With the release of two albums from Ben Goldberg on the same day, I am overwhelmed by a good thing. The fact that I am allowed to own his two 2010 releases feels more like a privilege that just scooping up a pair of consumer goods — like I am allowed an inside peak at high art as it falls together. Classified as a jazz clarinetist for the sake of convenience, Goldberg is one of those Midas musicians who brings all of instrumental music’s best traits to roost under one umbrella. And like many past giants of great jazz, his music is his own. Sure, it has shades of unfluence here and there as most music inevitably will. But the derivative moments are pieces of magically charged homage, easily outnumbered by the highly original ones. And to stand at a critical pulpit and pound the virtues of originality into consumers’s minds is one thing. Is the music any good? Does it make me forget what I want to forget and make me remember things I never knew were there? Can a critic’s darling touch more than just the brain?
Fair questions. The “deep end” isn’t always used as a positive adjective, and experimental tendencies in music often require that you vibrate on the same wavelength as the musicians. As I type this sentence, a track is playing that perfectly typifies these dangers; “I Miss the SLA”. It’s shapeless — let’s call it shape-free — honking, skronking and guitar grrring, and on the wrong day, I won’t know to where it’s pointing (a Google search for SLA gives a few humorous results). But when the angles are just right, it’s what one could get away with calling a beautiful cacophany. When your mind and ears are allowed to open, Goldberg and his pardners can push all the right buttons at the right time. In fact, “I Miss the SLA” is more of an exception than the rule here. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind, two different albums recorded by two different ensembles, are both bold but not assertively so. Both albums are a great dance between jazz, funk grooves, noise rock, smokey saxes and the mighty clarinet.
The personnel on both albums is something of a dream team. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues features Joshua Redman on tenor sax, Ron Miles on trumpet, Devin Hoff on bass and both Scott Amendola and Ches Smith on drums. A note to jazzbos; as the reality sinks in, you’ll realize that Goldberg is playing with both the rhythm sections of Good for Cows and the Nels Cline Singers. Speaking of Nels Cline, one of my favorite masters of the six string provides that just-so distorted edge for Unfold Ordinary Mind. Rounding out the group is Ches Smith, again, and tenor saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. One can spend an entire review of these two albums just name-and-resume-dropping, but that’s convincing only to a point. What matters is what songs Goldberg has brought forth and what all these guys can bring to them.
Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues is the tamer of the two, starting with modern echoes of New Orleans in opener “Evolution”. It’s startling how Ron Miles’s playing hangs in perfect balance with the reeds, like they are moving forward as one instrument. Many melody figures, like on the light-hearted bluesiness of “Ethan’s Song” or the deceptively peppy “Doom”, feature this clarisaxpet as note-perfect examples of how the most successful music can cloud its sources and codes. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues can sprawl a bit, but never as a form of indulgence. “Who Died and Where I Moved To” is one such shape-shifter that, close to six minutes in length, does not waste its time. When Goldberg’s low reed sneaks up alongside Hoff, the train rolls away like a thief in the night.
And speaking of the E-flat clarinet, you may notice that the second lineup features no bass player. Goldberg provides his own low end here while Eskelin, Sudduth, and Cline color in the rest. Unfold Ordinary Mind is the less ordinary of the two albums, staking its claim as a more aggressive beast within the first track “Elliptical”. This is the album that houses “I Miss the SLA”, but one musn’t think that Nels Cline is unnecessarily dirtying the waters. In fact, Cline has been reluctant to solo excessively on his own albums, saying that he himself would not be interested in noodling as a listener (of his role in Chicago’s Wilco, he even stated “There are too many possibilities in my head, or I’m hearing something in my head that’s familiar or classic rather than iconoclastic. Jeff [Tweedy] often wants iconoclastic.”). Be that as it may, “Parallelogram” socks the rock right to you. If you were to remove the guitar from the overall sound, you would most likely focus on the funky groove within. And as Unfold Ordinary Mind rolls out, it becomes less jazzy and more transcendent. Despite the presence of three reeded instruments, they melt down into a unifying hole that mirrors the scary wind blends of Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues. In other words, Unfold Ordinary Mind is as album that unfolds, quite unordinarily, into a cozy ambiguity that is happy to call itself music and nothing more. Rock edge? You got it. Sultry saxophones? Check. Groove? In the pocket. Avant noise? Track five, my friend. Pensive rubatos on a high wire like thoughts in search of a mind? One song begins that way and another exists in that realm from beginning to end. So what does one call all of this? What type of music is it?
Cue the record scratch. In defense of labeling, I am required to use words to convey just how convincing Ben Goldberg’s two new masterpieces are. On the other hand, categorically compartmentalizing music that glides along this easily might diminish one’s interest. So take the sound of a clarinet, juggle it with trumpet and sax, and try to imagine the best sounds available to these instruments. Throw in a spunky electric guitar, and you’ve got yourself an instrumental cruise line that can outshine your favorite double rock album. Don’t believe me? Give it a try then.