This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to go to New York and attend the last two nights of the Marc Ribot Trio residency at the Village Vanguard. They had played their first Vanguard residency last summer, and I attended some of those shows as well, so I had a pretty good idea of just how special these concerts might be. The Vanguard – while not an ideal venue at first glance (it’s crowded, has weird sight-lines, etc.) – is practically oozing jazz history from the walls, and when you’re there you can’t help but feel the weight of nearly eighty years of performances by jazz icons like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus. The audiences tend to be peppered with music tourists who want to experience what may be the most famous jazz club in the world – I sat near two different people who appeared to have no idea who the band was, and were just there because “it’s the Vanguard!” I guess there are upsides and downsides to that as a musician – you can win over some new jazz-loving fans, but you can also face some skepticism if you are not a straight-up jazz player. But the experience as an audience member is like – well, if you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show with some kind of downtown smoky basement jazz club, it was probably based on the Village Vanguard. It’s like that. And the sound is excellent.
The Marc Ribot Trio consists of Marc Ribot on guitar (naturally!), Henry Grimes on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums. Ribot is an incredibly versatile guitarist who plays everything from rock to jazz to classical to punk to surf guitar, and has performed with a very wide variety of musicians both live and in studio. He also has a number of his own bands and projects (Marc Ribot Trio/Spiritual Unity, Cubanos Postizos, Ceramic Dog, etc.), all of which are worth checking out. Chad Taylor is a drummer who has played with a long list of impressive jazz and indie rock collaborators, from Cooper-Moore to Iron & Wine to Eugene Chadbourne. Henry Grimes has perhaps the most unusual life story of any musician I’ve ever seen – he was an important up-and-coming young bass player in the 50s and 60s, playing with people like Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins, but he dropped out of the scene completely and suddenly. No one really knew where he was, and for many years people assumed he was dead. In 2002 a particularly determined fan discovered that he was living in California, no longer performing after being forced to give up his instrument some 35 years previously due to bad luck and finances. With help from some fellow musicians and fans he was able to procure an instrument and start performing again… and in spite of all those years away, he is still amazing.
I got there early enough on Saturday night to be the first person in the door, so I was able to snag one of the best seats in the house. I misjudged a little bit because when the band came on stage it turned out that Henry Grimes’ bass was blocking my view of Chad Taylor, but on the plus side I had what I believe to be the only seat in the entire place where you could sneak perfect photos of Marc Ribot from underneath the table where the camera wouldn’t bother anyone:
I didn’t plan it that way, but sometimes life just works out in your favor like that! I only took a couple of flashless photos and a short video clip for my blog readers, because it really wasn’t the kind of show where you wanted to be occupied by a camera. You can see the short clip here:
Even though I saw four sets in a row, there was very little overlap in the music they played. Partly because they varied their selection from set to set and partly because it was so heavily improvised that even when they played the same thing twice, it was a very different experience. They played a lot of Ayler, Coltrane, a lot of tunes I didn’t recognize (maybe fully improvised, maybe just stuff I don’t know) and they even did one non-instrumental piece, where Marc sang Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” I really liked that one, not just in and of itself, but also because one month earlier I’d seen him sing it with Ceramic Dog, and it’s always neat to see a creative musician playing with the same song in different arrangements with different ensembles.
I’ve seen the Trio quite a few times (10?) and I’ve always thought that out of all of Ribot’s ensembles, this one is the most like his solo performances in terms of the way he plays. He has the same extreme intensity and focus, and the music selections seem closely related. The structure of the concert is similar as well – linking pieces together into long medleys with hardly any breaks for applause and almost no talking. (He did make an exception during one set to tell us a story about how all of their CDs for the merch table were stolen out of his manager’s car and then promptly dumped by the side of the road a few yards away… apparently NYC thieves do not see the value in owning fifty copies of Spiritual Unity. They don’t know what they’re missing! I was reminded of the time my mother had some Chanukah gifts that she’d bought for us kids stolen, and we had a little laugh when we realized they’d gotten a bunch of obscure John Zorn back catalog CDs. Good luck fencing those…)
The four sets I saw this weekend all had quite a different character, at least in my mind… maybe in part because I managed to see each set with different people. The first set on Saturday seemed a bit more laid back – not in a relaxed way, but the music wasn’t so aggressive and there were more slow pieces. I was there with my friend Senija and we have, I think, a very similar appreciation for this music, so it was just lovely to experience the emotional and spiritual intensity of this set with her. Maybe because I was feeling fresh (after, you know, two concerts the night before and a four and a half hour journey from Boston… that’s what passes for “fresh” in my life these days) but I felt, out of all the sets, this was the one where I had the deepest connection to the music.
