Here are some thoughts on groups I am part of and have been part of, organized by size of ensemble.
Musicians spend a lot of time playing alone, in order to master the instrument, find out what to play, and write music. The idea of solo performance also comes up -- not as common for clarinetists as for pianists, I would think, but this is something I have enjoyed from time to time. These days I am likely to perform Thelonious Monk compositions when playing solo. (I will do so on September 23, 2017, at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.)
I spent the summer of 2017 in an artists' residency at Civitella Ranieri in Italy, and while I was there I recorded a solo clarinet record called "From The Granary." You can download it for free on Bandcamp.
Some years ago I envisioned a project called Ben Goldberg Minus Eleven, named after a record by one of my childhood heroes called Art Pepper Plus Eleven (and, I suppose, after the "Music Minus One" series of recordings). My idea was to invite eleven composers to submit a work for solo clarinet that I would then record -- they would be the Eleven not on the record. I sent out letters and received submissions by Steve Lacy, Trevor Dunn, Vijay Iyer, Bobby Bradford, and some others, but not the full Eleven. One of these days I’ll write the rest of the tunes and record the music.
I have learned so much playing duets with other musicians. John Schott and I got together every week for years, at first studying bebop tunes, then moving on to weird harmonic constellations and their transmutations, American folk music, etc. I found out that when you dig down to the fundamentals there's no telling where you will end up -- some of the places John and I ended up can be heard on the Junk Genius records, and on one of my favorites, What Comes Before.
Elliot Humberto Kavee and I used to get together once a week in his studio in San Francisco and play duets for one hour without ever saying a word to each other. Years later Ches Smith and I did the same, except we said a word to each other and also sometimes Miya Osaki would join the conversation.
Myra Melford and I have vast areas in common, and in a duet we are able to phrase together exactly as needed, turn on a dime, change shape, etc. Each concert has been a chapter in an evolving musical conversation -- two musicians speaking the same language with slightly different points of view, and, like any good conversation, always finding something new. So we titled the project DIALOGUE. Our first record is out on BAG Production.
Kirk Knuffke and I have something to say to each other, two Colorado boys with conical and cylindrical. Our first record of duets, Uncompahgre, will be out on Relative Pitch Records in the Spring of 2018
Michael Coleman and I have prepared a mind-blowing psychedelic collage from our duet recordings of Steve Lacy's "Hocus Pocus." The cd will include baseball cards of all the dedications (James P. Johnson, Babs Gonzales, Houdini, etc.) and should be out in early 2018.
Trio is where it all started for me. The strong shape of the triangle. First, of course, was New Klezmer Trio -- me, Kenny Wollesen, and Dan Seamans. Like many other musicians, I'm sure, I was fascinated by the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic freedom of Sonny Rollins' Live at the Village Vanguard (and, later, Way Out West) -- just saxophone, bass, and drums. When the itch hit me to bust something out of the old klezmer melodies, this type of instrumentation seemed right and we started New Klezmer Trio. I was working on pivoting around the tonality into new regions and not having a "harmonic" instrument in the group allowed me to do this as I felt it. More extensive thoughts on this period can be found in my essay “New Klezmer Trio and the Origins of Radical Jewish Culture” here on the website. NKT made three records: Masks and Faces (1991), Melt Zonk Rewire (1995), and Short for Something (2000); all are available on Tzadik.
Later on I regrouped with Kenny and Greg Cohen to make Speech Communication and we had an excellent European tour in the fall of 2011 -- here's Head and Tails from a concert at Alter Schlachthof in Wels.
Later, and along the way, there were trios with John Schott, Trevor Dunn, Elliot Humberto Kavee, and Ches Smith (see Here By Now, What Comes Before, Almost Never). And then along came Plays Monk, a lovely trio with Scott Amendola and Devin Hoff devoted to the compositions of Thelonious Monk (here's a video).
Scott, John Dieterich and I made a crazy and beautiful trio record called Short-Sighted Dream Colossus. Call me if you want one.
