You’re right – that isn’t a photo of Marc Ribot. Or of anyone else named on the ticket to this event, which listed the following artists’ names on it: Marc Ribot, Matthew Bourne, Mayming. However I wasn’t at this gig to see any of those. It seemed a little odd to me just how little billing was being given to the presence of one Henry Grimes as part of Ribot’s trio, given that his recorded – and unrecorded – history makes for a legend that would dwarf that of most jazz musicians on the planet.
Grimes’s discography would have been reason enough to attend. He is the bass player who connects the following list of great albums: Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador, Sonny Rollins’s Brass/Trio, Roy Haynes’s Out Of The Afternoon, Albert Ayler’s Live In Greenwich Village, Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Gil Evans’s Into The Hot, Sonny Murray’s Sonny’s Time Now, Marzette Watts’s Marzette and Company and Pharoah Sanders’s Tauhid – there is so much prime new thing-era Impulse music in there that if you cut him open, surely he would bleed orange and black.
But Grimes’s story extends so much further than what you hear on those remarkable records. Lest we forget he was the member of this forward-thinking circle of whom Val Wilmer, in her wonderful document of the era As Serious As Your Life, wrote “it is generally believed that Henry Grimes died in California in the 1970s”, but who turned up very much alive in a Californian apartment in 2002. Having not played in 35 years – indeed he sold his broken bass in the late 60s to pay the bills – his rehabilitation over the last decade has been one of the most remarkable stories in all of music. New records, including a monumental solo CD, showed that his creative fire was still blazing orange, and the reports I’d heard of his live appearances (of which this was a rare UK example) were no cooler in their summation of his current talents.
The under-heralded appearance of Grimes was by far from the only confusing aspect to this show. The talented pianist Matthew Bourne played a support set of a mere fifteen minutes in duration, during which time he managed to flit so quickly between other pianists’ styles – a lyrical Keith Jarrett-like improvisation, a softer Tord Gustavsen, and a dense Cecil Taylor-style tumult – that it was positively dizzying. Only when he stood up to perform an extraordinary piece of percussion, playing the piano by slapping on the strings with flat palms, did it feel like he was speaking in his own unique tongue. But Mayming’s slot in this lineup was completely mystifying, their cello and vocal loops far too pretty and regular, using the language of experimental music to say nothing of any interest whatsoever.
If the pilot light had temporarily blown out after that second support set, the trio of Marc Ribot on guitar, Chad Taylor (of the Chicago Underground collective) on drums, and the aforementioned Grimes on bass and violin were soon to reignite it with a magnesium-white spark. This is Ribot’s Spiritual Unity group, assembled to pay homage to the music of a big influence of his, Albert Ayler – and who better to have in your band than someone who played with the man himself (Henry Grimes! HENRY GRIMES! I was still pinching myself at this point). Their debut recording focused solely on Ayler, but by the time of this live show their repertoire had expanded to take in the post-1965 catalogue of John Coltrane too (Sun Ship featured heavily, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Ribot also has a Sun Ship trio which features Mary Halvorson on guitar). Tracks weren’t announced by Ribot, but instead announced themselves via their translated themes, before these were quickly shouted down by some riotous improvisation.
Ribot’s guitar sound is still at times just about reminiscent of his early Tom Waits days, a sharp, dry tone that could cleave meat from bone, but his playing is unrecognisable, with lightning-quick runs and changes of direction. Ribot sat coiled round his instrument, rocking back and forth, like a spring full of tension, about to translate potential energy to sound, electricity and heat: the first flashes saw the trio catch light in their first fast ensemble piece, Grimes and Taylor stoking the flames of Ribot’s searing string-scrabbling. Throughout the show I got the notion that the trio were a great match in that they seemed to be approaching the music from different musical and generational angles: Grimes lived this stuff, obviously; Ribot had a cerebral but still recognisably rock attitude (the volume, the subtle use of feedback); while Taylor as the youngest of the three found the most oblique of grooves within the music.
However, it was increasingly the luminous Grimes that I found my eyes and ears drawn to. This is despite (and perhaps partly because of) the fact that Grimes’s style was so different to that of the free jazz bassists I’m used to seeing live these days. There was none of the muscle of an Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, or the extended techniques of a John Edwards. Instead there was a subtlety to his style which was absolutely fascinating: his solos at times became smears of sound, his bow traced soft lines up and down the strings as much as it did across them. The sheer otherness of sound transformed an otherwise nondescript walking blues track into something entirely alien via a compelling and clever closing violin solo, which sounded like Grimes had taken the theme from the original and translated into another language and then back again – the same underlying meaning was just about there, but the accents and structure had been completely moved and rearranged.
While his gentleness at times sucked the others into some great interplay (Taylor playing bells, Ribot just tapping on his strings), he was more than capable of shifting tunes up through the gears, driving his colleagues into busier spaces. In fact it ended with the three coming together in the boisterous tumble of Coltrane’s “Sun Ship”, before they departed the stage, Grimes leaving last – not because he sought any extra acclaim, just because he was furthest from the exit. Despite the dazzling discography and back story, you get the feeling that the lack of spotlight suits this most remarkable and yet humble of musicians.