| By Andrew Gilbert
You can tell a lot about a musician by looking at his or her influences. But it’s far more revealing to trace how an artist blends and transmutes various sources of inspiration to create a personal sound. A perfect example is Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a dauntless musical explorer who has played a central role in the Bay Area’s improvised music scene for more than two decades. Following his muse wherever it leads him has taken Goldberg on a circuitous musical journey, from Jewish roots music, blues and bebop to avant-garde jazz and chamber improvisation. Along the way, he himself has profoundly influenced some of the region’s most creative musicians.
Goldberg’s latest CD, released last year on the outstanding Los Angeles-based Cryptogramophone label, is a revelatory quintet session. The CD, the door, the hat, the chair, the fact (a line from a poem by Robert Creeley), features a superlative Bay Area cast including Tin Hat violinist Carla Kihlstedt, tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith. The compositions were inspired by the clarinetist’s relationship with Steve Lacy, the visionary composer and player single-handedly responsible for reviving interest in the soprano saxophone after the horn spent decades out of fashion (Lacy died in 2004). While marked by a sense of loss, the music is full of irrepressible vitality, particularly when Goldberg, Kihlstedt and Sudduth play twisting parallel lines that diverge, tease and merge. Goldberg wrote the tunes after hearing that Lacy was suffering from cancer, and the music can be seen as his self-interrogation into Lacy’s impact on the clarinetist’s ideas about music and life.
“I think it was a very useful question: What have I learned from Lacy?” says Goldberg, 47, during an early afternoon interview at a pub on Solano Avenue. “What is it about the music that I make that has a relationship to Lacy’s music? Because his music is so important to me, not really on the level of style, though I’m crazy about his style, but when I hear his music it always sounds like it’s illuminating something fundamental about music, or really, about life. As soon as I hear him, I feel he’s clarifying everything.”
In addition to his work with the uncategorizable band Tin Hat, Goldberg performs widely with Plays Monk, a cooperative trio featuring bassist Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola focusing on compositions by Thelonious Monk. It’s no coincidence that Steve Lacy formed the first group dedicated exclusively to exploring Monk’s brilliant, knotty tunes. In much the same way that Lacy developed his own sensibility through his investigation of Monk’s, Goldberg has become an indispensably idiosyncratic voice through his ongoing engagement with Lacy.
“If you listen to Monk you can hear James P. Johnson,” Goldberg says, referring to the great Harlem stride pianist. “Monk needed to find out something about Johnson, and yet he ended up being Thelonious Monk. Lacy needed to find out something about Monk and Louis Armstong, and he couldn’t help but be Steve Lacy. There was a time when I wished I could be Steve Lacy, but I couldn’t. So whatever it is that I do, it’s like I was pulled in a certain direction toward something that for me was embodied in Lacy’s music. And now I am where I am.”
It’s difficult to overstate Goldberg’s impact on the California music scene, though he has often flown under the mainstream radar, ridiculously undetected by major clubs, festivals and the jazz press. Over the past year or so, however, he’s been impossible to ignore, as a series of collaborations have put him smack-dab in the center of several of the scene’s most fertile musical ensembles. While he wasn’t featured with his own band at last fall’s San Francisco Jazz Festival, Goldberg was a key participant in two remarkable performances. He provided thick, sure-footed lines with guitarist Nels Cline’s New Monastery project exploring the music of pianist/composer Andrew Hill, and perfectly balanced earthy textures and questing grooves with brilliant pianist/composer and U.C. Berkeley professor Myra Melford (who has called the clarinetist “one of the musicians I most look forward to working with”).
Born in Illinois and raised in Denver, Goldberg arrived in Northern California in 1979. While attending U.C. Santa Cruz, he hooked up with bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Kenny Wollesen, with whom he soon formed a klezmer band to play weddings and Jewish celebrations, all the while studying advanced jazz improvisation. Several years later, he joined the tradition-minded band Klezmorim, which thoroughly grounded him in the traditions of the secular, celebratory music of Eastern European Jewry. But the band’s literal-minded re-creation of classic klezmer recordings began to feel stifling for Goldberg, and he sought creative release with his old bandmates.
“I was champing at the bit playing in the Klezmorim, so I got Kenny and Dan together one day and said, ‘Let’s take this klezmer tune that we all know and just cut loose on it,’” Goldberg says. “It was one of those transformative experiences. The energy just took over, and it may have been the first time in my life when I just felt this spiritual transformation through music, so I knew we were onto something.”
Before long the threesome had created the New Klezmer Trio, a landmark ensemble that kicked open the door for radical experiments with Ashkenazi roots music. With its combination of post-bop jazz improvisation and Eastern European Jewish melodic material, the trio paved the way for groups such as saxophonist John Zorn’s Masada, clarinetist Don Byron’s Mickey Katz project and violinist Daniel Hoffman’s intrepid band Davka.
Song form has played an increasingly important role in Goldberg’s music in recent years. Where once he would have described himself as ideologically committed to free improvisation, providing his bands a bare melodic theme but leaving room for each player to develop his own lines and harmonic content, Goldberg has found himself deeply engaged with the craft of composition, whether in Monk’s rhythmic puzzles or his original pieces. In recent years, he’s increasingly moved from freedom to structure, composing melodies, crafting arrangements and setting harmonic parameters.
“I’m taking more responsibility for more traditional aspects of the song— tonality, arrangement and dealing more explicitly with harmony. Playing with form is an unbelievable thing,” he says. “You can shape it any way you want. You can push against it; it’s a dynamic relationship.”
Given his recent musical passion, perhaps it’s not surprising that Goldberg has stepped into his highest-profile gig yet as the latest member of Tin Hat (formerly Tin Hat Trio), a band that has developed a sumptuous repertoire of original compositions that often touch on popular song forms. Launched in the Bay Area in the mid-’90s, the acclaimed ensemble was founded by guitarist Mark Orton, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and accordionist/pianist Rob Berger, who stopped performing with the band in 2005. Now featuring Goldberg, trumpeter Ara Anderson and sometimes harpist Zeena Parkins (best known for her extensive work with Björk), the new version of Tin Hat released a gorgeous album in January on Hannibal/Rykodisc, The Sad Machinery of Spring. For Orton and the Oakland-based Kihlstedt, who contributed to Goldberg’s 1997 album Twelve Minor (Avant), the decision to include the clarinetist in the well established band made perfect sense.
“For me, Ben has been one of the most influential improvisers since I moved to the Bay Area,” says Kihlstedt, who also performs with the art-rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and her own group 2-Foot Yard. “His sense of harmony is exquisite and totally his own. There’s a humility and patience about his playing that’s really compelling. He said something when we were driving back from a gig from Santa Cruz: ‘Never be apologetic for who you are. People will tell you who you should sound like, but you need to sound more and more like yourself.’ And the idea really stuck with me.”
Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.
Pitch perfect: Ben Goldberg, right, takes the spotlight with Tin Hat, engaging in the process of creating a transformative note. Photo by Kathryn Yu, kathrynyu.com.