Ben Goldberg is a virtuosic Bay Area clarinetist who grew up in Denver and went to East High School. For his outstanding new album, Unfold Ordinary Mind, Goldberg enlisted some of his favorite players, including guitar wizard Nels Cline, consummate tenor saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth, and brilliant drummer Ches Smith. We recently spoke with Goldberg, who also performs with acoustic chamber group Tin Hat, how he approached the contra-alto clarinet as a bass in that band, and about the new record.
Westword: From what I understand, the idea for using contra-alto clarinet as a bass goes back to when you first started playing and when you started using it in Tin Hat.
Ben Goldberg: I had this idea — just be the bass player. Somehow that grabbed ahold of me. So I wanted to write some music where I could just do that. I didn't exactly start out to have a band; I just kind of thought it would be a little recording session or something. But that record — we made the whole record in an afternoon, no rehearsal or anything — it was just so much fun and so exciting. I feel that the music just came together in such a beautiful way — a little bit ragged, but with a lot of energy and a lot of imagination. And I knew I needed to release it as a record. Then, after that, I really wanted to have a band and tour a little bit with my group.
Sure. You've got some heavy players in there.
Yeah, I'm holding on for dear life in between Nels Cline and Ches Smith. That's quite a place to be.
What was it about those particular guys that made you want to pick them to play on this particular project?
Well, those are all guys I've been crazy about, every one of them, for quite a long time. Ellery Eskelin, he's like my hero. He and I were born one week apart, as it turns out. From the very first time I listened to him on a record, I was like, "Man, there's something happening there, and I need to know more about it." Because to me, he felt like — I don't know how to put it, but it's almost like the future of music or something. That sound and the way he plays, man, that's so happening.
I think I read somewhere that you heard one note and you instantly...
It's like recognizing a member of your family or something. That's nourishment. The sound of his saxophone is nourishment. And I knew that if I put him next to Rob Sudduth that something really beautiful would happen.
There's some really great interplay between the two of them on the record.
Oh, yeah. And I like this idea of two tenor saxophones. It's like, orchestration would say have an alto and a tenor or something like that. But two tenor saxophones, it's such a beautiful sound. And I've played with Nels in different formats; I've played with his group, and I played on his Andrew Hill record. I'm just crazy about that guy. He's so full of love, and what an inventive player. I just knew that having him as part of it would be the perfect thing.
You can hear it on that record. Everything on that record was done live. I think there's one track where Nels overdubbed a second guitar part, but everything else, including all the stuff he was up to with the looping and electronics — that was right there in the studio at the moment. It couldn't be more perfect.