Feb 19 2013
Ben Goldberg‘s new release Unfold Ordinary Mind is one of those music experiences I absolutely adore, when a musician who has spent much of his career experimenting with the deconstruction of songs turns around and displays an inventive talent for building them up from scratch.
The clarinetist has taken an avid and sincere approach to experimenting with different forms of music. My first encounter with it was with Goldberg’s New Klezmer Trio, which tinkered with and deconstructed the traditional forms of the music and offered it back up with a jazz avant-garde approach that made it both engaging, thoughtful, and still fun to listen to. There was also Goldberg’s work with the Tin Hat ensemble, which brought a fascinating approach to chamber and folk that rendered the music into a warped beauty.
Goldberg’s prior collaboration with trumpeter Ron Miles also hit my radar almost immediately, as I’ve been a fan of Miles since my fortunate days of getting to see him perform live pretty often in Denver and Boulder, CO back in the day. Goldberg’s work with Ron Miles mined some of the same eerie jazz territory that Miles was working with guitarist Bill Frisell back in the 90s, though it was blues/rock-heavy guitarist Charlie Hunter who contributed the six strings to the music, giving the music an inviting twang. And then, of course, there was Goldberg’s embrace of the music of Thelonious Monk, in a trio that, intriguingly, didn’t include a pianist.
I bring up many of Goldberg’s past work, one, because it’s music people should know about, but also by way of illustrating that, while yes, there was different forms of beauty inherent in all of this music, for the most part, none of it was “pretty,” per se. nor was it by the numbers… Goldberg always took an experimental approach to the music. It’s what kept the music so damn interesting, and what, personally, kept me coming back for more, no matter what form it came in. But it’s not like this was music that was gonna get airplay on major radio airwaves or anything.
Which brings me back to my opening point, about this being one of those musical experiences I adore… on Unfold Ordinary Mind, the avant-garde Goldberg has created an album of songs, of catchy melodies and foot-tapping grooves and, yes, music that I find myself humming to myself long after the CD has ended. There are songs here that could conceivably receive airplay on major radio airwaves.
That’s not to say that this is a pop album or that it lacks the vagaries of inventive playfulness that have been emblematic of Goldberg’s music historically. Only to state that it is always a fascinating, revelatory moment to hear musicians who spend much of their careers deconstructing and re-inventing forms of music then present a series of tunes that show they know how to build the originals from scratch, while infusing them with the creativity that still gives voice to their singular sound.
That’s what we have here. This is not standard music. This is not the jazz equivalent of a pop album. But in the theme of the Avant-Pop manifesto, Goldberg has created an album that should have mass appeal, both within the jazz camps and also the fans of other genres, while simultaneously sneaking in approaches that speak far more to the avant-garde experimentalism that should receive wider acceptance and appreciation in society. It’s accessible, while being sneaky avant-garde.
Or, said differently, this album is Something Different that sounds like Something Familiar.
Your album personnel: Ben Goldberg (contra alto clarinet, Bb clarinet), Ellery Eskelin (tenor sax), Rob Sudduth (tenor sax), Ches Smith (drums), and Nels Cline (guitar).
The album opens with two views. On “Elliptical,” lovely harmonies and eerie percussion both make early introductions. Eventually, the two become one and begin a little groove. Using his contra alto clarinet, Goldberg becomes the de facto bass player, and the resonance he elicits in this role is revelatory. Cline, who has proven with Wilco that he’ll offer no opposition to an invitation to jam out, does just that here. And a song that holds form for most of its large center becomes increasingly diffuse as it draws to a conclusion. It’s a satisfying, noisy fade out.
On “Parallelogram,” Eskelin’s and Sudduth’s saxophone lines sprout upwards at different rates of growth and different curvatures. Cline and Smith are blacksmiths on guitar and drums, forging the song with fire and force. And from this sweat work, there mounts an ecstatic mix of Motown groove and James Brown funk swagger, one that repeats throughout the rest of the album, echoing some of the fine work of the Steve Bernstein MTO’s tribute to Sly & the Family Stone. Near the song conclusion, the tune returns to its opening sound, but with thicker stalks.
That same vibe continues on “xcpf,” but not before Goldberg leads out with a soulful solo on clarinet. When the ensemble joins in, they adopt a joyful ambling cadence that is both languorous and celebratory. The tune brings it to a close with Cline’s distorted guitar effect that wavers with a shimmering underwater ambiance.
“Lone” is something of a call and response pattern, though as if sensing the relative shortness of its two minutes in length, the responses sound a bit impatient for the calls to finish their sentences. It makes for overlapping conversation that may, in fact, present itself as more interesting than if the notes had been given more space to spread out. It’s a lovely little interlude.
Fifth track “I Miss the SLA” takes the album’s motifs and sounds, and runs them through a blender. It’s less accessible than any other album track by far, but by acting as a point of comparison, it provides the valuable service of showing an alternate view of what has come before and what is yet to be voiced.
“Stemwinder” starts out slow… a moonlight serenade. That serenade becomes a bluesy groove that gets increasingly incendiary, eventually building into a grinding leviathan that rocks out with Smith’s torrential percussion swirling about Cline’s lightning strikes on guitar. It has a grinding cadence.
The album ends with the sublime “Breathing Room,” which entwines the instruments like a beanstalk up into the sky. As instruments join in, they continue to wind upward. And just when the song threatens to disassemble, the group returns to the opening statement and all is well again. This is a lullaby.
A very fun and very intelligent album.
Released on Goldberg’s BAG Production Records label.
Jazz from NYC.
You can stream the entire album, and purchase it if you so choose, on Goldberg’s bandcamp page.
Worth noting that Goldberg released a second album today, in conjunction with this one. It’s called Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues.
I’ll be writing a little something on this album in the near future, but for the meantime, here’s a link to Goldberg’s bandcamp page where you can hear it first.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The review for Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues has now been published. You can read it by following this LINK.