Trios Trios Trios. How about The Out Louds. That's Tomas Fujiwara, me, and Mary Halvorson (strictly alphabetical). Our record is out on Relative Pitch.
And lastly (for now), Invisible Guy. Invisible Guy. Invisible Guy. Hamir Atwal, Michael Coleman, and me. Check out our record Knuckle Sandwich. We also wrote and recorded the soundtrack for Dan Erickson and Rachel Wortell's indie comedy/thriller A Sibling Mystery. We were joined for the recording by our dear friend John Shifflett; we will miss him forever and ever. You can get the soundtrack on Bandcamp.
Sorry, I need to quote myself from a lovely interview with Warren Allen in All About Jazz where I was asked about playing with Charlie Hunter:
"Charlie Hunter is one of the greatest musicians that have ever lived. I knew that I loved his playing and that I enjoyed listening to him, but until I started playing with him, I didn't quite understand the immensity of his accomplishment. I sent him a note the other day saying I was going to write an essay comparing him to Vladimir Horowitz or Glenn Gould."
I learned so much about music from Charlie, Scott Amendola, and Ron Miles in the quartet Go Home, although with Charlie holding down the bass while simultaneously tearing it up on guitar you might think you are listening to a quintet. The strength of the groove that these musicians conjure up illuminates the foundations of music in a beautiful and haunting way, and playing with those guys gave me an opportunity to learn from masters.
In the early 1990's John Schott and I started getting together to learn bebop songs. This led to Junk Genius -- a very fun group to play with. Me, John, Trevor, and Kenny Wollesen. Here's Hallucinations by Bud Powell. I recently had the record re-mastered and it is on Bandcamp.
A very important group in my life was Tin Hat. Started as Tin Hat Trio by Mark Orton, Carla Kihlstedt, and Rob Burger, when Rob left the group it became a quartet with myself and, first, Zeena Parkins, then Rob Reich. Tin Hat really showed me a lot about listening to and internalizing the wisdom of song form, composition, orchestration, and how to approach a recording project. We played many fantastic and inspiring shows in Europe and the US, and recorded three records. The Sad Machinery of Spring is a contemplation of Bruno Shulz; Foreign Legion (on BAG) draws from live recordings; and The Rain Is A Handsome Animal contains 17 songs from the poetry of E E Cummings. That’s the record where I got my start writing songs with words. At first I felt like I didn’t know how, but then I started to learn how the words and music need to push against each other.
Clarinet Thing was founded by Beth Custer twenty five years ago (!), this group includes some of the finest clarinetists and arrangers of our day. Along with the remarkable Ms. Custer, there is Sheldon Brown, Harvey Wainapel, and myself, playing nothing but clarinets, from sopranino to contra alto. Here we are playing Duke Ellington's Black and Tan Fantasy.
Here's a great quartet: the Scott Amendola Quartet, with the late great John Shifflet on bass and Josh Smith on tenor saxophone. Scott writes beautiful, melodic tunes, and insists that we play them however we need to in the moment. This has created some memorable performances. Here's two of them: "Lima Bean" at Off The Grid in San Francisco, and "Blues for Istanbul" from a hit at the Red Poppy Art House in SF with Nels Cline taking Josh's place.
Unfold Ordinary Mind. I had the idea of a group where I could be the bass player, on the contra alto clarinet. Of course the group would need two of my tenor saxophone heroes (Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth), a guitar genius (Nels Cline), and the deeply tumultuous drummer Ches Smith. So after the premier of Orphic Machine in March of 2012, I wrote a bunch of songs and assembled this crew at the Bunker studio in Williamsburg one day in May. We learned the tunes, rehearsed, and recorded them all in just a few hours, and the results are extraordinary -- raw, dire, and to the point. The record, Unfold Ordinary Mind, is on BAG Production and comes with a beautiful fold-out painting of horses by Molly Barker. Here we are playing Parallelogram in Baltimore.
