Ben Goldberg – Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues  Bag Production Records, 51:31 ****:
Unfold Ordinary Mind  – Bag Production Records, 47:28 ****:
(Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues: Ben Goldberg – B-flat clarinet, contra-alto clarinet; Joshua Redman – tenor saxophone; Ron Miles – trumpet; Devin Hoff – bass; Ches Smith – drums; Scott Amendola – drums (tracks 5, 6))
(Unfold Ordinary Mind: Goldberg – contra-alto clarinet, B-flat clarinet; Nels Cline – guitar; Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth – tenor saxophone; Ches Smith – drums)
Sometimes the most interesting musicians are those who garner limited attention from reviewers, audiences and music buyers. That is the case for Bay Area-based clarinetist Ben Goldberg. In the 1980s he helped spearhead the klezmer music revival as a participant in The Klezmorim and later founded the klezmer-jazz ensemble, the New Klezmer Trio, who began issuing albums in the early 1990s. He has collaborated with an array of musicians, from soul-jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter to the unclassifiable John Zorn, and joined chamber jazz group Tin Hat (formerly the Tin Hat Trio). Along the way, Goldberg quietly but firmly became a mini-maverick, engaged in tributes to well-known composers (Thelonious Monk, via the piano-less trio Plays Monk) and less familiar artists (Andrew Hill); and continues to reveal the possibilities of a curious instrument, the contra-alto clarinet. On February 5, 2013 Goldberg simultaneously delivered separately-recorded ventures which have much in common. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (taped in 2008) and the brand-new Unfold Ordinary Mind share similar musical sensibilities: both have a loose swinging feel and both shift from style to style but maintain continuity.
Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (which can be streamed in its entirety online) takes some unusual turns. The 11 tracks were stimulated by Bach chorales and have an emphasis on the contrapuntal or counterpoint relationship between Goldberg’s sextet members, although classical influences won’t be heard by most listeners. The outside/inside music is performed by Goldberg (who switches between B-flat clarinet and his large contra-alto clarinet); tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman (whom Goldberg met while on a double bill at a San Francisco venue); trumpeter Ron Miles (who resides in Goldberg’s hometown, Denver and is one third of the trio Go Home, which also features Goldberg and Hunter); drummer Ches Smith (Tim Berne is among those he has played with); bassist Devin Hoff; and drummer Scott Amendola, who is on two cuts (both Hoff and Amendola have been involved with the instrumental trio, the Nels Cline Singers). The record’s title riffs on Bob Dylan’s famous song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and Dylan was the inspiration for the sole cover, Joseph Hayes’ country hit “Satisfied Mind,” which Dylan did on his 1980 LP, Saved. Goldberg re-harmonizes the piece and twists away the rural sentiments into something unrecognizable, with the three horns initially placed in traditional jazz territory, but with a rhythm section planted in avant-garde terrain (Smith is boldly inclement at times). “Satisfied Mind” quickly moves into free-form mode and Redman displays an adventurous side mostly absent from his higher-profile projects. Before the lengthy composition concludes, the typically reserved Miles also shows a rebellious stance. The sassy “Who Died and Where I Moved To” revamps 1960s Latin jazz, specifically the boogaloo style (think “Watermelon Man” or “El Watusi”). Goldberg solos on his big contra-alto clarinet and showcases the instrument’s deep, bass-like quality, while Redman and Miles are evocative with their sprightly, intermixed horns.
The upbeat opener “Evolution” elicits New Orleans-slanted jazz, but has a deconstructed arrangement, where the beat falls off and comes back up and the horns create a slightly strange crescendo. The abstract sax and clarinet duet “Study of the Blues” has an unorthodox swing, with a conceptual design akin to early Ornette Coleman, with a searching melody. Goldberg clarifies why his intricate arrangements also have a sense of straightforwardness: “I was playing a lot of music with a certain level of sophistication and almost intentional obscurity,” Goldberg states. “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.” The instrumental subtlety on Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues was captured with sonic concentration and dynamics by engineer Jeff Cressman, at the now-defunct Bay Records studio, which was renowned for its discriminating acoustics. The horns are clear and concise; the bass has snap; and the drums have both clout and nuance.
The quintet outing Unfold Ordinary Mind (which can also be streamed online) has a comparable atmosphere of complexity with openness, but the seven numbers seem more spontaneous (the band learned the tunes, rehearsed, and recorded them all in just a few hours in April, 2012). As Goldberg declares, the outcome is “raw, dire, and to the point.” Here, Goldberg dispenses with a bassist and utilizes his contra-alto clarinet as a bass instrument, and employs multiple instruments not only during melodic passages but also during the improvisational sections, a process which he explains during a short 5:30-length promo video. Besides Goldberg, the only other holdover from the 2008 session is Smith; the rest of quintet consists of guitarist Nels Cline and twinned tenor saxophonists Rob Sudduth (a Bay Area artist who has worked with Huey Lewis and leads a Frank Sinatra covers band) and NYC avant-garde jazz stalwart Ellery Eskelin (whose résumé includes John Hollenbeck, David Liebman, Joey Baron and many more). This material has a fiercer perspective than much of Goldberg’s music, and the assertiveness is predominantly set by Smith (who has a louder mannerism here than on Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues) and Cline’s amped-up guitar and effects. The longer multifaceted pieces have intriguing frameworks which wend in everything from mainstream jazz to jazz-rock, and blues to bop. “Stemwinder” has a good-natured melody and groove, although the track becomes staggeringly swaggering before the conclusion, with Cline shredding on his six-string. The ambitious “Parallelogram” (an officially uploaded live version can be heard here) also encompasses a lot of stylistic ground, but is rooted with a friendly swinging groove led by the three-horn frontline and Smith’s amiable rhythmic underpinning. Cline effortlessly peels off one blues-steeped lick after another. The shorter “I Miss the SLA” (a tongue-in-cheek nod to the notorious Bay Area terroristic organization who kidnapped Patty Hearst) is more aggressive, violent in some ways, where cerebral noise is the rule. A sanctioned live performance can be heard here. As juxtaposition, Goldberg ends with the relative calming “Breathing Room,” a drummer-less horns/guitar excursion which is beautiful and expressively emotive, highlighted by the contra-alto clarinet’s deep-toned timbre. Unfold Ordinary Mind includes a foldout mini-poster by painter Molly Barker, whose artwork appears on several Bag Production releases.
Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues:
Evolution; Ethan’s Song; Study of the Blues; Doom; The Because Of; Possible; Asterisk; Satisfied Mind; Who Died and Where I Moved To; Lopse; How to do Things with Tears.
Unfold Ordinary Mind:
Elliptical; Parallelogram; xcpf; Lone; I Miss the SLA; Stemwinder; Breathing Room