Choreographer Trisha Brown once said of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, “[He] arrives fresh at the scene of the accident he’s about to create.” I ran that line by composer and clarinetist Ben Goldberg recently, because it reminded me of his approach. It also brought to mind a line of Goldberg’s, which he uses as a sign-off on his messages: “Leaving it to the imagination since 1959.” With its mid-century tang and humor, it struck me as a perfect set-up for his art, suggesting his particular mixture of the adventurous and the homespun. I asked him how he prepares for those spontaneous moments that happen on the bandstand. “In recent years I’ve worked on staying calm,” he said, “in order to be clear-minded.”
Goldberg has had plenty of experience to draw from. Raised in Denver, he began his career in the ’70s. A major project that occupied him off and on for nearly two decades was the New Klezmer Trio, formed with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Dan Seamans. This melding of traditional Jewish melodies with elements as disparate as avant-garde jazz and thrash rock was something Goldberg called “the Big Bang of my musical life.” He studied clarinet masters like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein to learn more about the form—“how they shaped the melody, how they put the embellishment on it”—but took it in all kinds of directions.
A lesson from soprano sax player Steve Lacy changed his life. “He saw something in me, that I was eager and hungry, and that I worshipped him. He gave me a little shove, kind of like saying ‘Don’t try to copy me.’ He was showing me how to be an artist, how to make art part of your life. In a way, he was giving me stuff that I could work out over the next twenty years and trusted that I would file it away.”
Goldberg recently turned 60 and he celebrated with a week of performances at The Stone’s new space on West 13th Street, each night featuring a different group of musicians. I saw two very distinctive set-ups, both of which were superb: the first was a tentet in which he was joined by three vibraphonists, three guitarists, two drummers, and a bassist. “I was lucky to have one rehearsal with that band, and it wasn’t a long one,” he says, smiling at the memory of it. “So I didn’t really know if it was going to work at all. It was going to be whatever we did at the spur of the moment.”
I was amazed at the openness and clarity of the music given the size of the band. “It’s true, that can turn into a big mess,” he said. “But everyone knew what needed to be added. The vibes were at the center, and they ring out so beautifully. They’re very transparent, so the music never gets thick. And the guitars were very clean and pure.” The performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation. The next night, he played in a quartet with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Chris Lightcap, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Again, he achieved a gorgeous sound, this time without any piano/guitar/vibes in the middle. “With that type of group, you have to use the melodic blend to create the harmonies,” he said. “That’s what I love.”
Goldberg always returns to the jazz masters for fresh inspiration, in particular Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. “It’s so packed with wisdom,” he says of their music. “I’ve been listening to Parker a lot lately and it’s blowing my mind in a whole new way. He’s like Moses. He comes down from the mountain with a whole new text, which is a distillation of principles. Everything he played was a statement: about how music works, how it can be put together, the possibilities inherent in tonality and melody and time and phrasing. Same thing with Monk: his music always contains multiple lessons, and you can draw something from the relationships that are there. The way the materials interact with each other. What is said, what isn’t.” As for Armstrong, “The more you get into the details, you realize he was there first. Somebody else may have used it, but the actual lick came from him. The storytelling is the thing. The ability to be coherent with a melody that doesn’t have words is rare.”
This set of influences percolates through Goldberg’s recorded work. It’s certainly evident on his relatively rare straight-ahead readings, like his appearance on the 2014 recording Soul of Wood (self-released) from the Smith Dobson Quartet, on which he plays sweet but complex lines over standards like “My Melancholy Baby.” But it is underneath his looser collaborations, too: “Time is the New Space” from the 2017 project Ben Goldberg School, Vol. I: The Humanities (BAG Productions), a multi-part suite that begins softly and ranges through deconstructions and reconstructions of its core statement. His “Ask Me Later,” from a 1997 collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich, Light at the Crossroads (Songlines), is a witty interpolation of Monk’s “Ask Me Now.” And on “Evolution” from the 2013 Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (BAG Productions), recorded with saxophonist Joshua Redman, his love of much earlier music comes through strongly. “I spent a lot of time playing through Bach chorales to learn something about harmony,” he said. “And I’m always in constant pursuit of a beautiful melody. It seeps into the way I hear things. I was brought up, in my training, with the romantic notion of how you play a written melody, how to lean on certain notes. The way that the band interprets the melody can be very specific, and the openness is all around that. I really want it to breathe.”
I asked Goldberg if spirituality is an important element of music to him. “I don’t know about spirituality, but spirit is important to me,” he says. “When you play a wind instrument, you’re breathing into it. As I’m working on a tune, it will change shape and suggest new directions. By the time it’s done, I can’t even remember what that original idea was. But if there was a spirit there, I’ll keep coming back to it. I know I’m done when it’s saying what it needs to be saying.”
In 2015, Goldberg took on an unusual project called Orphic Machine (BAG Productions), created as a tribute to the poet Allen Grossman: “When I took his course in college, nobody in that room knew what he was talking about! We were all stumbling around in the dark. But we all knew that it was terribly important. It came from a tradition of wisdom that is communicated in ways that can’t be broken down into simple steps.”
Rather than set poems to music, the album features material from Grossman’s Summa Lyrica, an open-ended set of statements that Goldberg treated almost as Zen koans: “I decided to take these very short phrases and let them ring out over and over, let them kind off float.” The effect is galvanizing. With vocalist and violinist Carla Khilstedt and guitarist Nels Cline, the music thunders and surges, and the words are hurled into the mix like bolts from the poetic gods. It’s a tribute that isn’t shy about rising to its own Olympian heights.
For all the tact and delicacy of his music, Goldberg knows how—and when—to just let it rip. “I don’t want anybody to be too polite,” he says. “I’ve made that mistake. For this project, I was constantly saying ‘More, more.’” This reminded me of a poem by Delmore Schwartz that contains the lines, “It is the city consciousness which sees and says: More / More and more: always more.” For Goldberg, this forward drive is ever present.
“I’m at a point where I can’t stop,” he says. “I have the opposite of writer’s block. There’s always something new. I still think, ‘I’ve got to write some music.’ At this point, I’ve written a lot. But I still want to take it to the next level. Every time I write a song, it’s as if it could solve the problems of how to write a song. It’s a combination of impulse and anxiety and being drawn to the impossibility of the task. But I still find all kinds of weird stuff to make. I try to stay open to new ideas. There’s always a new angle.”
His next set of improvisations will emerge on November 27 as part of the John Zorn commissioning series at National Sawdust. “My whole approach is driven by the players who are going to be there with me,” he says. “It almost starts as a visual thing. I can picture the stage, and I can see [percussionists] Kenny [Wollesen], and Ches [Smith], and [bassist] Thomas Morgan. That’s what leads to the material that will be played.”
When he’s in concert, Goldberg always tells the audience, “Thank you for coming to listen to the music with us.” The sentiment rang true at The Stone, as the musicians and audience all seemed to be listening closely to each other. “That’s what we’re up to in art,” he says. “You come to a concert. You’re there for the whole thing, you hear every note that is played—so what do you leave with? It’s not that you recall every note. It’s that my imagination has met your imagination in some way. And it’s my job, the band’s job, to leave room for your imagination. That’s why I don’t want things scripted out too much. I need stuff that is going to excite my imagination in the moment. Then we’ll see what happens.”