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.
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.
These days I have been enjoying playing duets with Myra Melford. We 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. Click here for some tracks from a recent concert.
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 a song from our concert in Wels: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGCcCN4hDu0
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: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIQkHwo2Dds).
Watch out, you may see some recordings surface from a crazy and beautiful trio of Scott, me, and the amazing guitarist John Dieterich from Deerhoof.
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 quartetGo Home (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypL4Zo04ONw), 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. Also, Charlie has pointed me towards a collection of records that is blowing my mind and giving me a lot to consider.
A very important group in my life during the last eight years is 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, and now 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 have 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 our latest, 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 is an interesting quartet. Founded by Beth Custer twenty 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. A good example of what we are up to can be heard on Cry, Want, our new release on Beth's BC Records label.
Here's a great quartet: the Scott Amendola Quartet, with 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: www.youtube.com/watch?v=oS97jALMPs4. And "Blues for Istanbul" from a hit at the Red Poppy Art House in SF with Nels Cline taking Josh's place: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FksDYt3ZduU&feature=related
In 2008 Myra Melford and I received a Chamber Music America grant to fund the first get-together of a quartet with Shahzad Ismaily and Mathias Delplanque called Afterlife Music Radio. We sure had fun with that group – we played sonic collages that lasted an hour each, where songs, noise, texture, and live computer processing overlapped in a really mysterious sound. The music was very loud, and very soft.
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 (and now certifiable rock star) (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, will be released on BAG Production on February 19, 2013. A track from the record can be heard here.
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. Later on we recorded a very fine record with some longer compositions on it to be called Nine Pound Hammer that should be coming out on BAG Production.
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. Many of my projects involve musicians living in other parts of the world, which prevents a kind of day-to-day collaboration, so last year I decided I needed a group of San Francisco Bay Area musicians to play my compositions and present new projects without undue logistical problems. Of course I was soon reminded that most of my favorite creative musicians live right here in the Bay Area! For example the members of Ben Goldberg School:
Kasey Knudsen alto saxophone
Jeff Cressman trombone
Rob Reich accordion and piano
David Ewell bass
Howard Wiley drums (yes, the same Howard Wiley)
Ben Goldberg clarinet, composition
We have played concerts around the Bay Area and have completed our first recording, to be issued in 2013.
Recently Ben Goldberg School presented the first performances of a new work of mine, Come Back Elliott Smith, a project inspired by and based upon my study of the songs of Elliott Smith (1969 - 2003). This is a memoriam for Smith and a place to reflect on what I have learned from him, and to carry on the work that he laid out in his lifetime -- chiefly, to me, the model he provided of creating songs whose immediate emotional impact and seeming obviousness are beautiful vehicles for a wide-ranging exploration of the vast possibilities of melody and harmony.
Another sextet I have the pleasure of working with from time to time is Be Bread(www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhELU_8xXXU), 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
Nels Cline, guitar
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. You can watch a song from the premiere at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley here (www.vimeo.com/blackparrotportfolio/review/38670529/2db84d2abc).
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.