Mar 29 2015
Sneaky avant-garde is a phrase that’s been thrown out there to describe the music of Ben Goldberg. His style is strikingly unconventional, and he seems to abide by cryptic rules of engagement when it comes to his creative vision and the listener’s ear. Whether it’s a modern post-bop style or something more traditional, or, in other instances, immersions into klezmer, folk, blues, classical or music that simply falls under the heading of experimental, Goldberg deftly crafts his inspirations into something immutably tuneful. No matter how many walls a listener might have to scale to engage with Goldberg’s challenging music, he always manages to leave plenty of plateaus and footholds along the way so that, surprisingly, it feels like a walk in the park. It’s not an easy to thing to make an avant-garde project wholly embraceable, but Goldberg pulls it off time and again.
No better example of this can be found than his newest release, the 2015 recording, Orphic Machine, which features an all-star line-up of trumpeter Ron Miles, pianist Myra Melford, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, drummer Ches Smith, bassist Greg Cohen, tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth, guitarist Nels Cline, and violinist Carla Kihlstedt, who also has an outstanding turn at singing words taken from a book about poetry.
Not actual poetry. Just words about writing and reading poetry. A treatise on the subject, with not a bit of actual poetic verse to be found. And yet, Goldberg’s ensemble brings it to life in a way that takes it out of the classroom and sends it out running free and wild. This is the equivalent of novelist John Barth scripting an epic story by including instructions on how to write an epic story. It illustrates that art is what we view it to be, and the ability to frame something didactic into something majestic is just a creative inspiration away.
As Kihlstedt’s voice, like a plume of smoke, sings about “the function of poetry” and “the act of care” and the “autonomic systems of which consciousness is a contingency,” the ensemble matches her enthralling vocal turns with passages of New Orleans traditional, blistering guitar rock, angular post-bop, Motown R&B and more. They are walking down the halls of the traditional and the past while humming a new tune for the new day.
On this album, quiet lullabies grow into grand celebrations, get-up-and-dance grooves transition to electric guitar burns, and the strong pulse of bass and crash of drums disperse for lighthearted passages and sunny jaunts. For as challenging as this project is, there is an irrepressible charm that is as winning as it gets.
It’s the kind of thing that should be clunky or cheesy or disingenuous or simply fall flat on its face. But Goldberg’s ensemble brings an immaculate lyricism to the affair that is simply magnetic, not to mention unabashedly fun.
The words are taken from a book by Allen Grossman (The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers), a former professor of Goldberg’s from back in the day. Sadly, Allen Grossman recently passed away. But what a lovely thing to do, to give new life to old words, and expressed in a way, perhaps, the original creator never envisioned.
An absolutely striking album, supremely enchanting, and when measured in terms of difficulty of challenge, an outstanding achievement.
Go buy this album. It’s one of the best purchases you’ll make all year.
Your album personnel: Ben Goldberg (clarinets), Ron Miles (trumpet), Rob Sudduth (tenor sax), Myra Melford (piano), Nels Cline (electric guitars), Kenny Wollesen (vibraphone, percussion), Greg Cohen (bass) and Ches Smith (drums, percussion).
Jazz from NYC.