Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg makes his LA debut as a bandleader at… (Adam Goldberg )
reporting from berkeley — — Leading a band is difficult enough, what with managing disparate personalities, delicate egos and the unavoidable vicissitudes of life on the road. But when an ensemble brings together improvisers who are all noted bandleaders in their own right, the opportunities for short-circuiting the delicate wiring of bandstand dynamics multiply exponentially.
For clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a key creative catalyst on the Northern California scene for three decades, melding four independent-minded musicians into a cohesive band isn't so much about managing sensibilities as distilling musical essentials. Although he's performed in Los Angeles several times in recent years with the new music ensemble Tin Hat and the collective jazz trio Plays Monk, Goldberg makes his first Southland appearance as a bandleader in more than a decade at McCabe's on Saturday with Go Home, a quartet featuring seven-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter, drummer Scott Amendola and saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, a thick-toned New York tenor player who last performed in Los Angeles in 2000.
"If you've got the right people, it's not about letting them breath life into your music, it's about not suffocating them," says Goldberg, 51, over a cup of coffee near his home in Berkeley. "I'd rather just give a suggestion, let's walk over here, rather than giving them a huge task they have to fulfill. When the groove is strong, my job is to stay out of the way. Just introduce a topic and stand back and really have some fun."
Goldberg built Go Home from the groove up, starting with Hunter. It might seem like an odd pairing, given that the clarinetist has long been associated with new music and free improvisation settings while Hunter has honed a telegraphically funk-driven sound that dwells deep in the pocket. But Goldberg heard something in the guitarist's music that inspired a sheaf of tunes with open forms, gritty rhythms and sinuously twined melodic lines.
"It shows you that people who come from disparate backgrounds can come together and make some very cool music," Hunter says. "I like some music that can be really exploratory, but if it doesn't have time and doesn't groove, I'm not doing anyone any favors playing it."
Part of what makes the band so volatile and mercurial is that it contains two distinct concepts. Think of the horns as Go, taking flight with Goldberg's silky lines, while Hunter and Amendola hold down the earthy Home, a role they started honing together in the mid-1990s when the rhythm section tandem helped ignite the Bay Area acid jazz scene. Amendola powered an early version of Hunter's breakthrough trio, and they also collaborated in the Grammy-nominated avant funk 'n' jazz combo T.J. Kirk. Go Home is Hunter and Amendola's first new venture together in more than a decade, though now the old friends have started working as a duo.
Goldberg is quick to point out that he also shares a lot of history with Amendola, including Plays Monk, an incisive trio with bassist Devin Hoff that focused exclusively on the ingenious compositions of Thelonious Monk. "But Scott and Charlie is a thing in itself," he says. "As a unit they have a special ESP. They can phrase together, groove together, look at each other and do the same thing at the same time. It's uncanny."
In many ways Go Home reflects the latest outpost on a fascinating musical journey that's played a significant, though largely unacknowledged, role in shaping contemporary music. Raised in Denver, Goldberg headed west in the late 1970s to study music at UC Santa Cruz and earn a master's in composition from Mills College.
While exploring the music of jazz visionaries like Steve Lacy, Ornette Coleman, John Carter and John Coltrane, he immersed himself in klezmer. The renaissance of Ashkenazi roots music was picking up steam in 1984 when Goldberg joined Berkeley's Klezmorim, the band responsible for sparking the international klezmer revival movement with its rigorously researched re-creations of early 20th century recordings from Eastern Europe and the U.S.
"I began to wonder: What would have happened if klezmer music had stayed vital? If ambitious creative musicians had continued to work with its melodies and forms the same way they had with jazz?" Goldberg says. "I had mastered the stylistic elements of klezmer, what would happen if I applied the full force of my artistic ambition to these ingredients?"
In 1987, he sparked a creative fusion reaction when jamming with frequent klezmer collaborators bassist Dan Seamons and drummer Kenny Wollesen, also accomplished jazz musicians. The epiphany, his "first taste of music as a transformative, liberating force," led directly to the New Klezmer Trio, the group that paved the way for clarinetist Don Byron's album interpreting the music of Mickey Katz, and laid the conceptual foundation for John Zorn's Masada and the radical Jewish culture movement Zorn has fomented with his Tzadik label.
Not an artist known for easy praise, Zorn minced no words in describing Goldberg as one of the world's most important and accomplished clarinetists. "His tone is full and solid, with a core that any classical player would die for," Zorn writes in an e-mail. "His technique impeccable, and his approach to harmony and the use of intervallic structures in improvisation are incredibly sophisticated — at times perplexing, but always grounded in a system that perfectly balances the head and the heart."