You'd be forgiven for assuming clarinetist Ben Goldberg's new album, Orphic Machine, is a bone-dry, thornily intellectual, entirely pedantic affair.
I mean, if someone told you that they'd written a song cycle based on the elliptical pronouncements on poetics of the late writer and teacher Allen Grossman, you'd never imagine music as lithe, charming and entertaining as this.
It's tough to take a line like "The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will," and turn it into the stuff of song!
Goldberg works his magic by fracturing Grossman's words into small shards which the composer repeats, stretches and alters, like Sonny Rollins stretching and altering musical motives in his famous solos.
Helping make the trick work is the silky vocal texture of singer/violinst Carla Kihlstedt and easy way she has with the difficult words.
Also key to making it all work is the incredible musicianship of the nine-piece ensemble -- in particular, trumpeter Ron Miles, guitarist Nels Cline and Goldberg himself (whose precision and crisp intonation reflect his background in klezmer music). These guys play with such a seeming effortlessness -- Goldberg flat out lovingly caressing melodies when called for -- that the music flows as naturally as clear water in a mountain stream.
Of course the compositions themselves -- arranged for violin, clarinet, trumpet, sax, piano, electric guitar, vibes, bass and drums -- are the real stars. After a 20+ year career playing avant garde jazz/klezmer fusion with his New Klezmer Trio and jazz flecked with Eastern European folk music with the Tin Hat trio, Goldberg has arrived at a wholly organic synthesis of all the music he seems to love and care for.
There's rock here, there's jazz here, there's klezmer and Broadway and chamber music, but all the influences and antecedents are so throughly synthesized that it doesn't feel like a fusion or a melange. It feels whole.
Back in 2010, the 55-year-old Goldberg told All About Jazz that he grew up loving the Beatles, eventually coming to jazz and klezmer and finally earning an MA in composition, but in the end he found himself less consciously trying to think about how to combine all his influences, approaching it all more intuitively:
"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."
Mission accomplished as far as I'm concerned: I love Orphic Machine.
Here's a short documentary from Goldberg's BAG Production Records on the recording of Orphic Machine:
And a live performance with a slightly different lineup from the original premiere performance of the work in 2012: