Like many musicians around the globe, jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s gigs were canceled in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Goldberg, a Denver native who’s been living in the Bay Area for many years, panicked about losing income from tours and festivals planned through the year.
In the initial shock, Goldberg thought, “I don't know what to do, but I can record music at home.” In mid-March, he started recording a song every day, dubbing it his Plague Diary and uploading songs to his Bandcamp account. When he first started the project, he thought it could be a way to keep his music alive while also staying sane.
Using clarinets, a synthesizer and a few guitar effects pedals, Goldberg has recorded 150 songs over the past six months, dedicating some to musicians he’s worked with over the years, such as Joshua Redman, John Zorn and Myra Melford, as well as Nels Cline and Denver trumpeter Ron Miles, both of whom appear on Goldberg’s 2019 album Good Day for Cloud Fishing and 2015’s Orphic Machine.
Goldberg says that writing songs for Plague Diary has been the equivalent of noodling in a laboratory or drawing in a sketch pad: He’s able to break songwriting habits and try new approaches to the creative process.
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“I'm making progress, and it's incremental,” he reports. “Every day there's an opportunity to try something that I've never done before. And I come up against all the other aspects of life that are shaping the work.”
When starting Plague Diary, Goldberg thought about the looping and the slow melodies he played on songs he made with percussionist Kenny Wolleson (a longtime member of Bill Frisell’s group) for their duo album Music for an Avant-Garde Massage Parlour, which Goldberg will release on his BAG Production Records imprint on October 4.
During a hot summer day in New York City two and a half years ago, the two musicians were drinking beer and talking about the ideals of music and what was happening in the world of music at the time.
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Goldberg remembers Wollesen suddenly blurting out, "Somebody needs to make a record called Music for an Avant-Garde Massage Parlour." In response, he says, "I called the studio, and one week later we were in the studio making the record. Honestly, I don't think that record would have happened if Kenny hadn't said that.”
He notes that Wollesen has an entire set of instruments that he invented and built himself. There's an electric vibraphone, which has pickups on its bars, as well as a Slide Vibe, where the bars of the vibraphone are lowered into and then raised up from a tank of water to produce glissando in the pitch. Wollesen brought some of his instruments to the Music for an Avant-Garde Massage Parlour sessions, while Goldberg brought three types of clarinets.
The album includes some of Goldberg's own compositions, but most of the songs were improvised. He credits a lot of the tracks’ dreamlike quality to Wollesen’s unique instruments.
“We just had a title,” Goldberg says. “Maybe the title for me did evoke an approach that I think is very strongly evident in the record, which is open-hearted, slow-moving and dreamy...a dreamy kind of feeling.”