Ben Goldberg has amassed a discography that varies greatly in scope and sound with each project. From duo sessions to larger concepts inspired by literature and poetry (Orphic Machine, Good Day for Cloud Fishing) to works where his rugged contra-alto clarinet adopts the role of a bassist amid guitar and other reeds (Unfold Ordinary Mind), his engaging writing is matched by the musical company he keeps.
For his newest project, the clarinetist brings together tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and the three members of Thumbscrew (bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara). All have worked with him previously and they help Goldberg—whose instruments here include the B-flat, contra-alto, and rare E-flat Albert System clarinets—develop a sound built on the idea of chorale music.
Goldberg’s version of chorale, though, encompasses the interactive jazz of the Hot Fives and Sevens and Ornette Coleman as much as if not more than Bach. The group often moves freely, with the two reeds and guitar all setting their own rhythmic pace, but things never sound cluttered. “What About” evokes Paul Motian’s compositions, thanks largely to Fujiwara’s flowing brushwork, while the rubato opening in “Cold Weather” gives way briefly to a swing groove that allows Halvorson to trade her melting chords for some straight 4/4 plunks.
The gentle overlap of the reeds gives the album a low-key mood, much like a chamber group. But they’re not afraid to cut loose. “Tomas Plays the Drums” does begin with a solo by its namesake, but equal time is devoted to some tenor growls and guitar wails. Goldberg, whose rich tone always sounds fascinating regardless of which clarinet he picks up, has once again created a strong blend of subtlety and depth