The Suoni Per il Popolo (Sounds for the People) festival is in its seventh year, though it's only the first time I'll have attended this intensely. Organized by the Casa del Popolo crew, it's a month-long fête for improvised and forward-looking music, with a broad scope ranging from the chaos of ICP Orchestra to sound artists Martin Tétreault to the indie sounds of The Sea and Cake. Inaugurating this week of free jazz and improv programming at La Sala Rossa, a converted Spanish social hall which is still very red, was Marc Ribot, playing solo.
What little expectations I had were shattered quite quickly. Most of the Ribot I know is electric, with a certain punky, spiky aggression. He had three guitars with him last night - a steel-string archtop (looking like a big jazz box from the '30s), a nylon-string classical guitar, and an electric guitar, possibly a baritone guitar as it was tuned down to C#. The majority of the two sets was spent on the classical guitar, though he rotated through all three. If guitars had personalities or characters, the archtop was the zoot-suit wearing ancient hipster, with a cool swing. The electric was reserved for darker moods and sounds. The classical guitar was the omnivore, in Ribot's hands ranging from dissonant free explorations to meditative ostinati.
I don't really know enough about the heritage of experimental guitar playing to comment on where Ribot's coming from, nor do I know enough about guitar to comment technically on what he was doing. Ribot's knowledge of guitar history, though, was quite evident. From Delta blues to flamenco and other Latin idioms, from gypsy jazz and early swing through the developments of rock and post-Coltrane/Ornette/Ayler. A lot of the melodies he chose were folky in one way or another, from a couple of Ayler pieces being totally deconstructed, or a bluesy riff reminiscent of his work with Tom Waits played on the nylon-string. At times, the guitar could sound tortured, with notes just being squeezed through the neck - Ribot's contemplation and intent were obvious, which made the short bebop lick or flamenco flourish all the more impressive and resonant.
I didn't catch the names of a lot of the pieces he played. This is what I did get, though:
- First set opened with an Ayler tune (name unannounced, and my lack of familiarity with Ayler doesn't help here) on the archtop.
- Once he switched to electric late in the first set, after pieces on the classical guitar, he played a haunting version of "The Nearness of You" and accompanied himself through a dark and twisted "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," which he dedicated to Bush.
- First set ended on classical guitar, a piece that sounded like "Jimmy Crack Corn" but may have been Ayler's "Saints."
- Second set opened with an original, "The Joy of Repetition," "[written] after I fired my shrink." Majority of second set was on classical guitar, music from an unreleased movie score that he'd never played before.
- Encore on electric: "St. James Infirmary" (very close to the version on Saints) segueing into "Body and Soul." Ribot may be the only person that can make a fairly traditional reading of "Body and Soul" seem out-of-left-field.