Reached by phone at home in Brooklyn a few days after returning from a European tour, Marc Ribot peppers his conversation with yawns. "I don't know why they call me!" the extravagantly talented Ribot says laughingly when asked how he has ended up contributing his guitar skills to so many acclaimed albums.
Consider this wildly diverse list of records to which he has contributed over just the past couple of years: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, Tom Waits' Bad Like Me, The Majestic Silver Strings album organized by Buddy Miller to pay homage to classic cowboy and country songs, and the Elton John-Leon Russell collaboration The Union.
While he makes a good living as a studio journeyman, he stays at least as busy as a solo recording artist and serial leader of bands. Last year saw the release of Silent Movies, with Ribot playing acoustic guitar to real or imagined cinema. His discography is littered with "projects" that provide him a creative platform to explore different forms of music that interest him, forms he "mothballs" when they have run their course.
Marc Ribot plays Thursday, December 1, at the Kessler Theater.
Two such projects are satisfying his musical passions. The trio Ceramic Dog is what he calls his "rock band." Sun Ship is a jazz trio with Ribot, Henry Grimes and Chad Taylor.
Getting Ribot back onto how he has become such a "go to" session musician, he gets more serious. "I'm kind of unusual in the studio world," Ribot says. "They call me because I have enough of the skills of the session player that I don't get freaked out recording, but at the same time I don't sound like a session player."
Ribot would clearly fall under the heading "musician's musician." Consider The Majestic Silver Strings, which included Miller, Ribot, Bill Frissell and pedal steel player Greg Leisz. "Buddy Miller just wanted to put that insanely virtuosic band together, and he did," Ribot recalls. And if the music seems a bit restrained given the skill level, Ribot has a ready explanation. "The four of us were all kind of in awe of each other," he says, again laughing. "But I wouldn't call all of the playing on it polite. I think we got down to it on certain parts."
According to Ribot, that is the essential temperament of a good session player. "The first question that jumps into the mind is not 'When do I get to do a loud solo?' but, 'How do I fit in here to make it better?'" he explains.
That is not to say Ribot won't exert his will on a song. Most fans of Waits and Ribot count "Hoist That Rag" as a highlight of Waits' 2004 album Real Gone. It took some convincing on Ribot's part to get Waits to try the song's Cuban mambo rhythm and searing guitar solo. "Yeah, I love the way that turned out," Ribot says. "Tom was really skeptical about it but finally gave it a try."
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This will be the second appearance by Ribot at The Kessler. Last year the theater hosted one of a handful of shows where he provided a live acoustic guitar soundtrack to the Charlie Chaplin classic The Kid. The combination of Chaplin and Ribot's soundtrack made for a mesmerizing audience experience that perfectly married musician and venue.
So what's likely for this performance? "For me, a solo gig reflects what I'm involved with at the moment," Ribot says. Since he's just come off a European tour with Sun Ship, expect a mix that includes improvisational jazz along with material off Silent Movies.
One might wonder if the guitar still holds mysteries for Ribot as he approaches four decades as a professional player. "In the beginning, when you are playing guitar, every day is a different revelation," he says, "but as decades go by, you solidify what you know, but revelations can be hard to come by." But with a note of satisfaction that every master craftsman can appreciate, he concludes with, "I've had several this year."
Perhaps more will be revealed at The Kessler.