In the mid-1980s, Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg sparked the radical Jewish music movement with the New Klezmer Trio, a band combining avant garde jazz's rambunctious improvisation with traditional Ashkenazi melodies. Dozens of ensembles walked through the door that he opened, most famously John Zorn's Masada, while Goldberg moved on to explore new musical avenues. He deconstructed bebop tunes with Junk Genius, and lavished attention on Thelonious Monk's infinitely intriguing compositions with the piano-less trio Plays Monk. More recently he's composed luscious art songs with the adventurous chamber ensemble Tin Hat, and several projects of his own.
While recorded four years apart, Goldberg's two new albums, "Unfold Ordinary Mind" and "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues," serve as fascinating milestones tracing his trajectory as an inspired tunesmith. "Unfold Ordinary Mind," a quintet session recorded last April, features compositions clearly inspired by his recent immersion in songwriting. The album overflows with sinuous melodies. A latticework of intersecting lines, his music often takes unanticipated twists and turns. Like in "Stemwinder", which wends its way for nine minutes, building slowly to a crunching climax.
Looking at the album's personnel, and knowing Goldberg's long history as a wizard of spontenious composition, you might expect a session full of daredevil shredding. Drummer Ches Smith can often be found in high volume, high velocity settings. And Nels Cline was LA's iconic underground guitar slinger before he added a bracing jolt of creative juice to Wilco. But Cline is always ready to wax lyrical, and he employs a lustrous, tawny tone that can turn bright and twangy on a dime.
Part of what's fascinating about "Unfold Ordinary Mind" is that Goldberg spends much of the session serving rhythm section duties, playing bass lines on the imposing contra-alto clarinet. It's a huge horn with a tree-trunk thick sound. In Goldberg's hands it can rumble like a subway underfoot or croon like Paul Robeson. I sometimes miss his exquisitely fluid b-flat clarinet, but with tenor saxophonists Rub Sudduth and Ellery Eskelin, Goldberg's tunes are rendered with all the requisite care.
It's not hard to hear connections between "Unfold" and "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues," a mostly quintet session recorded in 2008 featuring trumpeter Ron Miles and saxophone star Joshua Redman, who sounds positively liberated in a rare stint as a sideman. Both albums dip into the controlled cadences of chamber jazz, then suddenly turn unruly. But where "Unfold" tends toward expansion and digression, "Subatomic" features 11 concise and focused tracks that sometimes stop mid-thought.
Exploring a variety of moods and textures, Goldberg finds numerous ways to play with traditional jazz polyphony. The result is a charged version of 21st century West Coast jazz, full of careening, overlapping lines.
An album this fun and eventful easily stands on its own, but together with "Unfold Ordinary Mind," "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues" traces the evolution of an artist who now seems to find beautiful melodies at the end of every path.