EARLY WORD: To Be Young And Philadelphian

Ribot Young Philadelphians


Throughout his multifarious career guitarist Marc Ribot has regularly formed projects to put his unique spin on bodies of work created by others. Such projects have always eschewed obvious homage. Whether tackling the influential son of pioneering Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodriguez (with his own Los Cubanos Postizos), or the indelible, spiritually charged themes of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, Ribot has always examined such material through his own instantly recognizable lens, both bringing something new to the table and carving out a new pathway for listeners to hear those compositions.

Ribot is a genuine musical omnivore, finding interest in disparate sounds, but he’s never had much use for straight covers. With The Young Philadelphians, he pushes his ability to reshape particular traditions and approaches further than ever. In fact, this thrilling band gets some of its juice by inventively fusing two disparate bodies of work within a single, bruising entity. The group plays music associated with vintage Philadelphia soul from the 70s—specifically, the elegant sound developed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff as the sonic architects behind Philly International Records—with the harmolodic mindset of saxophone genius Ornette Coleman’s electric Prime Time band, which brought a sublimely funky vibe to his compositions. For the latter part of the equation Ribot went to the source, bringing in bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, Philly-bred musicians who were early members of the Prime Time lineup.

As heard on Live in Tokyo (Enja/Yellowbird), a fiery 2014 recording of one of the combo’s early gigs in Japan, the Young Philadelphians generate a brilliant mash-up of two seemingly incongruent traditions, but the results are anything but disconnected. “When I hear music that amazes me I try to swim back upstream and see where it’s from,” says Ribot. “Ornette started working with Jamaal and Calvin when they were extremely young, and I wanted to think about where they were coming from at the time.” Indeed, when the Philadelphians connected with Coleman they were in their late teens and the chart-topping sounds of Philly soul were inescapable.

Ribot discovered the playing of Tacuma and Weston through Coleman’s stunning 1982 album Of Human Feelings (although the music it contained was recorded in 1979), the first Prime Time album to include both of them. (The guitarist was also a fan of the 1979 James Blood Ulmer album Tales of Captain Black, which featured both Coleman and Tacuma). “Of Human Feelings was a revelation to me,” says Ribot. “I saw it as a way that you could transpose jazz from the narrower sense of music that sounds like jazz into the wider sense of an improvisatory music that can kind of do an interpretive operation of different kinds of musics—but keeping something of the music’s own terms. In other words, I would say that Of Human Feelings was an interpretive operation performed on disco, but it didn’t automatically transform it to swing.”

Ribot says he first had the idea for The Young Philadelphians in the aughts, and the band played some early shows with different line-ups before his vision truly cohered. “Finally I transposed a bunch of charts with actual string lines–I realized what would hold it all together would be the strings, string lines from Philadelphia soul classics.” he says.  “The concept really became focused when we understood that what we were about was a kind of harmolodic, more improvisatory interpretation of Philly soul.” Over the years a number of guitarists have emerged to spar on the frontline with Ribot, including former Prime Time member Bern Nix, but as heard on Live in Tokyo he has a clear and fiery rapport with Mary Halvorson, one of the most exciting guitarists to emerge from the bustling New York jazz scene in the last decade. “I like the polyphony that comes from having two guitars, which are doing a lot of collective playing,,” says Ribot.

Not all of the songs included on Live in Tokyo are from Philadelphia: “Love Rollercoaster” is a one of the nastiest funk jams of all time by the Ohio Players, while “Fly, Robin, Fly” was a clear homage to TSOP from a prefab German project called Silver Convention, but all seven songs convey that Philly feeling, where raw, rippling grooves were given an air of sleek elegance by breezy yet propulsive string lines. “We all have a relation with that music,” says Ribot. “I wanted something where there was a memory-based and emotional relation. Emotional doesn’t have to always mean love…in other words, I had to play ‘The Hustle’ in wedding and top 40 bands. It kind of drove me crazy, but at the same time I completely admired the craft involved and the musicianship.”

Tacuma and Weston carve out massive, loping, and insanely funky grooves all over Live in Tokyo, which also features a Japanese string trio elegantly and steadfastly adding those essential lines. Together they give Ribot and Halvorson loads of space to work with and the guitarists have a ball, improvising together and on their own with blasts of noise, grime, and grit, while always respecting the indelible themes. But Ribot says the group has evolved greatly since this concert was taped. “I’ve chopped up the tunes quite a bit and we’re presenting them and breaking them down more into motifs and using them in a much more open way for improvisation. I’m very much conducting it from the bandstand,” a situation that gives the whole band greater opportunity to draw upon their formidable skills as improvisers. But despite the changes, Ribot remains firm in what The Young Philadelphians are all about “I’m interested in the power of reading, the power of interpretation,” he says. “The power of, to use a more loaded word, exegesis. You dig?”