Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a Denver native who has been a longtime Bay Area resident, has worked in the avant-garde world with heavies like John Zorn, Nels Cline and Myra Melford. He also formed the New Klezmer Trio in 1992, was part of the acoustic chamber group Tin Hat and has led many of his own groups.
Last May, Goldberg was touring with drummer Allison Miller when they stopped at the Institute for Musical Arts in Massachusetts and he heard that Dr. Willie Hill was in the audience. Hill, who has a long history of music education in Denver and Boulder, is now the director of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Professor in Music Education. Hill was also Goldberg’s very first band director when the former was attending Moore Elementary in Denver, and Goldberg remembers that Hill would tell the bandmembers, “Sit up straight and be proud, because you’re a musician.”
Goldberg says he got really nervous when he heard Hill was at the gig in Massachusetts. “It was like I was nine years old again,” he says, “and I was sure I was going to make a terrible mistake in the music I would play on the clarinet. And I’d squeak and he’d get mad at me and throw a music stand across the room. But that didn't happen. I actually played pretty well, which I was very relieved about.”
Well, by now the 57-year-old Goldberg knows a thing or two about playing the clarinet. He’s been at it for nearly five decades. After graduating from East High School, he headed west to get a music degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Master of Arts in composition from Mills College in the Bay Area.
Since then, Goldberg has collaborated on a number of different projects. He also led his own groups, including Unfold Ordinary Mind, which featured Cline, saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth and drummer Ches Smith, and his nine-piece Orphic Machine project, which released an extraordinary self-titled album last year.
More recently, Goldberg has been working with his trio Invisible Guy, which performs at Dazzle on Tuesday, September 27. The group also includes Bay Area keyboardist Michael Coleman and drummer Hamir Atwal, and recently released the adventurous debut Knuckle Sandwich.
“I just felt like when we started playing together,” Goldberg says. "It just felt good. Then we got some dates in the Midwest about a year and a half ago. We started playing, and things starting moving more in the direction of what you hear on the record, with Michael playing electric keyboards and maybe some synthesizers and stuff like that.
"To me," he continues, "it feels like a really comfortable place where we all hear music together and it feels kind of like transparent at the same time. I know the complexity builds up sometimes, but there's something about it where it always feels like the complexity comes out of three people making a simple statement.”
While Goldberg has no problem playing complex compositions or passages, he says he’s “not really interested in trying to do something that’s either complicated for its own sake or something that is kind of aiming for a particular stylistic result.”
He says he just wants to play the most obvious and happiest music that he can because he’s getting older. When he was younger, he felt like he had to write complex music, but he thinks that’s just part of a what a lot of people go through.
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“When you're younger you’re listening to music that really strikes you, and you want to do something like that,” he says. “And maybe the mind kind of just naturally grabs onto what it can understand, which is the complexity of it in the ingredients of it. And that seems like an important aspect of the music. I think it's that way for a lot of people, especially people that are learning to play jazz — because, face it, it's pretty complicated.”
While some of the material on Knuckle Sandwich might not be as intricate as that on some of Goldberg’s previous albums, there’s still some forward-thinking material, which includes songs written by either Goldberg or Coleman, as well as a rendering of Steve Lacy’s “Hocus Pocus.” Some of Goldberg’s compositions, such as “1 Through 8” (a reworked version of a tune from his 1999 album Here By Now), have been around a while, whereas some, like “Cold Weather,” were written specifically for the trio. Goldberg says the group has a strong rapport when playing live and can do unusual things without worrying that it's going to disrupt the music.
“One thing about Invisible Guy is when we play a concert, we never know what’s going to happen,” Goldberg says. “I mean, literally. We never know what song is going to come next or how we're going to get from one song to another.”
Invisible Guy, featuring Ben Goldberg, Michael Coleman, and Hamir Atwal, 6 & 8 p.m., Tuesday, September 27, Dazzle.