Greg Ribot is certainly eclectic. For years he has written music for film and television, as well as composing pieces for various classical ensembles. Moreover, on his debut Latin jazz album The International Conspiracy, New Jersey native Ribot not only produces, but composed and arranged all the music while handling clarinet, tenor and baritone sax, flute, bass flute, siku, and quena instrumental duties. Simply for his audacity and wide-ranging talent, Ribot deserves a hand.
The fruit of his labors, The International Conspiracy, is similarly complex and varied. His backing band, New York’s Cumbia del Norte, brings an interesting mix of jazz and South American music (specifically, the Colombian cumbia featured in their name). This firmly Latin base plays in interesting ways off Greg Ribot’s jazzy arrangements, featuring either his accomplished flute or sax playing.
What tops off this musical gumbo are the efforts of Ribot’s world-renowned experimental guitarist brother, Marc Ribot. Marc Ribot has brought his staccato, quirky electric style to many recordings over the course of his 20-year career, including Elvis Costello, the Lounge Lizards, and most famously, Tom Waits’s bizarre Island albums of the 1980s, Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years. What he gives to The International Conspiracy is a daring, harsh edge—his jittery, darting, clean electric guitar brings tracks such as “Hot in the Shade” and “Late Night Express” to wonderfully strange life.
This album fails, however, in its lack of consistency. While the band can be pulsating a loud, brash big band jazz over funky Latin rhythms on some tracks, on others the horns and electric guitars disappear and what is left is tame, plodding flute-based Latin music. Greg Ribot, whose main instrument seems to be the flute, dominates these mediocre tracks, which are mellow and relaxing, but fail to excite any kind of passion or emotion.
“La Cumbia Loco” shows Ribot and company at their best. A funky beat holds the song, as Marc Ribot weaves an eerie, Tom Waits-ish guitar line and loud, Duke Ellington-style horns crash onto the scene. An especially welcome addition on this track is Bill Ware on the vibraphone—it gives the music a sexy, sly swagger that much of this album lacks. But as is the case with the album on the whole, Marc Ribot steals the show with his wonderfully hesitant and jumping solo, dancing all over the neck of the guitar, wavering on the line between dissonance and harmony, order and chaos.
The International Conspiracy could learn a few lessons from Marc Ribot’s playing. The album is fine, highly listenable Latin jazz. It fails, however, to really take any chances, to put itself out on the line and let it all hang out. Granted, Greg Ribot & Cumbia del Norte are not going for a highly improvisational sound, but all the same, orchestration needn’t mean tameness and timidity. There are, however, glimpses of abandon and longing on tracks like “La Cumbia Loco”—we can only hope that Greg Ribot will let his hair down a little more often and play some more crazy cumbias that we can all groove to.