Ben Goldberg: Clarinet Communion
AAJ: So what was the first non-school band that you played in?
Ben Goldberg in Concert, February 2009
BG: Probably musical theater. I think I played in some kind of Gilbert and Sullivan. Actually, the first paying gig I ever had was subbing for some people that were in my high school, who had a band that played once a month at this local German beer hall, playing polkas. It was a polka band. They got, I don't know, five dollars or something for playing a whole night of polkas for people who were drinking a pretty amazing amount of beer.
AAJ: That sounds like it could be awesome, actually.
BG: No, it was terrifying! The main players got sick, and they asked me on very short notice. I didn't know what I was doing. I was terrified, but I got through the gig somehow. [Laughs.] That was my introduction to the world of professional music.
AAJ: Was there a particular point where you decided that you wanted to be a professional musician, then?
BG: I always knew that that was what I really wanted, but I wasn't sure exactly how one did it. In some ways, I didn't exactly have too many good models for it. I just kinda hoped that it would work out.
AAJ: So you kept doing it?
BG: I kept doing it, and I studied music in college [at UC, Santa Cruz]. That's when I got more serious about the clarinet, and I did two things. I hooked up with a really good clarinet teacher [Rosario Mazzeo], the guy whose students were the clarinet players in the major orchestras all around. Then I really learned to play the clarinet, finally. The other thing I did was I started playing klezmer music.
AAJ: What was it that really got you into klezmer in the first place?
BG: Well, for one thing, it was just a way to make some money playing music at weddings and stuff like that. But there's something about the music that grabbed me, too. I mean, for one thing, it had a virtuoso clarinet tradition, so that if you wanted to play klezmer clarinet there was a lot to learn, and that was fun. So you really had to study and I dug that. But then, I don't know, man, the music started speaking to me more, and it's certainly full of interesting sounds. Harmonically and melodically, it's put together in a different way from the music that I was playing.
AAJ: So from the Klezmorim, you started composing your own klezmer tunes. How do you go about that, composing within a tradition? Where do you begin to build from?
BG: We're talking about the time when I first began to write any music at all. That really was the question, like, "What am I trying to do?" In some ways, like a lot of people, at first I was just trying to sound like something. Somebody who starts off by writing jazz tunes they're just trying to have them sound like jazz. For me, I was dealing with this thing called Klezmer music, which was, in a sense, well defined or had a certain feeling to it. I wanted to write something that had a feeling that felt like all those other songs that I played. I don't know if there was anything too original about all of it, but in some ways that wasn't necessarily my goal. In some ways, I just wanted to see if I could conjure up that sound.
AAJ: So it was sort of an attempt to evoke the same emotions that you felt in hearing it?
BG: For me, it wasn't so much about emotions; it was much more about the mechanics of it: how do they do this, how do they put the chords together, and that kind of stuff. So no, it was much more nuts and bolts. Then trying to do something personal with it, but still my goal was just to find out how they put it together.
AAJ: Then when you start the New Klezmer Trio you're moving to something more personal. With a lot of John Zorn's "Radical Jewish" music, a lot of the music on the Tzadik record label, one wonders at what point music no longer becomes 'Jewish,' whether that's a matter of the artist's perception, or something else. What is your opinion on that?
AAJ: Did it ever concern you?
BG: Well, yeah, it did. It did concern me, and I was very explicitly interested, like when we first had New Klezmer Trio, in being able to say explicitly that that was Jewish music.
AAJ: New Klezmer Trio seems like an unusual setup for klezmer. You don't have a chordal instrument, no accordion. It's bass, drums, clarinet: very jazz-like. So did that change your approach, or was that part of the fun of exploring?
BG: Well, I always liked that type of instrumentation, based off that Sonny Rollins trio from Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1957). For one thing, it gives you more rhythmic and harmonic freedom. Because one thing that had to be done away with, honestly, was the rhythm not the rhythms, but the rhythm section approach, like chugging accordion or drumming that's going, "Chukka-chukka- chukka-chukka." You can't deal with that. It's locked you into a certain thing, and I wanted to do something different. And I could tell there was no way to do anything different unless there was more space in the rhythm section.