Ben Goldberg

February 11, 2014

Unfold Ordinary Mind
BAG Productions BAG 004

Ben Goldberg
Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues
BAG Productions BAG 003

Keeping too much of a low profile, Bay area-based clarinetist Ben Goldberg hasn’t released many CDs under his own name for the past several years. He finally confirms his compositional and improvisational heft with these two sessions, recorded four years apart but released simultaneously. In truth Goldberg, who often works in the Tin Hat group and with pianist Myra Melford, is so consistent in his vision that there aren’t any startling stylistic differences between 2008’s Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind from last year. The main divergence is the sonic colors provided by the sidemen, although steady drummer Ches Smith makes both dates.

Mostly concerned with harmonic blending, Subatomic puts Goldberg’s Bb clarinet and contralto clarinet in context with Ron Miles’ trumpet and Joshua Redman’s tenor saxophone. The three are backed by bassist Devin Hoff, who is in the duo Good for Cows with Smith, plus Smith or Scott Amendola who drums on two tracks. Goldberg takes the bass role for himself on Unfold by concentrating on the contralto clarinet, mixing his timbres with Smith’s. Here, however, the front-line consists of the Wilco guitarist Nels Cline plus the contrasting tenor saxophone tones of New Yorkers Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. Goldberg has considerable history with each of the tenor men in his own or other bands.

Hoff makes his presence felt on Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues with dexterous work, especially when his woody thumps are paired with Smith’s rim shots on “Ethan’s Song”. Here and elsewhere Miles’ sluicing brass work is sympathetically complemented by the clarinetist while Redman interpolates the tunes’ harder harmonies. This strategy is even more obvious on “Doom”, another jolly romp despite its title. Before a pumping drum break, backed by walking bass, the horns harmonize in a distinctly contrapuntal fashion; with Miles’ lines brassy, Redman’s strident and Goldberg’s filled with quicksilver grace.

These harmonies are even present on a tune such as “Who Died and Where I Moved To”, although Goldberg concentrates on the low-pitched horn as he does throughout most of the other CD. The composition, written by the clarinetist, as are most of the others on both CDs, soon reveals itself as a funky swinger helped not a little bit by Hoff’s powerful bass line and the trumpeter’s capillary brightness. Miles’ virtuosity is more on display during “Possible” as he subtly expands the parade-ground tempo first with a bugle-like fanfare and later with bent notes that parallel the saxophonist’s spikier, altissimo runs. Perhaps the most unusual and descriptive performance however is the 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 exposing the familiar theme in strained triplets.

Shifting gears four years later, but not abandoning multi-horn unison, are the tracks on Unfold. With Goldberg as basso backup and Smith concentrating on the rhythm, the focus shifts to the contrasting saxophone strategies of Eskelin and Sudduth plus Cline’s distinctive guitar work. Despite his purported Rock band stardom, the guitarist is a Free Jazz improviser of long standing, having working frequently with multi-reedist Vinny Golia and many others. While Cline’s playing here includes angled distortion and shattering reverb, it never disrupts the compositions’ energy flow. He has nothing in common with many Rock guitar poseurs who try to inject themselves in to a Free Music concept.

This is made most obvious on the nearly 11½-minute “Parallelogram” where Cline’s 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 theme moves between the two saxophonists, one of whom adds snorting blues licks; the other chunky tongue extensions. Eventually Cline’s fleet-fingered slides and looping reverb first inject more tension into the arrangement, and then finally brings it to conclusion with treble vibrations.

The saxophonists are more assertive on “Stemwinder”, as the two tenors almost reach a funky R&B groove, with skywards-heading altissimo lines. Cline plays two roles here, expelling both chunky rhythm guitar licks and some tightened lead guitar work. As Smith’s paradiddles harden into a steady back beat, the intensity relaxes into a comfortable swing that eventually ratcheted upwards with a tongue-twisting dual sax coda.

The clarinetist’s compositional imagination isn’t limited to common tropes either. “XCPF”, for instance, is a quivering and jittery ballad which suggests Reggae, but is complemented by strained pitch sliding from Cline. In contrast “Breathing Room” moves in that pleasant zone midway between folk and pop song, with the reed players passing different melodic suggestions among themselves on top of finger-styled guitar fills. Not only do the two CDS show off Goldberg and crew in fine form, but they make you hope he records more under his own leadership…soon.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Subatomic: 1. Evolution 2. Ethan’s Song 3. Study of the Blues 4. Doom 5. The Because Of * 6. Possible* 7. Asterisk 8. Satisfied Mind 9. Who Died and Where I Moved To 10. Lopse 11. How to Do Things with Tears

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

Track Listing: Unfold: 1. Elliptical 2. Parallelogram 3. XCPF 4. Lone 5. I Miss The SLA 6. Stemwinder 7. Breathing Room

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

–For The New York City Jazz Record February 2014