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Ben Goldberg: Unfold Ordinary Mind

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Among jazz’s new breed of clarinetists, Don Byron may be the most celebrated stylistic traveler. But over an equally long stretch, Bay Area virtuoso Ben Goldberg has brought his own vision to a daunting range of settings. Having led the pioneering New Klezmer Trio and transformed bebop and folk in Junk Genius, he has more recently made stellar recordings with his Plays Monk trio and the groove-minded Go Home quartet with Charlie Hunter. He has interpreted the poems of e.e. cummings with Tin Hat and dedicated one of his working groups to pop songs by the late Elliott Smith.

Goldberg’s two new albums, released simultaneously on his BAG Production label, reveal yet more sides of his artistic personality. On Unfold Ordinary Mind, he pulls off a neat trick in assuming the role of bassist on contra-alto clarinet, in a sometimes explosive quintet with guitarist Nels Cline and twin tenors Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. On Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, recorded in 2008, he partakes in chamber-style jazz with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Ron Miles.

As different as the albums are, they share a keen interest in the juxtaposition of tightly woven harmonies and open structures. “Parallelogram,” the enthralling 11-minute opener on Ordinary Mind, starts off with a gorgeous horn choir intoning a carol-like melody, quickly introduces a component of spiky guitar and clanging percussion and moves back and forth between voicings. Following a pronounced major to minor shift and a subtle application of electronics, the tenor players separate into left and right channels to play off each other over Goldberg’s earthy tones and drummer Ches Smith’s powerful antic strokes. Cline, in scorching, bluesifying form, lifts the music skyward. Kissed by his keening notes, the horn harmonies return and the music abruptly stops, its spell cast.

As powerful a clarinetist as Goldberg is, he is happy to play a supporting role on Ordinary Mind, which with all its sideways energy needs his steadying tones. Eskelin and Sudduth sometimes play like mirror reflections of each other, their individual sounds blending together, sometimes in animated counterpoint. On the soulful groove of “Stemwinder,” Cline’s presence is effectively doubled via overdubbing.

Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, which features Goldberg on his usual B-flat clarinet, also opens with fetching horn harmonies-and also makes quick stylistic jumps via a charged bop solo by Redman and a trad-like burst by the ensemble. Miles, a longtime crony of Goldberg’s (both hail from Denver), can sound harder-edged here than he does on his own texture-minded albums with Bill Frisell.

But the quartet, featuring Devin Hoff on bass and Smith (or, on two tracks, Scott Amendola) on drums, sustains a relaxed, upbeat feel whether trading contrapuntal lines, offering avant-swing or emulating New Orleans brass bands. There are playful pregnant pauses, feathery melodies and, on an expansive treatment of “A Satisfied Mind,” bluesy assertions of Goldberg’s ongoing involvement in Americana.

Originally Published