The Ben Goldberg Quintet. Carla Kihlstedt, Rob Sudduth, Devin Hoff, Ches Smith. What a pleasure to work with this group of amazing musicians, every one a master of melody and suspense. I got this group together to record the door the hat the chair the fact, originating in my meditations on the wonderful Mr. Steve Lacy.
Here’s a quintet that only lived a day: Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, a collection of my songs recorded by myself, Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Devin, and Ches.
Ben Goldberg School. Here is a sextet of some of my favorite musicians:
Another sextet I have the pleasure of working with from time to time is Be Bread, Myra Melford's astonishing ensemble featuring Cuong Vu, Brandon Ross, Stomu Takeishi, Matt Wilson, Myra, and myself. Myra is simply one of the great pianists of our time, whose writing and playing are a consistent source of delight and amazement, bringing together vast areas of knowledge, learning, wisdom, and spontaneous bone-chilling musical perfection. The music she has written for this group is melodic, catchy, disconcerting, and above all completely original. In 2010 Myra released The Whole Tree Gone.
Okay, I just wanted to write “nonet.” Here’s one for you:
"The Orphic Machine is the poem: a severed head with face turned away that sings."
-- Allen Grossman
In college I was fortunate to enroll in a literature course entitled The Representation of Experience taught by an amazing poet and thinker named Allen Grossman. We read old books -- The Bible, Gilgamesh, Moby-Dick -- and Professor Grossman showed us into a world where reading, thought, meaning, action, and understanding came together. He had a way of reading literature in order to reveal the historical development of human culture; the impact was very strong. I wouldn’t say he taught us – it’s more like he embodied the business of knowing. Years later, finding my way out of a dark period, I developed a thirst for poetry. I got in touch with the poet Susan Stewart, who invited me to a 2004 gathering in honor of Professor Grossman, where he read powerfully from his poems. I began studying a book of his called Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics. The book is constructed as a set of interrelated aphorisms whose purpose is “to bring to mind ‘the poem,’ as an object of thought and as an instrument for thinking.”
I read Summa Lyrica for five years, hoping to eventually arrive at an understanding of the work. In 2010 I received a commission from Chamber Music America / New Jazz Works to compose a piece for large ensemble based upon Summa Lyrica. Originally I intended to write a piece of music that reflected the structure of the book. But as a poem cannot be restated in other words (for then it would be a different poem), the book would not allow me to summarize or map it. I began to see that the aphorisms had been working on me, and I needed to let them work directly on the music, by using them as lyrics for songs. So I found myself writing songs with words like
"The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will."
Orphic Machine was my biggest compositional project to date. I wrote around the clock for four months, completing a song cycle of ten movements, scored for nine musicians:
Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice
Greg Cohen, bass
Kenny Wollesen, vibraphone
Ron Miles, trumpet
Ches Smith, drums
Rob Sudduth, tenor saxophone
Myra Melford, piano
Ben Goldberg, clarinets
The music of Orphic Machine reflects my new interest in vocal music (the first instances are on the Tin Hat record The Rain Is A Handsome Animal, with songs based on the poems of E E Cummings), as well as my ongoing fascination with musical form, counterpoint, and groove in creating compositions that include improvisation. Here is "Care," from the premiere at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley.
In 2014, with a grant from the Shifting Foundation, we recorded Orphic Machine. It is out on Royal Potato Family / BAG Production on cd and LP.
Ben Goldberg's Brainchild is an occasional group of around 12 musicians who gather to carry out instructions I make up on the spot and whisper in their ears. Over the years the group has included John Schott, Steve Adams, Carla Kihlstedt, Ches Smith, David Euwell, Matt Brubeck, William Winant, Scott Amendola, Will Bernard, and many others. There have been many memorable moments, musical and otherwise, including Scott lying on the floor of the Paradise Lounge, Matt gamely attempting to respond to the instruction "hypotenuse! hypotenuse!", narrowly-averted mayhem by Mr. Winant at Beanbenders, and the choreographer Joe Goode reciting all the five-syllable words he could think of.