Clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind is one of those deliciously dark albums that defies description. Is it punk jazz? Noir cinematics? Free improvisation? It’s all of the above, which makes it unique, and a lot of fun. Imagine guitarist Jack Martin’s Dimestore Dance Band with a three-horn frontline and you’re on the right track. Goldberg writes catchy, uneasy themes which the band – Ellery Eskelin on alto sax, Rob Sudduth on tenor sax, Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar and Ches Smith on drums – defiantly resist allowing to resolve or settle comfortably into a groove or for that matter any kind of safe place for very long except at the very end. Since there is no bass on the album, Smith drives the music with a more lumbering approach than usual, although Goldberg plays catchy basslines on the contra-alto clarinet – lower than a bass clarinet – on several of the tracks.
Throughout most of the album, Goldberg’s approach is to tease the listener with something gentle and attractive and then slash at it, give it fangs and turn it loose in the opposite direction. So when the opening track, Elliptical, opens as a pretty pastorale, that’s not to be trusted: within a couple of minutes, the band has taken it down the back alley into smirkingly noir early John Zorn/Sexmob/Lounge Lizards territory, Cline’s clenched-teeth, gritty wailing taking it out on a macabre note. Parallelogram hints that it’s going in a klezmer rock direction and then introduces a gorgeous oldschool soul turnaround that the band absolutely refuses to hit head on, an incessant interchange of horns backed by Cline’s red-neon, tremoloing guitar (that’s got to be an old tremolo tube amp with the effect turned up all the way). The guitarist is at the absolute top of his creepy game, echoing Otis Rush as well as Marc Ribot.
XCPF follows the same tangent, an oldschool soul groove that the band won’t play straight, Cline taking it out with a swirling, psychedelic forest of loops and finally a nasty growl. Goldberg then leads the horns through a pensive series of phrases before they launch into I Miss the SLA. Could that be a reference to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the inept group of wannabe terrorists who took socialite heiress Patty Hearst prisoner back in the 70s? And is Eskelin’s gentle phrasing in the midst of the grime and Balkan-tinged grit the heiress getting Stockholm Syndrome, as she eventually did, which got her some time in the joint for her role in the caper?
The trope reappears on Stemwinder, which begins as a warm, nostalgic wee-hours ballad before Cline comes spiraling down like a bird of prey with his talons out, then they vamp it out like a punk version of a 60s Quincy Jones soundtrack piece before jamming on the changes to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy. Only on the last track, a baroque-tinged pastorale, does Goldberg refrain from killing the lights and leading the crew into the shadows.
Goldberg also has another album out, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, which has an all-star cast including Ron Miles on trumpet, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, Devin Hoff on bass and Smith again on drums, and is sort of the reverse image of this one, expanding on the pretty pastoral Americana vein in more vivid depth than this one hints at. And as a bonus, this cd also comes with a poster, a Molly Barker painting of wolves following horses. Who said you can’t have vinyl production values in the digital era?