Ben Goldberg: Clarinet Communion
AAJ: That band also got you playing more contra-alto clarinet. Had you played that much beforehand?
Tin Hat, from left: Ben Goldberg, Carla Kihlstedt, Mark Orton, Ara Anderson
BG: Not so much; I was thinking of it as of a novelty when I started playing with Tin Hat, and then I started realizing what you can do with it. I'm playing it with Myra's group now and others, so I've started to find what the voice of that instrument is.
AAJ: There aren't too many contra-alto soloists out there.
BG: No, I don't think so. I've nearly got the market cornered. [Laughs.] It's more flexible than the contrabass, so it's more fun to play, but it's definitely has those low notes that have that amazing sound, like the contrabass. It's perfect for me.
AAJ: Do you find that you have a distinct voice apart from the contra-alto to the regular B flat clarinet?
BG: There wouldn't be any way not to. It's just such a different sound, a different voice. There's barely an overlap.
AAJ: What brands of clarinet do you play?
BG: For the B flat, the Buffet. And the contra-alto is a LeBlanc, what they call a "paperclip."
AAJ: Did you play bass clarinet for a time?
BG: Yeah, I did. In the New Klezmer Trio, I played a lot of bass. But the funny thing for me is that since I started playing the contra-alto, I really don't play it anymore.
AAJ: Let's talk a little bit about Go Home (BAG Production Records, 2009). How did that groove and funkiness come into your music?
BG: Really, I wanted to make a record with Charlie [Hunter]. That's where Charlie lives, that's all Charlie and Scott [Amendola]. The groove is very deep.
AAJ: It seems like it hearkens back to your love of the Beatles, or to R&B. Was that something you set out to do?
BG: It's more like, that's just something that might be at work for a lot of musicians. Something hits you about music when you're little. It hits you for a reason, for the right reason, and then you get involved in music. For me, a lot of other concerns then got pretty big, like complexity, sophistication, whatever. And at a certain point, I started asking myself, "What happened to me? What became of all that music that I still like to listen to? Where is that in my own thing?" Not "How come I'm not playing in a Beatles cover band," but "Those pleasures, where are those?" If there's something I love to hear when I put on a record, then when I make a record, am I giving somebody else something they love to hear. That's the real question.
Honestly, I don't just want to give people something that they can appreciate or understand, or that makes them think, or something like that. I used to kind of feel that that's what I wanted to do, but that's not what I want anymore. I want to give people something that they can love.
BG: I don't know. Again, I don't really want to think of it in terms of style, like: "Now my style is to be funky." I don't think that's really the point of it. It's more like my life is opening up to wider possibilities. And there's a lot of different things that I feel like doing. There were some times where I wasn't aware that there were a lot of things that I wanted to do. And one of the reasons that I wasn't aware of that had to do with feeling like my musical mission or goals were fairly well-defined in terms of what world I lived inwhat musical world, who were the people that I wanted to play with, et cetera.
AAJ: So the walls have broken down a little bit?
BG: The walls have broken down, yes, and it's opened up some constrictions and possibilities. And after playing with Charlie Hunter, I just want to say one thing: Charlie Hunter is one of the greatest musicians that have ever lived. I knew that I loved his playing and that I enjoyed listening to him, but until I started playing with him, I didn't quite understand the immensity of his accomplishment. I sent him a note the other day saying I was going to write an essay comparing him to Vladimir Horowitz or Glenn Gould. Those guys are thought of as having achieved a monumental musical and technical achievement. But in a lot of ways people that are doing something like what Charlie has doneother people don't recognize that the exact same level of technical mastery in the service of musical understanding has taken place there.
AAJ: Why do you think it is that your average listener, or even someone who follows a particular musician, isn't able to see that? Is it a matter of not being able to play with them, and see what's going on?
BG: Well, it has to do with the cultural world that surrounds us. Horowitz or Jascha Heifetzthey were operating in a certain context that understood what the repertoire was, that had an appreciation for how difficult it would be to not just learn the repertoire and the instrument but master them, and had an appreciation for the fact that, if somebody could deliver the goods in that kind of spirit, what kind of gift that was to the listener.
And in the world of popular music, that frameworkit's not that people don't enjoy it (I think people enjoy the hell out of what they listen to) but there's not this kind of erudite, educated, well-informed listener who knows something about the degree of difficulty or the level of accomplishment that it takes for a guy like Charlie Hunter to sit down with his instrument and give you what he gives you.