Sleek and sinewy, this Best of 2013 was actually made back in 2008 but only released this year. More contemporary and foundational than 99% of the music of today, this prism of sounds from our imagined youth and encumbering old age is sweet and fun-in the right way.
Originally recorded in 2008, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues features an all-star acoustic line-up inspired by Goldberg's fortuitous meeting with saxophonist Joshua Redman. After sharing a double bill and deciding to make an album together, Goldberg invited fellow Denver, Colorado native Ron Miles to add his expressive trumpet alongside Redman's muscular tenor and the leader's supple clarinet. The longstanding duo of bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith (aka, Good For Cows) was subsequently recruited to provide the three horn frontline rhythmic support.
Evoking stately Bachian chorales, the malleable horn section infuses Goldberg's sophisticated compositions with an evocative array of textures, their vibrant polyphony further intensified by the group's jubilant collective improvisations. They impart passionate lyricism to the old fashioned ballad "How To Do Things With Tears," celebratory verve to the ebullient travelogue "Who Died and Where I Moved To," and fervent conviction to the dramatic funeral dirge "Possible." Bolstered by the rhythm section's nimble rapport, the horn players collaboratively update cordial Dixieland-styled exchanges with freewheeling Ornettish dynamics, imbuing timeless traditions with bold, modernist vitality.
With the release of two albums from Ben Goldberg on the same day, I am overwhelmed by a good thing. The fact that I am allowed to own his two 2010 releases feels more like a privilege that just scooping up a pair of consumer goods—like I am allowed an inside peak at high art as it falls together. Classified as a jazz clarinetist for the sake of convenience, Goldberg is one of those Midas musicians who brings all of instrumental music’s best traits to roost under one umbrella. And like many past giants of great jazz, his music is his own. Sure, it has shades of unfluence here and there as most music inevitably will. But the derivative moments are pieces of magically charged homage, easily outnumbered by the highly original ones. And to stand at a critical pulpit and pound the virtues of originality into consumers’s minds is one thing. Is the music any good? Does it make me forget what I want to forget and make me remember things I never knew were there? Can a critic’s darling touch more than just the brain?
Fair questions. The “deep end” isn’t always used as a positive adjective, and experimental tendencies in music often require that you vibrate on the same wavelength as the musicians. As I type this sentence, a track is playing that perfectly typifies these dangers; “I Miss the SLA”. It’s shapeless—let’s call it shape-free—honking, skronking and guitar grrring, and on the wrong day, I won’t know to where it’s pointing (a Google search for SLA gives a few humorous results). But when the angles are just right, it’s what one could get away with calling a beautiful cacophany. When your mind and ears are allowed to open, Goldberg and his pardners can push all the right buttons at the right time. In fact, “I Miss the SLA” is more of an exception than the rule here. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind, two different albums recorded by two different ensembles, are both bold but not assertively so. Both albums are a great dance between jazz, funk grooves, noise rock, smokey saxes and the mighty clarinet.
Ben Goldberg's Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (on his self-owned BAG Production label), is an album as seriously playful as its title. There's a deceptive looseness in the music's rhythm, veering toward New Orleans bar stomp, but braced by modern harmonies (Steve Lacy, Monk, and Andrew Hill are heavy influences), and swung from an early Ornette-ish sense of blues (one of Goldberg's 9 originals on the album, "Study of the Blues," is a Cubist riff on the opening bars of "Lonely Woman"), though rooted more in Coleman's deep melody than his Free velocity.
The band is topnotch: Goldberg on clarinet, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, Ron Miles on trumpet, Devin Hoff on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. (I recently raved about Miles' album, Quiver, with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade; I'm less familiar with Hoff and Smith, though intend to rectify that.)
There's a clairvoyance in their playing, an ensemble flair for stretching the tempo and snapping it back in a way that lets the music float without drifting. Even when the polyphony gets ripe, each line is crisp and propulsive.
The streams flow so clearly, thanks in part to the CD's sonic purity and dynamics. Along with Dave Douglas' Be Still (engineered by Joe Ferla), Subatomic Particle... is one of the best-sounding new jazz CDs I've heard in a long time. The horns are right there, arrayed in a row; you can practically see the air pushing through their shapes and out into the room. The bass snaps and sings; the drumkit slaps and sizzles.