Clarinetist Ben Goldberg sometimes gets so out front with his musical vision, it takes years to catch up with him. Five years ago I was on this space admiring his groundbreaking klezmer jazz work from the 90s with the New Klezmer Trio. About the same time that I was looking back thirteen years, Goldberg has assembled a quintet of some of jazz’s finest to record more barrier busting music that went in a different direction from that Jewish folk music stuff he had been known for. This time, though, he gave his listeners a five year running start, by not releasing these sessions until later this month. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, the title for this dusted off project, does absorb quicker, but not far below the surface, he’s taking chances as ever before and landing on his feet every time.
Helping Goldberg’s risk-taking pay off are Joshua Redman on sax, Ron Miles on trumpet, Devin Hoff on bass and Ches Smith handling most of the drums (Scott Amendola replaces Smith for two tracks).
Genius often reveals itself in discreet ways. I’m not one to declare if Goldberg is a genius or not, but there seems to be clever juxtaposition of music that sounds straightforward and music that’s full of intricacies not always instantly noticed. “I was playing a lot of music with a certain level of sophistication and almost intentional obscurity,” admits Goldberg. “Yet I realized that the music that I loved when I was growing up is music that speaks very directly. I wanted to bring the two into alignment.”
That goes a way toward explain what Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues feels like to me. Even the title is a clue: it’s a take off on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and Dylan always had a knack for devising the kind of direct and simple folk tunes that became endlessly dissected for clues and revelations. Maybe his own star power had something to do with that but it’s also apparent that Dylan’s songs possess depth that belies the supposed simplicity of folk music.
“Satisfied Mind,” a widely covered tune that Dylan himself once took on, is also taken on by Goldberg for the only non-original of the album. It’s one of the best examples of how Goldberg handles the dichotomy of his goals for this album: the horns say trad jazz, but rhythm section says avant garde with Smith defiantly turbulent. Redman is the first to drift over closer to avant garde side, then Goldberg. But in the end it’s the usually reserved Miles who goes the furthest outside. “Evolution” has a New Orleans Dixieland flavor, but with a deconstructed arrangement. “Ethan’s Song” is also a simple melody played out in an unusual fashion: a slinky groove, Hoff’s bass finishing sentences started by the horns and interaction among the three horns an engaging conversation. It could easily be mistaken for a Bill Frisell song if not for the absence of a guitar. I love what Goldberg did with “Who Died And Where I Moved To”: switching to the much deeper contra alto clarinet, Goldberg plays it in lock step with Hoff in the intro, which leads right into a “Sidewinder” groove.
Goldberg invests a lot into how he, Redman and Miles converse with each other; “Study of the Blues” is only him and Redman, but is fascinating in that there are different interpretations of same song at the precise same points though there is no rhythm section to guide them. “Doom” is a straight bop tune, featuring Goldberg and Mles trading fours and often overlapping each other. Though brief, “Lopse” is astounding for the dissonant but interlocking expressions among three horns, requiring precise coordination. But Goldberg is also crafty in putting together the horn parts to create lovely melodies. For “How To Do Things With Tears,” every detail of the strain is brought out by the individual but simultaneous expressions of the three, while Smith and Hoff ignore time keeping and follows the collective path of the horns.
These are just some of the moments where Ben Goldberg is able to reconcile the pure melodies of his youth with the complexities that mark much of his work. But in the case of Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, reconciliation does not equate to compromise.
This, by the way, is just one of two albums Ben Goldberg is preparing to release on the same day this month; we’ll survey the more recently recorded Unfold Ordinary Mind companion album next.
Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues is set to go on sale February 19, from Goldberg’s own BAG Production Records.