The utopian vision of the Ben Goldberg School

Ben Goldberg - photo by Adam Goldberg
Ben Goldberg and the Ben Goldberg School play Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Photo: Adam Goldberg

Interviewing choreographer Twyla Tharp for an upcoming story about her 50th anniversary tour I was struck by her description of her new dance “Preludes and Fugues” set to J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as belonging to a utopian streak long at the center of her work. “You take a huge responsibility in imagining the world as it should be,” she said.

I haven’t asked him about it directly, but it seems that a similar vision animates Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg’s band Ben Goldberg School.

Featuring alto saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, Santana trombonist Jeff Cressman, Berkeley bassist David Ewell, drummer Hamir Atwal, and Rob Reich on accordion, the sextet performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. Founded about three years ago, the ensemble wasn’t created as a vehicle to transmit information as much as to provide a forum for group revelation. Devoted to Goldberg’s melodically charged, blues-and-roots steeped tunes, School creates a rarified musical space in which some of the Bay Area’s most ardent improvisers can fully express themselves.

Goldberg has been an essential creative force on the Bay Area music scene for three decades. On the bandstand (and off for that matter), he’s unassuming, wry and playfully self-mocking, so it’s momentarily jarring when he cites the blustery, volatile and nakedly needy bassist/composer Charles Mingus as a bandleading role model. He’s not advocating sucker punching a trombonist (a la Mingus and Jimmy Knepper). Rather, Goldberg relates to Mingus as a master at inspiring the most personal expression from his collaborators.


“He was throwing material at people to get them to kind of bounce back with something spontaneous and true,” says Goldberg, who’s in the midst of four-month New York City sojourn. “He had a lot of ways to try to get that to happen. For me it’s not about super fancy, intricate compositions, or writing music that’s difficult for people to play or tricky for listeners to understand. I’m trying to elicit from people a blunt statement of who they are. I’m trying to give the musicians fun and interesting and inspirational music so we can participate together, and musicians and listeners can be their own beautiful selves in the moment.”

Ben Goldberg 1 - photo by peak
Ben Goldberg. Photo: Peak

In seeking to create this utopian realm where musicians interact and improvise with full emotional commitment, Goldberg embraces what Tharp calls “imagining the world as it should be.” But he sees his responsibilities as flowing both ways. As a band name, Ben Goldberg School is typically and intentionally polymorphous.

“I’m in school, and I’m learning from these musicians,” he says. “The mystery is what is the meaning of a legacy, the Ben Goldberg school? If I’m writing the songs and bringing in the compositions and arrangements, inevitably the people who play in my band are getting exposed to my ideas of structure and harmony.”

Those ideas have resonated widely since the late 1980s when his New Klezmer Trio with bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Kenny Wollesen radically expanded the possibilities for Ashkenazi music and jazz. While he was something of an underground figure through the turn of the century, Goldberg has created such a powerful body of music in recent years that he’s forced his way into the national jazz conversation with releases on his own label BAG Production, starting with 2013’s simultaneously dropped Unfold Ordinary Mind with guitarist Nels Cline and Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues featuring tenor sax star Joshua Redman (albums that garnered glowing reviews on public radio’s Fresh AirThe New York Times, and dozens of other publications).

Earlier this year Goldberg released his most ambitious project yet, Orphic Machine, a jazz chamber ensemble song cycle featuring vocalist/violinist Carla Kihlstedt based on the aphoristic writing of poet and essayist Allen Grossman. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, the work premiered at Freight & Salvage in 2012 as part of Jewish Music Festival (which also provided support for the project). Ben Goldberg School is another facet of his abiding passion for sturdy and winsome melodies, a passion that’s attracted captivating players like altoist Kasey Knudsen.


“Ben is such a great arranger,” says Knudsen, who also performs Sunday Oct. 18 at the California Jazz Conservatory with the Holly Martins, a collective trio with guitarist Eric Vogler and vocalist Lorin Benedict. “He’s go these gorgeous horn arrangements, and all the melodies are so beautiful. I think he’s a master of that kind of thing. He’s got specific ideas about what he wants to happen, but he writes in a way that accentuates people’s strengths. He’s got a voice as a composer, but he’s always taking into account people’s personalities.”

Recommended gigs: Carlos Núñez at the Freight; Rogério Souza at Hillside Club

Carlos
Carlos Núñez: plays Thursday Oct. at the Freight & Salvage

Coaxing a striking array of sounds and textures out of an ancient and obscure bagpipe from northern Spain called the gaita, Carlos Núñez has transformed a tradition-bound instrument into a vehicle for pan-Celtic exploration. Like so many fiery renegades he’s often compared to Jimi Hendrix, but he’s closer in spirit to Jake Shimabukuro or Bela Fleck. He performs Thursday, Oct.. 1 at Freight & Salvage.

When it comes to guitar, no country has produced a more luxuriant body of music than Brazil. Hailing from Rio de Janeiro, Rogério Souza is a seven-string wizard who has collaborated with an astounding roster of Brazilian stars. He’s been at the forefront of a movement reviving the instrumental style known as choro, and he’s joined Friday at the Hillside Club by fellow Brazilian guitar master Edinho Gerber and the Berkeley Choro Ensemble with reed master Harvey Wainapel, flutist Jane Lenoir, percussionist Brian Rice, and Rio-born guitarist Ricardo Peixoto.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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