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Ben Goldberg: Orphic Machine

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With its childlike melody, twinkling vibraphone and repeated lyrics, the opening section of “Reading,” which begins Orphic Machine, clarinetist-composer Ben Goldberg’s album of nonet settings for the poetry of Allen Grossman, is annoyingly precious. That doesn’t last. Soon Goldberg, trumpeter Ron Miles, tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth and violinist-vocalist Carla Kihlstedt refract the tune into an abstraction, which is refracted again by pianist Myra Melford, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Ches Smith. Interchange of melody and abstraction is a touchstone of Orphic Machine, one that makes it thoroughly engaging.

Yet it’s a secondary touchstone. Instead, mood is paramount, and the band will vamp at length if it serves that mood. This strategy includes Kihlstedt’s vocals, even as they anchor the ensemble. On “Immortality,” the music graduates from dirge to celebration while the lyrics shift conversely from success to death; Kihlstedt underlines the contrast by repeating “death” six times as the horns unfurl festivities. On “Care” she recycles the title line (“I find myself in the act of care”) along with Miles, who doubles its melodic phrase. Elsewhere, Goldberg and Miles meditate in a slow waltz on “The Inferential Poem”; Nels Cline’s guitar and Kihlstedt’s pizzicato violin revolve like clockwork on the instrumental “The Present”; and Melford and vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen evoke mystery by simply repeating scales near the end of the album highlight “Line of Less Than Ten.” Improvisation often seems like an afterthought-though a collective one injects energy into “Bongoloid Lens,” another instrumental, and Cohen has several effective showcases.

All told, Goldberg’s first attempt at large-scale vocal music is an impressive achievement. If Orphic Machine never quite rises to the heights of its predecessor, 2013’s Unfold Ordinary Mind, it is nonetheless a significant step on his artistic path.

Preview or download this album at iTunes.

Originally Published