Interview: Ben Goldberg

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 03.20.13 in Interviews

The adventurous, lyrical, soulful San Francisco clarinet improviser Ben Goldberg made his reputation 20 years ago with the New Klezmer Trio. That band played what klezmer might have sounded like if it had kept evolving parallel to jazz. Since then, Goldberg has been involved in diverse bands and recording projects, playing original combo music, reimagined Americana (on the quartet Junk Genius’s 1999 Ghost of Electricity), a tribute to his early hero Steve Lacy (the door, the hat, the chair, the fact), a song cycle for nonet, and much more. For the last few years Goldberg has also played in the song-oriented Bay Area quartet Tin Hat.

Now, he has two matching new records out, for complementary quintets. Both albums feature Goldberg’s writing, improvised counterpoint, tenor saxophone, and drummer Ches Smith, and both begin with a little Bach-inspired chorale. On Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, recorded in 2008, Goldberg shares the front line with trumpeter Ron Miles and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman. (Devin Hoff’s on bass; Scott Amendola replaces Smith on “The Because Of” and “Possible.”) The 2012 recording Unfold Ordinary Mind has Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar, and contrasting tenor players in hard-toned Rob Sudduth and furry-sounding Ellery Eskelin. In that quintet Ben takes the bassist’s role, playing the low contra-alto clarinet.

In between those two, Goldberg recorded Go Home with Miles, Amendola and guitarist Charlie Hunter, which came out in 2009. eMusic’s Kevin Whitehead spoke with Goldberg about Bob Dylan, working with new collaborators, and his new records.

You recently posted an article about the development of the New Klezmer Trio, a band where you took old techniques and came up with new music based on the same principles. Your later Steve Lacy tribute did something like that too: took some of his ideas about instrumentation and cuckoo-clockwork tunes, and made them your own.

We’re all drawn to certain things very strongly; they wake up something in you. Then we try to find out what’s at the heart of it. As much as you’re moving toward something else, you’re also moving toward your own heart. What energizes me is never knowing how it’s all going to turn out. The best we can do is put the best ingredients in, and work with them to create something tasty. For the last eight years, Bach chorales have been a big ingredient.

You’ve said they’re a big influence on Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, but the counterpoint often smacks of old New Orleans jazz more than Bach.

Yeah, isn’t that funny? It just felt like so much fun to have the three horns going at it like that. The opening piece, “Evolution,” starts with that little hymn, but then where do you go? Did it need a B section? Instead I wrote out a roadmap: saxophone with rhythm, then a clarinet and trumpet duet, everybody plays together then the rhythm section drops out, whatever. Most of the actual content on that one was spontaneous, but “Asterisk” and “Possible” have composed counterpoint. That was the beginning of working with that for me. Now I’m committed to it. My earlier music was more like, play the melody and then blow.

“Who Died and Where I Moved To,” where you solo on contra alto clarinet, has a 1960s boogaloo beat.

I spent a lot of time listening to Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” at an early age, mostly because of Joe Henderson. Things get in your mind at an early age, and are always sitting there.

Your arrangement of the country/folk tune “Satisfied Mind” sounds almost like a field holler; I don’t recognize the melody.

It’s a transcription of Bob Dylan’s version from Saved. For me, that period gets to the heart of Dylan; it’s so stark. Everything’s so heartfelt and full of yearning.

Did you know Joshua Redman when he was coming up in San Francisco?

No, we only met not long before we recorded. He’d gone to a concert I’d played on, and I heard later that he’d liked it, so I invited him to play a concert together. After that I said, let’s make a record, and he said yes. I met Devin Hoff and Ches Smith through pianist Graham Connah, playing in his sextet. He always had great rhythm sections — like Trevor Dunn and Kenny Wollesen who were in Junk Genius. Graham’s totally nuts, but his big band arrangements are unbelievably great.

Ron Miles I’d only met around 2007, the first time I heard him in person. He’s the world’s greatest melodist: When he plays a melody, it’s always perfect. I can’t get over it, or get enough of it. Sometime after we’d made that quintet record, I was set to record Go Home as a trio with Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola in New York. When we found out Ron was going to be at the Village Vanguard with Bill Frisell that week, we asked him to join us.

Playing with Charlie Hunter made me confront deficiencies in my own playing I needed to work on. He has such a strong groove, especially when playing with Scott; they have a strong hookup. In my clarinet playing, I always wanted to cut across the groove, but in relation to it. I wasn’t sure how strong I was at holding up my own end of the groove itself.

Charlie and I were doing a clinic once, where he told all the guitarists in the room to put down the guitar for a year to play the drums. Then they’d understand the groove as the most important part of guitar playing. After that, I began practicing clarinet while playing drums with my feet. The idea being, the groove comes first. Then when I played clarinet on a gig, it would still be present.

I think of Subatomic Particle and Unfold Ordinary Mind as your before-and-after-Charlie records. On the first you’re in the front line, on the second you’ve switched over to the rhythm section, playing contra-alto clarinet.

That role is still pretty new to me. I knew I wanted to be the bass player in a band, but what did I know about that? I got the contra alto in 1997, and played it right after on one track from the album Twelve Minor, but then it sat in the closet for a long time. Later when I joined Tin Hat, they suggested I play bass on the contra-alto. It took awhile to gain facility on it, but then all of a sudden it opened up, and I fell in love with the sound. Between you and me, it looks hard, but it’s easy to play, the one I have at least.

It is kind of scary, situating myself in the rhythm section between Ches and Nels Cline, two very strong musicians. Now it was sink-or-swim time. When we recorded Unfold Ordinary Mind, we hadn’t played together before, and I wasn’t even sure we were making a record: Let’s just go into the studio and see what happens. Unexpected things started happening, like at the end of “xcpf,” where Nels goes into his looping thing, and Ches and I bring the groove in and out. That wasn’t planned.

Do you ever feel constrained, playing bass parts instead of soaring over the top on clarinet?

Not at all. It’s all I want to do now. Playing the same figure for seven minutes is a different kind of challenge: Am I nailing it, am I putting it in the right place, am I working with Ches? It’s a wonderful opportunity to do my best.

Certain ideas have become attached to improvised music that are a little oppressive: “Don’t ever repeat yourself, or be too melodic.” But think of Louis Armstrong and the old cats. Every time he improvises, he kills me. But he also kills me when he plays a melody he’s played a thousand times.

The quintet’s non-California ringer is New York tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin.

The first time I heard him play one note on record, I thought, “This is someone I have to get close to.” That one note contained everything: the most beautiful and ridiculous thing I ever heard. I think I wrote him a letter after that. We had done a few things over the years — a 1997 quartet record that never came out, and later some Go Home gigs where he replaced Ron. I could hear how Ellery and Rob Sudduth would fit together. They’re both strong and kinda ornery. I knew it wasn’t going to be like, “After you” — “No, after you.”

One more thing: It was only around the time we played some gigs in December that I made a connection to an unbelievably important record for me, Paul Motian’s The Story of Maryam. It has the same lineup but with a different bass instrument: two tenor saxophones sometimes playing at the same time, with guitar and drums. Maybe subconsciously I was moving toward completing a circle, returning to a record that was a model for how I wanted to play.