In 2008, clarinetist Ben Goldberg assembled a conventional ensemble to record music with unconventional underpinnings. In 2012, Goldberg again assembled an ensemble to record music with unconventional underpinnings, but this time, the structure of the group for these later sessions is unconventional to match.
This newer project, Unfold Ordinary Mind, is really an extension of the ideas Goldberg put forth on the earlier project, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, which we parsed on this space just yesterday. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it when Goldberg had replaced tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Ron Miles with two tenor sax men, Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. Or by replacing bassist Devin Hoff with himself on contra alto clarinet. Or by adding Wilco’s guitarist Nels Cline (thus effectively swapping out Nels Cline Singers). Only drummer Ches Smith and of course, Goldberg, are carried over.
To underscore the continuity running from Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues to Unfold Ordinary Mind, Goldberg is issuing these two discs at the same time. The former disc, as we noted yesterday, made the grade, so what about the latter one?
Unfold, to be sure, has a different sonic quality to it — Cline’s presence alone assures that — but Goldberg’s zest for musical adventure is the same as before. He seems to revel in putting together clashing styles that your mind tells you aren’t congruent but your heart is demanding your mind to explain why. “Elliptical,” which sets the album into motion, illustrates how Goldberg makes music out of collisions. It begins stately enough, with an ordinary combo of harmonizing saxes, Ben undertaking the bass part and Cline noodling around with whirl-ly noises. Soon, though, Ches emerges with a rock backbeat, and Eskelin and Sudduth are sparring with each other. And yet, there remains an old jazz feel to it. Cline rock guitar offers a stark contrast to the horns and provides complexity even though melody itself is not that complicated. That abutment of rock and trad jazz continues onto “Parallelogram,” where the horns play on one plane and Cline is getting all wiggly out on another, parallel plane. Later, it’s the two saxes playing in parallel with each other: we learned from Subatomic how Goldberg relishes pitting the horn players against each other or together through complex harmonic lines.
“xcpf” is a slow R’n'B groove with Goldberg playing bass guitar lines on that contra alto clarinet, Nels on rhythm and the saxes freely frolicking within the confines of the melody. The fans of Cline’s psycho side will fancy the guerrilla rock free jazz song “I Miss The SLA.” “Stemwinder,” like “Elliptical” before it, deceptively begins with an almost baroque progression from the three horns before launching into those “incongruent” things, like a Cline-led groove rock paced by Smith’s loopy beat while the saxes add the soul. Eventually, Smith breaks out into total freedom as Cline keeps the circular chord progression going “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” style. It’s quite the trip. Smith takes a breather on the solemn ballad “Breathing Room,” where Goldberg’s clarinet-rendered bass line comes to the fore and the meshing of Eskelin, Sudduth and Cline is delightful.
Yes indeed, Goldberg’s principles set forth four years earlier remain intact; all he’s done is execute those ideas with the perspective of different musicians. Goldberg puts it this way: “Know what it is that pleases you and touches you in an ordinary way and have the courage to work with that.” Keep in mind, though, that there’s nothing ordinary about Ben Goldberg’s music, not even on an album with the word “ordinary” in the name.
Unfold Ordinary Mind is due out February 19, courtesy of Goldberg’s BAG Production Records.