A good teacher presents ideas or disciplines that stay with students for years. Ben Goldberg understands this. Laying claim to a diverse set of recordings and projects, the clarinetist has blended traditional klezmer music with avant-garde jazz, and folk and bluegrass with chamber music. But while he's talking about his own music, it becomes clear that the impact of two instructors has helped to shape the perspective he brings to his work.
One mentor was the late soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. A prolific musician in his own right, Lacy was equally comfortable paying tribute to Thelonious Monk and writing his own, wide-ranging music. He talked about "investigating the fundamentals of music, really looking for, in a sense, what are the molecules that music is made out of," Goldberg says. "It wasn't just a concept. It was hard work that I spent at least 10 years working on every day, trying to understand very basic things. [Lacy said to] play all the intervals on your instrument. Play your scales, really, really slowly."
Hard as it felt to maintain the discipline, Goldberg noticed the results. "Things begin to open up," he says. "The notes come alive. The intervals come alive for you, and it leads you to a place that's all your own. It sticks with you and it's all yours because it has to do with what you yourself have discovered in the world of musical materials."
The writings of another teacher helped shape Goldberg's newest album, Orphic Machine. As a freshman at Brandeis University, Goldberg took a class with a poet named Allen Grossman. "He was very articulate, and he spent his life using his ability to communicate to translate between the voices that he heard in his head and the people around him: students, fellow poets, colleagues," Goldberg explains.
"But if you read his poems, in a way they're not exactly like poems. They're more like" — he pauses — "weird statements about the world. You get the feeling that he was someone who was able to talk matter-of-factly about levels of reality that most of us are not even aware of." Orphic Machine combines "speculative poetics" from Grossman's book Summa Machine with Goldberg's music. An A-list group of musicians bring it to life, including Wilco's Nels Cline on guitar, and Carla Kihlsteadt singing Grossman's words and playing violin.
When Goldberg comes to Pittsburgh, he'll appear in a trio setting with drummer Hamir Atwal and pianist Michael Coleman. This unit has a sense of adventure akin to the Orphic Machine project. (Goldberg and Atwal recently recorded an album of drum and clarinet improvisations.) But they also have no qualms with playing music with a solid 4/4 groove. "I don't think Hamir is capable of playing anything that doesn't swing," Goldberg says. "In a way, I think of the trio as starting from swing and looking out, or actually coming from somewhere else and gravitating toward swing. We're not reverent about it, I'll put it that way."