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Ben Goldberg: Clarinet Communion

By Published: March 30, 2010

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.

AAJ: Do you think this album or this band, is a turning point for you, then?

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 in—what 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 done—other 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 Heifetz—they 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 framework—it'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.

AAJ: Do you see any signs of change in that regard?

BG: Oh, I don't know. It's the same story over and over. People play music because they have to. You're not going to get rich or appreciated doing it. It's life.

AAJ: Let's talk about your label BAG. What led you to start it, and what are you hoping to do with it?

BG: Yes, BAG Production. You know, the name comes from a Beatles song ["Come Together"]. I kind of got forced into it because I couldn't find a label to release the Go Home record. It was astonishing, but finally I realized, "Okay, I've got to do it myself." I began by thinking I was only going to pretend to have a label. But as soon as I started working on it, I realized that's the way I want to do it, anyway. It's a lot of work, but it's all up to me. And I can do the work. I can work on publicity if I want, or on finding distributors for my music.

Anyway, I've had enough experiences with record labels—all of whom have been run by the most well- intentioned people—but I've had enough experiences where you release a record on somebody's label and not only does it not get publicized, but it's like they enlisted the CIA to make sure that nobody would ever hear a word about it. It's an incredibly frustrating experience. So for me, running my own record label is just like, well, it's all up to me. I'm going to make sure that I do whatever I can to help put the music out there, and that's a good feeling.

The first whole record that I really decided to put out was the Tin Hat record [Foreign Legion (BAG Production Records, 2010)]. That's when I realized that it's actually a real record label. And I've got things lined up, like a beautiful record that I made with Joshua Redman.

AAJ: What advice would you give to someone starting out as an instrumentalist?

BG: Yeah, I think it's a good question. You've got to know your instrument. There are no shortcuts. Actually, when you get right down to it, the classical (what they call pedagogical) approach for instrumentalists—you can't beat it. No matter what instrument you play, that's where it all at. After that, you can do whatever you want, but it takes a long time.

AAJ: One last question, and this is entirely optional: Could you put together an ideal band for yourself from out of history?

BG: It's like, people are in history for a reason. They did what they had to do, and I love them. I mean, how much time could I spend with Louis Armstrong? He's my absolute favorite musician in the whole world, but would I want to play in his band? That I'm not sure of.

What Steve Lacy said to me once was, "Your home living room can be the jazz center of the universe." That was cool advice. And I finally learned what he meant by that.

Selected Discography

Ben Goldberg Quartet with Jamie Saft, Baal: The Book of Angels Vol. 15 (Tzadik, 2010)
Myra Melford's Be Bread, The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12 Records, 2010)
Tin Hat, Foreign Legion (BAG Production Records, 2010)
Ben Goldberg, Go Home (BAG Production Records, 2009)
Ben Goldberg, Speech Communication (Tzadik, 2009)
Scott Amendola/Ben Goldberg/Devin Hoff, Plays Monk (Long Song Records, 2007)
Tin Hat, The Sad Machinery of Spring (Hannibal, 2007)
Nels Cline, New Monastery (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
Ben Goldberg Quintet, The Door, The Fact, The Chair, The Hat (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
New Klezmer Trio, Short for Something (Tzadik, 2000)
Junk Genius, Ghost of Electricity (Songlines, 1999)
Ben Goldberg/ Michael Sarin / John Schott, What Comes Before (Tzadik, 1998)
Junk Genius, Junk Genius (Knitting Factory, 1995)
New Klezmer Trio, Melt Zonk Rewire (Tzadik, 1995)
New Klezmer Trio, Masks and Faces (Tzadik, 1991)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 6: Adam Goldberg, Courtesy of Ben Goldberg

Pages 2, 3: Peak Page 5: John Spiral, Courtesy of Ben Goldberg

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