After years of honing his craft in obscurity, Marc Ribot got his big break in the mid-’80s playing guitar for Tom Waits. Listening to those records now—Rain Dogs and intermittently onward—you hear a restrained Ribot in a restrained world, in which Waits himself was a freak. Nowadays, Waits’ catalog is one of the most revered in the history of American music, and Ribot has carried on in a multitude of directions, increasingly as a primary creative force and with more and more to say. For the most part, the New Jersey native plays gigs on the East coast and in Europe, yet on Wednesday he made a rare Milwaukee appearance with his latest project, the Jazz-Bins, at the Vivarium.

“The roots of the band are in my divorce, actually, many years ago, and my need of a temporary place to stay,” Ribot said in a recent interview with WMSE’s John Komp (broadcast 4/4 on The Five And Dime Show). “John Zorn was out of town, I think he was in Japan, so he let me crash at his place, and he had this amazing record collection. So I was listening to a lot of his rare groove organ stuff, and he made me a tape, a cassette tape, of some of our favorite tracks, later on when he came back. And I transcribed a bunch of those, and that became the basis for the Jazz-Bins.”

For this trio, Ribot recruited organist Greg Lewis and drummer Joe Dyson, both currently New York residents like Ribot. Lewis has been a mainstay there for years; his primary project for the past decade has been Organ Monk, featuring (mostly) reimaginings of the Thelonious Monk catalog via the Hammond B-3, while Dyson, a New Orleans native, has worked with a host of players across the jazz spectrum from Dr. Lonnie Smith to Pat Metheny to Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Jazz-Bins debuted a little over a year ago on an East coast mini-tour followed by a string of dates in Europe; otherwise this curious four-show Midwest run is all that’s on the trio’s calendar.

For Wednesday’s show, the Vivarium was set up with folding chairs throughout, a sensible setup for a smaller gig. The band members were all seated for the performance as well, but there was ample space near the bar for anyone who preferred to stand and get a better view. The group opened with a couple of fairly subdued numbers, sticking with a traditional organ-trio sound, although it was apparent right away that Dyson’s kit was built for more rigorous work; his big blunt kick drum occasionally stuck out as the band continued to warm up, and his solo during the first song hinted that the band wasn’t going to stay mellow for long.

Then for his second drum solo, Dyson started off big and worked his way gradually into quietude, a nifty effect that led to a subtle full-band wrap-up, the crowd remarkably attentive. Ribot’s guitar playing trickled right into the next tune, a boisterous rager somewhat akin to his Los Cubanos Postizos project, perhaps referencing recent celestial events with multiple teases of the “When the moon is in the seventh house” line from 5th Dimension’s “The Age Of Aquarius.” At this point it was becoming impossible to ignore Dyson’s intermittent focus on the cowbell; he didn’t hit it during every song, but given the poor instrument’s suffering at the hands of ’70s and ’80s butt-rock bands, it was refreshing to hear Dyson utilize it as more of an essential component than a novelty.

Although the group may not have played any Jimmy Smith compositions, his influence on Lewis was undeniable on slow grooves and meaty rave-ups alike; his gritty organ sound and dynamic, lyrical playing spanned eras and often stole the show. The house mix was rich and full, and organ solos frequently brought the trio to blaring crescendos, whether stemming from unassuming ballads or funkier Headhunters-esque jams. Although this is one of Ribot’s more straightforward endeavors in recent memory, the group incrementally pushed the boundaries of strict jazz, getting weirder as the set wore on. Eventually Ribot started in on a punishing three-note pattern reminiscent of his Ceramic Dog oeuvre; it might’ve been a composition or perhaps a spontaneous improv mode, and the guitarist gradually took it into pure noise territory, a far cry from his cool-jazz octave-split leads earlier in the show.

Following a gospel-tinged testimonial and a rousing big-band boogie to end the set, the Vivarium crowd clamored for more and got its wish. Ribot, who had thus far only utilized his vocal mic once to introduce the band, remarked, “Come on, we don’t get to play in Milwaukee every day!” In fact, had Ribot ever played here before? Given the long list of people who’ve collaborated with him over the years, it’s possible that he was here at some point, moonlighting on guitar with some act or other; we could find no such evidence, though. If this was indeed Marc’s first performance in the Brew City, he could scarcely have made a better first impression.

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About The Author

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Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.