Since Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg released his epochal first album in 1992, Masks and Faces by the New Klezmer Trio, his music has morphed and evolved in multiple directions, encompassing free improvisation and funk, bent bebop and an art-song cycle, new-jazz Ashkenazi party music and gospel-powered anthems. Aside from his gorgeous, liquid-amber tone and exploratory spirit, the most obvious thread connecting his far-flung projects is the artwork of Molly Barker.
Spanning more than a dozen albums over nearly three decades, the pair’s creative partnership has enhanced the work of both artists, a witty, often cryptic dialogue between two artists who thrive in unsettling territory where encounters with startling beauty are leavened by uncanny double takes. Sometimes Barker’s cover art seems to comment directly on a project, like her gouache portrait of a fedora-wearing blue-faced man squinting out of 1995’s Junk Genius (Knitting Factory Works), a quartet session deconstructing bebop standards with Berkeley guitarist John Scott.
The black-and-white pen-and-ink image of a man juggling birds on 2006’s the door, the hat, the chair, the fact (Cryptogramphone) is another striking Barker image, one that seems to speak to Goldberg’s irresolvable but gripping quest to come to terms with a pivotal mentor, composer and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. A recent favorite is her oil on canvas painting of three wide-eyed people laying on their backs on 2016’s The Out Louds (Relative Pitch), a rollicking collective trio with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.
“I love Ben’s music and I do think it’s fairly mysterious,” Barker says. “And I think Ben’s music adds dimensions of time and mood and space to my images, through the collaboration. We didn’t know where it was going when we started, and if I just look at all the work I’ve done for his albums, it’s a 25-year record of my work as well. There’s a kind of consistency through the collaboration.”
Their latest project is the just-released Practitioner (BAG Production Records) featuring Goldberg on clarinet and the subway-rumbling contra-alto clarinet and Michael Coleman on piano and various electric keyboards. They celebrate the album’s release Thursday April 19 at Maybeck Studio for the Performing Arts.
Goldberg, who teaches in UC Berkeley’s Music Department, also performs Saturday in Hertz Concert Hall with pianist and Cal music professor Myra Melford, bass master Michael Formanek, and drummer Hamir Atwal on a program with the Nu Jazz Ensemble (featuring Melford’s students). He performs April 20 at Oakland’s Studio Grand with drummer Jordan Glenn’s Spontaneous Sounds Small and Large program featuring tenor saxophonist Francis Wong and Chamberlain Zhang on laptop, and April 21 at the Red Poppy Art House with pianist/accordionist Rob Reich’s group.
Practitioner is a response to a 1986 album by Steve Lacy, Hocus-Pocus (Book ‘H’ of “Practitioners”), a collection of six etudes for soprano saxophone (an instrument that Lacy pioneered in modern jazz, ultimately inspiring John Coltrane to adopt the wily horn). Lacy wrote that each piece “is also a portrait of, and an homage to, a distinguished practitioner of a particular art.”
“The thing that grabbed me about it is that it’s Lacy X-raying his own work, what’s it made out of,” Goldberg says. “Lacy once told me something close to, I like stuff that sounds logical but it isn’t. In every one of these pieces, it sounds like a sequence of notes you could generate with a typical pattern, but he displaces or expands some things so it’s not.”
Avoiding the predictable has been a hallmark of Goldberg’s music. He and Coleman first presented the Lacy etudes at a June 2014 concert at the Community Music Center concert in San Francisco produced by ROVA Saxophone Quartet marking the tenth anniversary of Lacy’s death. The duo presented the Hocus-Pocus material in unison, which is how they initially planned to record it on Practitioner “but we realized what would be the point?” Goldberg says.
