Overdue Ovation: Ben Goldberg

The clarinetist and composer enters his seventh decade in typically eclectic style

Ben Goldberg
Ben Goldberg (photo: Adam Goldberg)

As his 60th birthday approached in August, clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg briefly considered mounting a retrospective series of his many past ensembles. With the wealth of projects he’s assembled and recorded since his debut with the New Klezmer Trio in 1991, Goldberg could have easily booked his weeklong stint at the Stone at the New School a few times over. A quick career survey spans the warped bebop of Junk Genius; the lush sextet Twelve Minor; the clarinet quartet Clarinet Thing; the genre-defying ensemble Tin Hat; and any number of collaborations with the likes of Nels Cline, Myra Melford, Kenny Wollesen, Trevor Dunn, and Marty Ehrlich.

But in the end, as he so often does, Goldberg veered off in a different direction. His rationale? “I thought if I have to turn 60, I’d rather take the opportunity to try some new, weird stuff and look forward.”

One of the weirdest highlights came on his residency’s third night, when the Bay Area resident convened an ensemble as unwieldy as its tongue-in-cheek name—variously given as the Vibraphonical Utilitarian Tetrahedonist Orchestra or the Euphemystical Vibraphonium Bake a Cake & Vapors. Whatever you choose to call it, the 10-piece band featured three vibraphonists (Ches Smith, Kenny Wollesen, and Will Shore) and three guitarists (Steve Cardenas, Ryan Ferreira, and Andrew Conklin) as well as a pair of drummers (Allison Miller and Gerald Cleaver), along with the cornetist Kirk Knuffke.

The massed voices shrouded the Stone’s intimate glass box in dreamlike resonance, undergirded by the drummers’ ferocious rhythms and pierced through by the erratic melodic lines of Goldberg and Knuffke. In the midst of it all Goldberg occasionally seemed to pause just to take in this bizarre sound he’d conjured, staring meditatively for a few moments before a thrilled grin spread across his face, accompanied by a slow-motion twirl to survey the offbeat landscape.

That was just one evening of a daring six-night run that also included the trio Invisible Guy (with keyboardist Michael Coleman and drummer Hamir Atwal, plus electronic musician Eli Crews sitting in); the Visible Quintet, with Ellery Eskelin, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara and Michael Formanek; a quartet with Ravi Coltrane, Chris Lightcap, and Cleaver; and an improvising trio with Nels Cline and Tom Rainey.

“I guess that’s how the imagination works,” Goldberg mused a few hours earlier on a bench in Manhattan’s Union Square. “It’s always trying stuff to see what happens or where things are going to go. I never know where anything is going to go, really.”

The purposeful eclecticism of Goldberg’s catalogue suggests that he prefers it that way. His latest release, Good Day for Cloud Fishing (Pyroclastic), is a case in point. The album was inspired by the work of contemporary American poet Dean Young, but instead of simply setting Young’s words to music Goldberg composed new instrumental pieces based on Young’s works. The poet then accompanied Goldberg, Cline, and Ron Miles into the studio, penning new poems inspired by Goldberg’s compositions. The process is an inspired blend of exquisite corpse and whisper down the lane.

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“I’m totally nuts about Dean Young,” Goldberg raved. “His poems jump all over the place, and I feel like he trusts you as a reader to find some connections. I wanted to treat the songs the same way … I don’t know if I discovered much, but I’m happy to have that music sandwiched in between the poems.”

Good Day for Cloud Fishing continues an engagement that Goldberg initiated in the early 2000s during a dark time in his personal life. In the midst of a rough divorce, he turned to reading poetry for the first time since his school days. “For the first time in my life I was hungry for poems,” he recalled. “All of a sudden I really needed poetry and started buying a lot of books to try to find out who was important to me.”

