. (The name, Yiddish for shock or horror, is apt. It became even more so when it was used for a lovable cartoon movie ogre.) This intense, almost violent music unleashes a full-blown attack Boredoms fans might appreciate. From the volume pedal experiment of “Spigot” to the Eastern European-tinged march of “Hoist the Bloody Icon High,” Ribot and his band (sometimes known as Shrek, it includes Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg) play with breathtaking freedom and passion. With Chris Wood replacing Steinberg, Shrek also appears on Ribot’s half of the Sounds of a Distant Episode, where — less song-oriented, concentrating more on the idea of pure amplified sounds — the tracks come off like a classically trained, rigorous Sonic Youth.
While he continues to use a band onstage, Ribot’s recent recordings have showcased his solo playing. The Book of Heads, a 1978 composition by Zorn, was written in an attempt to codify free guitar playing. It tests the virtuosity of anyone who attempts to play it, and Ribot is very much up to the task. Like much of Zorn’s work from the late ’70s, the series of fragments changes moods and styles abruptly. Using different implements to strike the strings (balloons, mbira keys, toys), it sounds at times like a six-stringed variation on John Cage’s treated piano. While not easy listening by a long shot and at times infuriating, The Book of Heads has moments of power and beauty.
Don’t Blame Me is far more accessible and altogether more satisfying: reworkings of pop and jazz standards (“Ol’ Man River,” “These Foolish Things,” Ayler’s “Ghosts,” Ellington’s “Solitude”) that combine Ribot’s melodic sense with improvisations recalling John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.