On a small table in front of the chair on which he sat to play guitar at the Cafe Oto last night, Marc Ribot had a large egg-timer. I’ve often wonderered how musicians — improvising musicians in particular — know when they’re reached the end of their alloted time. Most of them seem to have an internal clock, its calibration refined over the years. But I’ll never forget the morning after a particularly mesmerising performance by Art Pepper at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith at the end of the ’70s, when a photographer came into the Melody Maker‘s office with a set of pictures from the concert, including one that showed the great saxophonist taking a surreptitious look at his wristwatch.
I’d be surprised if anyone was clock-watching last night. The trio of Ribot, the bassist Henry Grimes and the drummer Chad Taylor started with a medley of Albert Ayler tunes, providing the guitarist (who is probably best known for his work with Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull) with a canvas for the scrabbling, string-scrubbing, sound-splintering techniques that place him somewhere on the spectrum between Jimi Hendrix and Derek Bailey. As he eased away from adding country inflections to Ayler’s march-hymn structures and wound himself up into a state of near-catharsis, I was reminded of Robert Fripp’s startling solo on King Crimson’s “A Sailor’s Tale” (from the album Islands), one of my favourite guitar improvisations.
There can’t have been more than a handful among the capacity crowd who were born when Grimes disappeared off the jazz map in 1970, having spent a dozen years establishing himself — via such important recordings as Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures and Albert Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village — as one of the foremost members of an unusually gifted generation of double bassists. The story of his rediscovery more than 30 years later, living in Los Angeles, surviving on non-musical jobs, writing poetry and unaware of any developments in the music during the intervening period, has passed into legend. Now, at 77, he overflows with energy, ideas and purpose, the strength and fluidity of his playing absolutely unscarred by that extended lay-off.
The second tune of a long set began with a less than convincing rock beat but soon doubled up into fast bebop time and felt all the better for it. The third and last item opened with a slow, abstract passage in which Grimes played the violin, reminding us of his Juilliard training in the ’50s, before the adroit use of a volume pedal enabled Ribot to produce jolting note-cluster explosions. Taylor concluded the piece with a marvellous solo reminiscent of the immortal Elvin Jones, suggesting rhythm without specific metre or pulse and building excitement without the use of licks or repetition.
If Grimes’s tale reminds us how many years have passed since this music first turned the jazz world on its ear, a gig such as last night’s demonstrates how much scope it still offers to the creative mind.
* Before the first set, the audience was asked not to use recording or photographic equipment. The picture above was taken 20 minutes earlier, while the musicians were setting up their instruments. No protocols were breached.