Trevor Dunn on bass and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. We had a trio for a few years and tried a lot of different ideas on how to play the melodies I was writing. There was one memorable Knitting Factory tour of the East Coast where we had to keep reminding audiences that we were not New Klezmer Trio, and where I learned what a truly unique and brilliant individual Elliot Kavee is. I think this record captures the essence of what we were doing very well, as does the cover painting by Molly Barker. Recorded at Annie's Hall in Berkeley by Jeff Cressman.
And, here are the original liner notes by John Corbett:
There’s a strange artifact of language, the way it can suddenly come unglued and detached from its meaning. Once a threshold is crossed, the familiar term becomes alien. Take the word “dig” (just to keep things jazzy): look at it a while, jot it down on a piece of paper several times in sequence. At some point the word becomes monstrous. It is transformed from a meaningful, idea-bearing semantic particle into a shell or husk, eviscerated of its referent. DIG. Do I know what it means? Is it English? Have I spelled it correctly? In the process of repeating the term I have lost its identity, forgotten what it means, killed it. Which, in truth, probably won’t keep me from using it again.
In the creative music world, this same mechanism is at play when it comes to the word “improvised”. Along with “freedom,” the term “improvised” is the prime fetish of restructuralist music fans’ lexicon (reminds me of Jean Baudrillard, who pointed out how Marxists of the ‘60s fetishized the word “fetish”.) Of course, this is in part an aspect of the difficulty naming the music; calling it “improvised music” (as we all do) is a needed crutch. But the concept becomes reified in the word. “improvisation” expands beyond reproach. It seems self-evident. Yet the more frequently it crops up the more its meaning slips away. It degenerates. It becomes hollow rhetoric. A totem shaken to protect debaters from having to define their terms. A given. A dead word.
Ben Goldberg: “What we try to do in this group is just play the song. The entire performance is just playing the song. Not head-solos-head, not x number of choruses, and most of all not ‘improvising.’ We used to say: ‘If you find yourself improvising, stop immediately.’ Whatever that word means these days, it seems like adding something unnecessary; let’s rather try to just play what needs to be played.”
This statement has something of a heretic’s flair to it, given the current attitude in new jazz circles. To call the improvisor’s bluff, take away the cover of the term - not a popular move, I s’pose, but a refreshing one. For once the idea of improvising becomes codified and its precepts set, it’s obviously lost. Improvising is a supple art, once full of paradoxicality and logical nuance; it must be prepared to change face. Thus it’s always helpful to interrogate, even dispense with the term, so as not to become fixated on it. Sun Ra used to love to turn the notion of “freedom” on its head, saying that once you joined the Arkestra you were in the “Ra jail” - here, too, we find the necessity of squeezing the term, applying pressure to the concept, wringing out a new kind of idea rather than settling into comfortable linguistic and musical patterns.
If, as Goldberg suggests, improvising now carries the connotation of excess, his trio - formed after the dissolution of his previous ensemble New Klezmer Trio - comes to pare it away, to prune the tree. In his very choice of name the clarinetist returns to something conventional, straightforward. “I wanted my name to be on the group, to step out into the open, plainspoken, no fancy concepts,” he reports. The group has the relaxed feel of a working band, playing Goldberg’s unadorned melodies with next to no embellishment. But the interest comes from those lines, from the depth of each player’s statement of the tune, and from the beautiful sense of unity the threesome relies on.
What you won’t hear are screeching solos, long unaccompanied passages of instrumental exploration, the ping-pong of conversation - in fact, almost nothing strays from the exposition of Goldberg’s pure tunes in all their glory. And they are glorious, memorable tunes indeed. The leader’s cagey approach here is to simplify in order to reveal; what is revealed is the complexity already inherent in the bare act of playing together. When he and bassist Trevor Dunn convene on their frequent unison thematic declamations, the nuances of phrasing and timing make for very exciting listening, as does Elliot Humberto Kavee’s swell drum accompaniment. And while they’re clearly looking to trim the fat, the ensemble does veer from the melodic material, too, albeit in an extremely controlled manner, like an especially terse form of free haiku. But even with all this going for it, Here By Now might seem thin if Goldberg’s compositions themselves weren’t so enticing, so winningly devised to feature his horn.
In fact, Goldberg’s clarinet-specific music arrives at a period of revitalization for the instrument - there are a good number of strong younger clarinetists around the world, including Marty Ehrlich (with whom Goldberg has a wonderful collaboration, documented on the Songlines CD Light At The Crossroads), Don Byron, Michael Moore, Ken Vandermark, Frank Gratkowski, Francois Houle, Vinny Golia, Ab Baars, Louis Sclavis, and Armand Angster. Indeed, if bebop snuffed the fame of clarinet soloists in the public ear of the ‘50s, it was left to West Coaster Jimmy Giuffre, Seattle experimenter William O. Smith, and the los Angelean Eric Dolphy (along with a few other fellas such as John LaPorta, Tony Scott, Putte Wickman, and Hal McKusick) to keep the licorice stick in play. Hence, the clarinet tradition way out west is a healthy one, with a more continuous lineage than on the Eastern seaboard. In the late ‘60s, John Carter continued the line, and now Oakland delivers Goldberg, whose B-flat and bass-clarinet sound is rich, bull and perfectly suited for “just playing the song,” as well as other kinds of musical endeavor.
Nothing extraneous. Cut the fat. Just the songs. No more meaningless blows. No more unnecessary gestures. No more “improvising.” Dig?