Artist Feature:

Ben Goldberg
By Ken Waxman

When Bay area clarinetist Ban Goldberg describes the creative process that constantly compels him to compose new music and seek out new collaborators, he sounds like the partner in a love affair: “When I hear someone I like, I have to play music with him or her. I need that person in my life.”

It may take a while after that first infatuation, but eventually Goldberg composes music which turns this attraction into reality. For instance the genesis of Unfold Ordinary Mind, one of his recent CDs, was the result of hearing tenor saxophone Ellery Eskelin and having a vision of having Eskelin playing alongside tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth, a long-time Goldberg associate. “It’s a palpable feeling I have of how the music will sound,” he relates. That group, filled out by drummer Ches Smith and guitarist Nels Cline, plays NYU’s Law Space this month as part of the Winter Jazz Fest; and with pianist Craig Taborn in place of Cline will be part of an extended Goldberg residency at the Stone in February. New Yorkers can also experience Goldberg in a unique January setting at Roulette, as one of four bass clarinetists in pianist Kris Davis’ octet. The reed man, who has never played with either Davis or Taborn before, says he looks forward to the challenges. “It’s scary in the right way,” he affirms.

A Denver-native Goldberg, 54, has been playing clarinet since the fourth grade, and it was a similar search for new experiences that led him to develop his own identity. “I always knew I wanted to be a jazz musician,” he remembers. “And soon I was interested in free jazz and improvised music.” The conundrum was that while he was familiar with how extended clarinet techniques were being used in 20th century classical music, his jazz influences were saxophonists including Art Pepper and Charlie Parker, and he also played that instrument in high school. More idiosyncratic in his style, plus admitting that “I felt more myself as a clarinet player”, Goldberg thereupon stuck to the straight wooden horn.

His individual musical identity evolved gradually and arose from an unexpected source: Klezmer. While attending University of California in Santa Cruz, he joined Klezmer revival band Klezmorim. “The technical challenge of Klezmer fascinated me and really drew me in; it was a very complicated melodic system and it gave me all kinds of room to play,” he recalls. Klezmorim toured internationally, and during an extended Paris stay with the band, Goldberg badgered Steve Lacy into teaching him specific methods of studying the fundamentals of intervals, harmony, and melody. Lacy is the dedicatee of Goldberg’s 2006 CD, the door, the hat, the chair, the fact.

These concepts crystallized later on when he, bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Kenny Wollesen adapted experimental improvisations to traditional Klezmer. “The idea wasn’t to layer one on top of the other but to open up and find new territory,” Goldberg explains. The result was the New Klezmer Trio (NKT) which recorded three well-received CDs and toured extensively in the early ‘90s. Although he sometimes still plays the music for fun, Goldberg avoided Klezmer for a long time after the NKT’s demise. “I had to establish myself as Ben Goldberg,” he declares. “Not as a guy who plays Klezmer music.”

Since that time his projects have involved his own bands of various sizes exploring the jazz canon and more experimental sounds; plus, since 2004, membership in Tin Hat with violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, guitarist Mark Orton, and keyboardist Rob Reich. Tin Hat was partially responsible for helping generate two of Goldberg’s most recent interests: BAG and word-based projects. The Rain is a Handsome Animal, Tin Hat’s newest CD, features 17 songs based on e e cumming’s poetry. “I never thought I could write a song cycle,” Goldberg says. “It took me by surprise what you could do with poetry. But it was so much fun, especially when I started to see how words would mix with music and need to push against each other.” Since then he has also written music for four of Susan Stewart’s Lack poems; and Orphic Machine, his next CD, is a nonet session with music wedded to the poetry of Allen Grossman (b. 1932), whose work has inspired Goldberg for many years.

That album will likely appear on BAG, as did Foreign Legion, Tin Hat’s penultimate CD. Goldberg decided to launch his own imprint in 2009 since “there was a shift in the music business for better or worse,” he notes. “It used to be that you’d make a record, shop it around and someone would put it out. That how the door, the hat, the chair, the fact was on Cryptogramophone.” However the clarinetist, who frequently records on a whim when he finds compatible players, had just recorded Go Home, with guitarist Charlie Hunter, trumpeter Ron Miles and drummer Scott Amendola and didn’t want the CD to languish in the can. “I had the feeling that it was all in my hands so I said ‘I’ll start a record label’.” Go Home became BAG 001.

Shifting business methods is also why Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, although recorded in 2008, was only released in 2013 along with Unfold Ordinary Mind. That session came about after Goldberg and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman met and played together for the first time at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Deciding to record with Miles, Smith or Amendola plus bassist Devin Hoff, they crafted what the clarinetist calls a “jewel” of a record, and were collectively shocked when no label wanted it. Now it’s a BAG CD. Despite this, Goldberg says he isn’t opposed to putting out CDs on other labels.

But recording is merely one of his many activities. Another unforeseen meeting, after she moved to the Bay area, has led to an ongoing duo with pianist Myra Melford, which toured Europe in 2013. Plus, since many of his other associates live elsewhere, he’s organized a new sextet, the Ben Goldberg School, to play his music locally.

He’s also exploring video imagery. Year of the Snake, which links his music to 150 brush-and-ink paintings by Molly Barker, is available on his Web site. “Working with Molly has helped me understand the expressive qualities of the visual line, and I’m bringing that knowledge to my creation of the musical line,” he elaborates.

For a musician consistently interested in new challenge and new approaches, this may turn out to be another long-time fruitful avenue of exploration.

Recommended Listening

Ben Goldberg Unfold Ordinary Mind (BAG Productions 2013)

Ben Goldberg Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (BAG Productions 2013)

Ben Goldberg/Charlie Hunter Go Home (BAG Productions 2013)

Tin Hat The Rain is a Handsome Animal (New Amsterdam 2012)

Ben Goldberg, the door, the hat, the chair, the fact (Cryptogramophone 2006)

New Klezmer Trio Melt Zonk Rewire (Tzadik 1995)

New Klezmer Trio Masks and Faces (Tzadik 1991)

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2014