The late night on Saturday found me sitting next to a stranger who told me he didn’t know the band but came to the Vanguard a lot and enjoyed big band jazz and Broadway musicals. I tried to warn him that the music might be a bit more ‘out’ than he was expecting, but I don’t think it helped. (Well, you can’t win ’em all.) This set kicked off with the Dylan cover I mentioned earlier (“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”) and had a really cool slow blues number as well as that sort of funky tune that I captured in the video clip I posted above. It seemed more aggressive and energetic than the first set – it was a lot of fun.
I arrived to the early set on Sunday feeling mentally exhausted after having seen “Waiting for Godot” with my parents in the afternoon plus four sets of live music in 48 hours. My friend John and his wife were at the front of the line and very excited about it – I think an actual fight might have broken out had someone tried to cut them in line. (John’s a sweet guy, but you just don’t mess with a man’s front row seats.) It was kind of our friendship anniversary, because we’d met at the final night of the 2012 Marc Ribot Trio run at the Vanguard – we were the first two people in line that night, and sat at the same two tables both times. Maybe they’ll keep booking the trio and we can make it an annual tradition – wouldn’t that be nice!
This set was really the most fun one of the weekend – less challenging, more melodic, lots of good grooves. I was really grateful since I was feeling pretty burned out and I needed to kick back and let my brain recover a bit. I particularly loved this one gorgeous, majestic sort of ballad towards the end that segued into an Ayler piece. What a set! The three of us were lined up in the front row and I kept noticing that we would all be simultaneously grinning happily at the best parts. I love moments like that – great live music is such an inherently social and emotional experience. (This is probably why, instead of having school friends, work friends, etc. my friends are mostly categorized by which music we initially bonded over: Zorn friends, Ribot buddies, raindogs…)
I thought I would be friendless again for the late set, but my friend Tom showed up during the intermission (we’d cemented our friendship in September over some Zorn@60 events, most notably all 10+ hours at the Metropolitan Museum). We also absorbed the other people sitting at our tables into the conversation – a woman from Bogota (living in Brooklyn) and a man from London (a visiting tourist). I think this final set of their six-night run had a certain feeling of relief for the musicians – they’d conquered another week at the Vanguard, they’d sold out a bunch of sets, they’d played some great music and made a lot of people happy, and now… this is it, the end, no more pressure, we can all just have fun and go home. The set started with the most relaxed and laid-back music I’d heard from them all weekend, a nice groove, a nice melody – the audience seemed particularly happy and receptive (maybe the folks that stick around for the late set on a Sunday are the hardcore fans).
As the set built up steam, the energy in the room built along with it, until we reached that magical point where the electricity would earth itself randomly in the crowd periodically and inspire someone to shout “YEAH!” or “Bravo!” or just utter a wordless yell of enthusiasm. (I even noticed a time or two when Marc Ribot would give a “yeah!” to one of the other performers in appreciation of their solo.) It felt a bit celebratory. One of my favorite pieces of the weekend was towards the end of this set, a really nice bluesy melody with a killer guitar tone and really nice work from both Taylor and Grimes; that one elicited many cries of appreciation from the adoring crowd. One of my table-neighbors and I were so excited after this set that we stayed there talking about it until they turned the lights on and the musicians were packing up their gear and just about everyone had left. And I was so wound up that I didn’t fall asleep until 6AM! It was one hell of a night of music.
If you missed their week at the Vanguard – or if you didn’t miss it, but you want more – the Trio is scheduled to play a couple of nights at the Stone at the end of January/beginning of February – you can check out the calendar here.
LATE EDIT: They’ve announced a “Live at the Village Vanguard” recording, available on vinyl, CD or digital download. Click here to check it out and pre-order your copy.