One major discovery during that period was the poet and professor Susan Stewart, to whom Goldberg dedicated a piece on his 2006 quintet album the door, the hat, the chair, the fact (Cryptogramophone). Something about Stewart’s work called to mind the philosophy of the influential poet and critic Allen Grossman, with whom Goldberg had studied literature during his freshman year at Brandeis; as it turned out, Stewart and Grossman had studied and collaborated together.

It was only 20 years later that Goldberg realized how deeply Grossman’s teachings had affected him. His class “had blown my mind more then I actually knew. For all I knew, that’s what college literature classes were like. I had no idea he was this amazing prophet. But the experience of running into Allen Grossman at that age was so strong that it planted a seed in me. It was the kind of early experience that gets bigger and bigger as you grow.”

Grossman’s influence yielded another unconventional marriage of poetry and music, 2015’s stunning Orphic Machine (BAG). This time, Goldberg did set the author’s words to music—only the texts he chose were not from Grossman’s poems but from Summa Lyrica, a dense book of “speculative poetics” from which the composer had long struggled to glean meaning.

“It drives you crazy because it seems like something that you should be able to understand,” Goldberg said, obviously excited by that elusiveness. “After struggling with it for years you do gain some understanding, and you realize that wisdom can’t be communicated by me cagily making up a little riddle. Wisdom is contained in substance, and in finding some compelling reason to engage with that substance.”

Goldberg has wrestled with the substance of a good many creative sages over the course of his career. None have had quite the impact of the legendary saxophonist Steve Lacy, with whom Goldberg studied briefly but whose inspiration continues to hold sway. His passing in 2004 was a major inspiration for the door, the hat, the chair, the fact, while more recently Goldberg and keyboardist/producer Michael Coleman teamed up as Practitioner to tackle the étude-like music of Lacy’s Hocus-Pocus.

“Lacy’s sound was the trellis on which everything that I’ve tried to plant has grown in me,” the clarinetist said. “He provided me the model of what an artist does, the combination of intellectual rigor and just stepping off a cliff.”

Other guru-like influences have taken hold at various times, as in his frequent and often eccentric interpretations of the already eccentric Thelonious Monk. (One example being the 2014 rendition of “Let’s Cool One” at the original Stone, taken at the “slowest possible tempo”—a quarter note equal to about 12 seconds, with the song stretching out for nearly 45 minutes.) More recently he’s been returning to the work of Charlie Parker in the leadup to the iconic saxophonist’s centennial in 2020. Nearly half a century ago, Bird provided Goldberg’s entrée to jazz when his mother brought home a record of scratchy Parker live recordings.

“All these years later, I’m absolutely gripped by Charlie Parker. I feel like I’m better able to understand what an essential teacher he was. In my own limited way I’m able to learn a small amount of what he was teaching, but I can see that what he was teaching was unlimited.”

Goldberg’s mother was also the source of his love for the clarinet, which she had played in college and then stuck away in a drawer until her son discovered it. “I liked the smell of it,” he mused. “Clarinet’s a weird instrument. The human brain is not smart enough to figure out the clarinet. I’ve been doing that for 50 years and I’m never going to get to the end of it. I know that now. I’m never going to solve that problem.”

The New Klezmer Trio was born less out of a desire to reinvent traditional Jewish music than out of an opportunity to “make a little money playing Jewish weddings,” if Goldberg is to be believed. Yet the group (with Wollesen and bassist Dan Seamans) proved enormously influential, helping spur the jazz-fueled klezmer revival of the 1990s. Goldberg is insistent that “fusion” was never on the trio’s mind; their desire was to play klezmer, full-stop, albeit in a modern and deeply personal way. Much the same can be said for Goldberg’s always-skewed take on the jazz tradition.

“What’s the tradition?” he asks. “The tradition is, ‘Let’s fuck with stuff and see what happens.’ The music that we love is absolutely weird. Duke Ellington is as weird as it gets. Louis Armstrong is just one of the weirdest cats that ever played music. I mean weird as a deep and essential quality that you just have to understand. Everything I do gets weird.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.