Ben Goldberg: Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues
BAG Production Records

Ben Goldberg: Unfold Ordinary Mind
BAG Production Records

Recorded five years apart but issued contemporaneously, Ben Goldberg's Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind present markedly different yet complementary portraits of the composer-clarinetist's music, both of them issued on his own BAG Production label. The difference is, in part, attributable to the personnel involved: on the 2008 recording, Goldberg surrounds himself with tenor saxist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Devin Hoff, and drummers Ches Smith and Scott Amendola (the latter on two tracks only); on the later date, he brings guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Ches Smith, and tenor saxists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth into the fold. Another key detail is that the earlier set finds Goldberg, who plays B-flat clarinet and E-flat contra alto clarinet on both albums, playing as part of the front-line whereas the later set sees him adopting the bassist's role within the quintet. He brings an incredible range of experience to the recordings: a one-time student of Steve Lacy and Joe Lovano, Goldberg is a graduate of the University of California and earned a Masters in composition from Mills College. His playing experiences include stints in Go Home (alongside Miles, Amendola, and Charlie Hunter), pianist Myra Melford, Cline's Andrew Hill tribute project New Monastery, and the San Francisco-based quartet Tin Hat, whose 2012 release the rain is a handsome animal nabbed the number three spot on textura's year-end list.

There's an appealingly loose feel to Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues that enhances the fifty-one-minute recording's appeal. Apparently the musicians rehearsed for a single day before entering the studio for two days of recording—a surefire way to keep things fresh and spontaneous, and a strategy that pays especially strong dividends when distinctive voices like Miles and Redman are involved. After a Bach-like chorale intro, “Evolution” digs into a seriously swinging New Orleans-styled hoedown that's distinguished by remarkable contrapuntal interplay, with all five soloing free-spiritedly until the chorale resurfaces as the coda. A New Orleans spirit also emerges in “Possible,” though this time the style is more funereal dirge, while the chorale concept re-emerges within the beautifully rendered “Asterik,” which is further elevated by the burnished tone of Miles's trumpet solo.

In contrast to its title, “Doom,” which could have come from an early Ornette Coleman playbook, exudes a joyous spirit, especially with Miles, Goldberg, and Redman leading the charge. The saxist even seems to offer an affectionate nod to Coleman during “Satisfied Mind” when a few brief phrases directly reference his elder's playing style (let's also not forget that Redman's father Dewey played with Ornette for many years). Throughout the album, Miles, Redman, and Goldberg make for an incredible front-line that's as adept at playing together as pursuing individual tangents. Hoff, Smith, and Amendola likewise make their presence felt in the muscular and sympathetic support they provide whenever necessary. The album title wasn't arbitrarily chosen either, as the blues are never far out of the picture. “The Because Of” offers a classic example of jazz-blues feeling, “Ethan's Song” riffs on a funkier, low-down variant, and “Study of the Blues,” a brief duo spotlight, captures Redman and Goldberg in all their soloistic glory. “Satisfied Mind,” too, while performed with raucous abandon, is nonetheless rooted in the blues. The passage of five years has done nothing to dull this music's lustre.

Unfold Ordinary Mind came into being even more quickly, with Goldberg assembling the musicians at the Bunker studio in Williamsburg for one day in May of 2012, whereupon they rehearsed and recorded the material in just a few hours. The album at first sounds like it might be the twin sister to Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues when it opens sweetly with a lyrical chorale, but the stylistic distance between them soon becomes clear once Wilco guitarist Cline starts spreading his six-string skronk and snarl across the tunes. Including Eskelin and Sudduth as a sax-heavy front-line proves to be a masterstroke, so much so that at various times during the forty-seven-minute set tenor devotees will feel like they've died and gone to heaven. Rather than politely soloing in turns, the two often wail simultaneously, and consequently tracks like “Elliptical” and “Parallelogram” grow into appealingly raw'n'funky throwdowns. The guttural honk of Goldberg's contra alto clarinet also makes for an arresting change from the standard acoustic bass sound.

Goldberg's compositional voice comes through loud and clear in tracks such as “Parallelogram” and “Stemwinder,” which ooze bluesy and funky vibes that would have allowed them to fit seamlessly into the earlier recording. Unfold Ordinary Mind is as loose, too—maybe even looser—and rawer, in large part due to Cline's fiery contributions. Almost drowning in the density of the musicians' cumulative attack, “Stemwinder” is representative of the album's heavy sound, but it also isn't without its quieter moments, as “Lone,” with its sax musings and guitar shadings, and the lyrical closer “Breathing Room” illustrate. The veritable range of musics captured on the two recordings is alone enough to recommend them, with everything from bop to Bach invoked along the way. Add in the quality of the musicianship and Goldberg's compositional finesse and you've got more than enough to justify giving the albums the strong endorsements they deserve.

March 2013