For more than a decade New York guitarist Marc Ribot has been recording tunes by the soul-searing free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. It's a tough gig: Ayler's compositions have an instantly recognizable spiritual tinge, but no musician has ever really captured the essence of his performances, where faith collided with unbridled expressionism. Ribot's obsession reached its apex on last year's Spiritual Unity (Pi), a quartet outing with drummer Chad Taylor, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and onetime Ayler bassist Henry Grimes. Seeking to embody what Ribot calls Ayler's "ritual process, through improvisation, of experiencing and presenting the rawest moment of musical creation," the group covers four of his tunes (and an original by Ribot in the same vein) without dumbly imitating Ayler's classic group sound; it's a lovely album of freewheeling collective improv with sharp performances throughout. But aside from a live reading of "Bells," it doesn't quite meet the high bar set by the master, in terms of either intensity or emotion. Ribot's fared better with his solo renditions of Ayler's works, particularly on 2001's Saints, where his jagged phrasing, off-the-beat time, and striated tone brought more personality and passion to the music. That album also includes terrific takes on "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Saint James Infirmary," and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," which showcase Ribot's knack for respecting indelible melodies even while he's running roughshod over them. It's the best display I've heard of his notoriously omnivorous talents; this is a guy who's played with Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Solomon Burke, and John Zorn. I don't know what he'll focus on for this show, but it's a solo gig, and that's the best setting for his distinctive musical personality. Fri 3/17, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000 or 866-468-3401, $20, $16 seniors and kids. All sges.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chico Luigi.