“Steve Lacy made a beautiful record of that material. We were tossing around ideas and had a vision of a collage, something with overlapping segments. We began working with that in mind, recording multiple versions of the same passages, with say, piano and b flat clarinet and then bass clarinet and Wurlitzer. We did it in increments, in modules, each section over and over in different ways. At one point our engineer, Eli Crews, asked ‘Do you mind if I toss in some electronic processing on different tracks?’ We had no idea what he was doing at the time, and when we listened back we realized what a goldmine we had.”
Mixed over several days with the support of a grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, an organization that has turned into an essential champion of improvised music in the Bay Area, Practitioner evolved into something very different than Lacy’s etudes. The richly textured dreamscape conjured Goldberg and Barker’s most extensive collaboration yet.
In addition to her cover portrait of Lacy, Barker created a pack of 12 “baseball cards” featuring a portrait of each artist evoked by Lacy on Hocus-Pocus (including Houdini, Karl Wallenda, James P. Johnson, and Babs Gonzales) as well as the CD’s key creative contributors. Instead of statistics, the back of each card contains a poem, with verse by the likes of Dean Young, J. Kathleen White, Paul Muldoon, Heather de Guzman Gordon, and Jesse Rimler.
With recorded music increasingly unmoored to physical objects, Practitioner offers an opportunity to explore entwined artists whose work travels together like entangled particles, influencing each other even from a distance. “I think she’s the great artist of our time,” Goldberg says. “There are qualities in her work that I can’t get over, can’t get enough of. It started way way back with her books Secret Language and Quite Mad. Something about the images gave me a feeling I couldn’t explain. Is this on purpose? Would it be possible to create something this deep if it was on purpose? I got the same feeling listening to A Love Supreme. I knew that John Coltrane was a master, but I couldn’t believe someone could create something that imperfectly perfect on purpose. It conveys something that can’t be put into words, so deep and untouched by intention, that it helps me focus on the things I want to accomplish in the music.”
Raised in Toronto, Barker studied printmaking and painting at UC Santa Cruz in the second half of the 1980s, which is where I met her. We took several art history courses together and worked on staff at the student newspaper City On a Hill, where I was a reporter and editor and she worked in production. The first piece of art I ever purchased was the print “Dinner Party” from her senior show, and it’s still a prized possession.
Full disclosure continued: I booked one of the first performances by Goldberg’s New Klezmer Trio, circa 1988, for UC Santa Cruz’s Multicultural Festival. It’s probably the hippest thing I’ve ever done, and I can’t remember how I knew about the group or got in touch with him. Since I moved to Berkeley in 1996 we’ve become friends who get together occasionally outside of musical situations.
After Santa Cruz, Molly gained a cult following by selling her little picture books like “Under Toes” “Quite Mad,” “Dripping” and “Invisible” out of City Lights. Her pen and ink images seemed to vibrate and shimmer with hidden meaning, and her often telegraphic captions could evoke horror and giggles, pity, anger and bemusement. When City Lights Books published her graphic exploration Secret Language in 1997, Ursula LeGuin provided the blurb “A little frightening, a little sad, and a lot human, Molly Barker’s art teaches a true secret language.”
She moved to Brooklyn in the mid 1990s, and came back to California to settle in Berkeley in 2006. Her collaboration with Goldberg is her most visible work these days. Barker keeps a low profile online, with no website or Facebook page. She’s represented by McGowan Fine Art in New Hampshire, but if you search under her name you’ll encounter another Molly Barker, a woman who runs a self-help and advice boutique. On Amazon, Quite Mad appears next to the other Molly Barker’s Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring Our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect, “an unplanned collaboration,” says Berkeley’s Barker.
Her very deliberate collaboration with Goldberg came about when he asked her to do the cover art for his first album Masks and Faces. “I just came up with that one idea, a pastel drawing that I did specifically for the record. Quite a few of the covers I drew or painted specifically for the project, like Here By Now and Melt Zone Rewire. I went with the first idea that came to me upon listening to the music. Ben always says do whatever you want. It’s more freeing than doing my own work. It has this purpose a bit outside of me, and it feels very free to have a response and just go with it.”