Ben Goldberg

Unfold Ordinary Mind
BAG Productions BAG 004

Ben Goldberg

Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues

BAG Productions BAG 003

By Ken Waxman

Bay area clarinetist Ben Goldberg has a consistent vision. The evidence is in how these two sessions, which were recorded four years apart but released simultaneously, don’t reveal any startling stylistic differences. The main divergence between 2008’s Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and 2012’s Unfold Ordinary Mind is that different casts create different emphasis.

Although Goldberg and drummer Ches Smith are on both dates, the accent on the 2008 date is harmonic blending, and the other participants are tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Devin Hoff, and Scott Amendola replacing Smith on two tracks. Meanwhile the performance on Unfold Ordinary Mind is more novel since Goldberg takes what would be the double bass role on contralto clarinet. Also featured are guitarist Nels Cline and both Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth on tenor saxophones.

On Subatomic … Hoff’s dexterous work paired with Smith’s rim shots on tunes such as “Ethan’s Song” sets the pace, leaving the clarinetist and Miles to sympathetically advance the themes as Redman interpolates sharper harmonies. On other pieces, such as “Doom”, a jolly romp despite its title, distinct triple counterpoint is divided among Miles’ brassy lines, Redman’s strident ones and Goldberg’s, alive with quicksilver grace. “Who Died and Where I Moved To” never abandons close-knit harmonies even as it’s eventually revealed as a funky swinger. Perhaps the most unusual and descriptive performance however, is a choral-like arrangement of the old Elvis Presley hit, “Satisfied Mind”. Sharp tenor sax lines, slithery counterpoint from the clarinet and rocking bass give way to Miles expanding the familiar theme in strained triplets.

Shifting gears four years later, the focus shifts to the contrasting saxophone strategies of Eskelin and Sudduth plus Cline’s distinctive guitar work. Despite his purported rock stardom, the guitarist is a jazz improviser from way back, and he ensure that his angled distortion and shattering reverb, never disrupts the performances’ energy flow. Cline’s sympathetic skill is made most obvious on the nearly 11½-minute “Parallelogram”. Here his use of whammy bar and Hendrix-styled fuzz tones embellish rather than slow down the narrative. With Smith’s backbeat and Goldberg’s basso puffs holding down the bottom, the narrative constantly shifts between the saxophonists, one of whom adds snorting blues licks; the other chunky tongue extensions. Eventually the reedists connect with Cline’s looping reverb first injecting more tension into the arrangement, until finally as the climax is reached, bringing the tune to a tremolo conclusion.

More assertive on “Stemwinder”, the two tenors almost replicate a funky R&B groove, with skywards-heading altissimo lines. Cline plays two roles here, expelling both chunky rhythm guitar licks and some spectacular lead guitar solos. As Smith’s paradiddles harden into a steady backbeat, the intensity relaxes into a comfortable swing.

Although Goldberg wrote all tunes on both CDs except one, his compositional imagination isn’t limited to common tropes. On Unfold … for instance “XCPF” is a quivering and jittery ballad which suggests reggae, but is given an original treatment by Cline’s pitch-sliding licks. In contrast, “Breathing Room” inhabits that pleasant zone midway between folk and pop song, with the reed players offering different melodic suggestions, while the theme is buoyed on finger-styled guitar fills

These high quality discs appear after a hiatus of Goldberg-led sessions. Hopefully he’ll take time from his gigs with the Tin Hat group and with pianist Myra Melford to produce more soon.

Tracks: Subatomic: Evolution; Ethan’s Song; Study of the Blues; Doom; The Because Of; Possible*; Asterisk; 8. Satisfied Mind; Who Died and Where I Moved To; Lopse; How to Do Things with Tears

Personnel: Subatomic: Ron Miles: trumpet; Ben Goldberg: Bb clarinet, contralto clarinet; Joshua Redman: tenor saxophone; Devin Hoff: bass; Ches Smith or Scott Amendola*: drums

Tracks: Unfold: Elliptical; Parallelogram; XCPF; Lone; I Miss The SLA; Stemwinder; Breathing Room

Personnel: Unfold: Ben Goldberg: Bb clarinet, contralto clarinet; Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth: tenor saxophones; Nels Cline: guitar; Ches Smith: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record February 2014