He's been active for fifteen years, but unless you know the New Klezmer Trio or have followed the Bay Area scene, chances are you haven't heard of clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Despite appearing on records by Charlie Hunter, Tin Hat Trio and John Zorn, in addition to half a dozen albums released under his own name, he’s never managed to grab significant attention, despite the relatively light competition in the jazz clarinet arena. So hopefully The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The Fact, his first release in seven years and his debut on the intrepid left coast Cryptogramophone label, will push him closer to the limelight.
Goldberg's quintet features Tin Hat Trio's violinist/vocalist Carla Kihelstedt, saxophonist Rob Sudduth, Nels Cline Singers bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith. His material manages to combine elements of new music and an occasionally surprising sense of swing, sitting somewhere between the work of fellow clarinetists Don Byron and Louis Sclavis. But while Sclavis tends towards a busier, more aggressive form of freedom, even in his idiosyncratic writing, Goldberg is equally concerned with the space between notes.
The surprisingly natural alternating 5/4 and 6/4 groove of "Long Last Moment" is a dark and mysterious place where Goldberg, Kihlstedt and Sudduth solo concurrently but never seem to get in each others' way. The insistent swing of "Song and Dance," on the other hand, is closer to Byron’s cerebral writing, with closer ties to conventional jazz tradition, revealing lessons learned by Goldberg when he studied with Steve Lacy and Joe Lovano.<br>
Steve Lacy's "Blinks" gets an even more open-ended treatment than the version recorded by Sclavis and trumpeter Dave Douglas on Bow River Falls (Premonition, 2004). Smith and Hoff in particular are both remarkable free players, but their ears are always open to what’s around them. In a 2004 interview with Nels Cline, the guitarist commented that "Ches and Devin are like the rhythm section in the Bay Area, they're everywhere now," and for good reason -- even when the context is essentially free, they move with remarkable synchronicity. And when a groove is called for, as on the persistent pulse of the angular "I Before E Before I," Hoff and Smith prove a potent pair.
A forum for the quintet's liberated mindset, The Door is also a vehicle for Goldberg's more detailed composition. Despite the brevity of "Petals," its cued lines -- with Goldberg, Kihlstedt and Sudduth snaking in and around both dissonance and consonance—are clever and evocative. Two versions of Goldberg’s "Facts," one with Kihlstedt singing lyrics by Steve Lacy, the other featuring the gentle but obscure theme on violin, are stark and bleak, yet strangely beautiful.
While there are inevitable comparisons to be made, Goldberg's compelling eclecticism ultimately puts him on equal footing with both Sclavis and Byron. He may not have the cachet yet, but this new release should help improve his visibility. . .as will his participation on Nels Cline's Tribute to Andrew Hill, due out later this year.