When you name a record Live at the Village Vanguard you are making a statement. In jazz, that title means Coltrane or Bill Evans or Sonny Rollins. A tier lower and you’re still talking about Dexter Gordon or Joe Henderson. It means you’re playing with the big boys. It means that you’re up to something daring or serious or muscular or edged with fire. It can be hard-bop or free jazz, ballads or blues, just about anything as long as it is great.
Marc Ribot, the unique guitarist who is perhaps more associated with a certain downtown New York eclecticism than he is with jazz proper, seems an unlikely candidate for a recording with such a moniker. You might expect Ribot to have an arch take on a recording with such a clear agenda and a boundary so defined.
But, on the other hand, what other guitarist today has the muscle and clarity of purpose to take on a title this clear in its expectation and daring? It’s hard to say, but Ribot is more than up to the challenge. And on this live date from June of 2012, the guitarist goes right at the challenge. With bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor, Ribot records two mature Coltrane tunes (“Dearly Beloved” and “Sun Ship”) and two Alber Ayler compositions (“The Wizard” and “Bells”). Raw meat? You bet.
So, the Vanguard recordings that Ribot is really hunting here are the great ones from 1960s by Trane (the great Impulse dates Live at the Village Vanguard and Live! at the Village Vanguard Again!) and Ayler (Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village) that refracted jazz through a prism of energy, sound, and freedom that has rarely been matched since. And why should Ribot go for that sound when he’s got Alyer’s Vanguard bass player with him in Henry Grimes, returned to the scene in the last decade with a vengeance.
And so the trio may be most dazzling and unique on Ayler’s “The Wizard”, which starts off like a rollicking blues you might hear from an uptown Chicago club, as Grimes plays a punchy four-to-the-floor and Taylor rocks a straight backbeat. Ribot chops his way through the groove until it starts to fall apart around him some, the band letting rhythms become disruptive and chaotic rather than comforting. From there, Ribot lets his harmonic imagination run wild too, and things get truly crazy. What makes this performance dazzling, however, is not just the rocking energy and its ability to appropriate a free-jazz sensibility like Ayler’s. Rather, the thrill comes in the band’s ability to get quiet and intimate at the midpoint, as Grimes takes a contemplative solo on acoustic bass that slowly works its way back to a fast jazz walk, leading to fleet swinging cymbals and finally a rediscovery of the energy from the start, but fully earned and majestic. Full circle stuff.
“Dearly Beloved”, of course, is a late Coltrane ballad, something without a melody but just a scale and an attitude, and therefore a perfect vehicle for real revision. Grimes plays a wild bowed solo as a start, and then Ribot enters with an open sound that reminds you of John McLaughlin on “In a Silent Way” as much as Coltrane. His sound is pretty here, nearly acoustic even against the rolling toms of Taylor, and then eventually curls out into a more blistering set of blues shards that trace contrasting chords as the rhythm section starts getting more aggressive. The music isn’t pretty in the usual sense of the word, but it grows with intense feeling, and the effect is breathtaking, even emotionally compelling. You wish you’d been there to hear it, to hold your breath for long stretches of daring, only to suck the air back in in gulps when it was possible.
“Sun Ship” is searing and vital in every way: a free guitar joy. Grimes and Taylor swing like mad at a quick tempo, and Ribot flies, sounding utterly like a complete jazz player, even as he finds the tones and blues cries that make rock so compelling. This tune brings to mind the late (and insufficiently celebrated) guitarist Sonny Sharrock or the very best of James “Blood” Ulmer. Brace yourself for this one.
It is less obvious, perhaps, that Ribot would choose two songs from the American Standard songbook for this recording as well. Jerome Kern’s “Old Man River” is here, gorgeously re-harmonized. Remarkably, the trio makes it more gently pretty than you might be used to, with chords moving sensually across the melody, even if the guitar’s tone slips from sensitive to rough-edged over the song’s 32 bars. As the “A” theme returns, Ribot gets a bit bluesier, and then for his solo Grimes plays with a slow, funky two feel that allows this old song to sound suddenly groovy. By the end, however, it is pretty again, shimmering and lovely. The other standard is “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”. It is played utterly without irony or cheekiness, just a great song played by a trio that, it turns out quite clearly, has way more than one way of attacking worthy material. This is Ribot playing almost fully inside the traditional harmonies, but there is still something vulnerable and raw about his tone and feeling here. The guitar sound isn’t warm and bell-like in the manner of Wes Montgomery, but rather something more like an earlier jazz player’s scratch and scrape. When the trio plays the melody slowly and loping, it sounds like real emotion.
And that’s as good a summary as I can find of all of this music: really emotional. Some is raucous and some is tender, but it’s all about what’s real and feeling. The scramble of “Sun Ship” feels as right as “Old Man River”, and it is certainly just as clearly a product of the great jazz tradition, which simply asks the musicians to play in the moment against both the elastic rhythm and released feeling that rhythm makes possible. Mark Ribot works in the hot, driving current of that tradition on Live at the Village Vanguard, which means that the recording easily earns its historically notable title.