Three of the tunes on guitarist Marc Ribot's exceptional new album are by Cleveland native Albert Ayler, a giant of free-jazz saxophone who died in a mysterious drowning in 1970. The Ayler material -- keening, fitful, luminescent -- is remarkable, particularly the title track and "Holy Holy Holy," where Ribot picks at the strings, then twangs them, ultimately sending them into lean, enigmatic territory that straddles the blues, jazz, and an eerie quasi-vocal ambience. These selections fit beautifully with the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," John Zorn's spicy, sinuous "Book of Heads #13," the hoary blues of "St. James Infirmary," and the spiritual "Go Down Moses." The one Ribot tune is "Empty," a highly treated guitar extravaganza of white noise and whoosh that bridges a patient, warm "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" and a spare, bluesy "Warm Gun." This is free jazz performed small and writ large: an unconventionality that Ribot is well steeped in.
Since the mid-'80s, Ribot has worked with Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, the Lounge Lizards, and his own groups, the Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek. He has also collaborated extensively with fellow New Yorker John Zorn, a leading light of modern jazz intelligentsia.
Ribot is gearing up for a January tour behind Saints, an album so original that presenting it to more than a circle of friends seems almost sacrilegious. By no means orthodox, the lovingly executed Saints is free jazz reduced to its core: open mind, open heart, open imagination.