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Interviews

Ben Goldberg: Clarinet Communion

By Published: March 30, 2010

AAJ: How essential is improvisation in relation to the compositional elements in New Klezmer Trio or other Jewish music that you've done?

BG: Well, the idea the whole time with the New Klezmer Trio was to improvise. That was part of the impulse, because in the more traditional klezmer settings, if you had a chance to play a solo, it might be 25 seconds—a few bars or something. So part of what we wanted to do—I needed to play something that lasted ten minutes.

AAJ: Is Speech Communication, (Tzadik, 2009) your last New Klezmer Trio album?

BG: Oh, I don't know. Every time I do one I think it's the last one. In September, I was in New York and I recorded a record of [John Zorn's] Masada compositions [with the Trio and Jamie Saft]. And now in February, I'm going to make a duo record with Jamie.

AAJ: Do you notice a difference in how you approach the music when playing your tunes, playing with the more traditional bands, and playing Masada tunes, or playing your own music with New Klezmer Trio?

BG: Well, whenever I play my own music—whether it's something like Speech Communication or it's Go Home or my quintet—that's as personal as it gets. Those are my tunes. I know all the places that I want to get to and where I want to hang out. That's why I wrote those songs.

AAJ: A lot of your albums have an element of tribute in them.

BG: There's often a dedication—in fact, I think there's always a dedication. I'm not crazy about the word "tribute." To me, a dedication is something that can call forth something from you, towards the spirit of the person you're dedicating it to. Like The Door, The Fact, The Chair, The Hat (Cryptogramophone, 2006)—that's dedicated to Steve Lacy. I really tried, within that music, to deal with the questions about who am I in relation to Steve Lacy, because here was a guy who was so important—so important. The fact is that if I could have learned how to play exactly like Steve Lacy, I would have. That's how important he was to me.

AAJ: That's an important person, definitely.

BG: Definitely, but that brings up some questions. If you're dedicating music to somebody who's that important to you, what are you going to do? Make a record that sounds exactly like it could have been a Steve Lacy record? To me, that's not in the spirit of what I learned from Steve Lacy. For one thing, it's impossible. For another thing, I don't think that the meaning of a guy like Steve Lacy is: everybody should sound like me. When someone's that important, I think the deeper message is: you better sound like yourself.

AAJ: You first met him in Paris, when you pestered him into a lesson. What was that like? Were you nervous approaching someone like that?

BG: Oh yeah, I was terribly nervous. I'd already written him a letter telling him he was my hero! I was nervous to ask him, and plus he told me no! Finally, I asked him again, and he said, "Okay, come on over." Yeah, it was scary, but it changed my life. That one meeting changed my whole life.

AAJ: What was it that drew you to him in the first place? Was it the sound, the conception?

BG: The sound! And his way of phrasing. That just killed me. Because after all I had ever listened to—Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper—when I heard Steve Lacy it sounded kind of backwards. It was backwards, but it made so much sense. So it just grabbed me, like I couldn't figure out what was going on. Plus that sound. Plus, the first record of his that I ever bought was that one called Evidence (OJC, 1961).

You gotta check that record out. For one thing, it's got tunes, a couple of Monk tunes and a couple of Ellington's. And it's got Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. Then, somehow, it's also extremely well recorded. Especially Lacy—the sound they got on that record—his saxophone is so delicious, it's all you ever want to hear. That was the record that just blew my mind. So when I got the chance to get together with him, he just gave me all this stuff to work on, and it kept me busy for ten years.

AAJ: Have you finally completed it then?

BG: I think I completed the course in a certain way. I still go back to it, but at this point it's more in the background or the foundation.

AAJ: So, what were the things that you really wound up learning?

BG: Well, there are two aspects to it. One was something that I'd already been introduced to by my clarinet teacher, and that was that you can really find a whole new way of taking music apart—of finding the fundamental building blocks, and then studying those. That's really a revelation. Not everyone gets to that place, and [Steve] showed me the way he had done that. As far as the larger lesson, that was finding my own way of finding what are those building blocks and finding a way to actually work on that.

AAJ: Do you think different people in their conception of music identify different building blocks which have a personal impact to them?

BG: If you're really talking about that, then I think you have to realize that they've got to be the same. Otherwise they're not building blocks, there's something beneath that. If you do your research, you're going to get down to something. It's not that you're going to experience it the same way as someone else. What I learned from [Steve] is that you want your style, the way you play or the way you write, to be the thing that you can't decide about.

If you're really contemplating the building blocks of it, then it's all going to come together in a personal way, despite what you might want and what you might think. It's like if I give the same box of crayons to 50 children—they're all going to take the same crayons and make something that's completely unique. That's just the way it works. You're a different person than I am, your perception is different from mine, and the way that you hear things, whether you understand how they're put together, that's going to be your thing. If you're getting down to the fundamentals of it and you're actually dealing with the lowest common denominator, then whatever reveals itself to you, that's going to be the real thing.



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