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Ben Goldberg's Variations: Two New Albums From A San Francisco Jazz Staple

Ben Goldberg has been a staple of San Francisco's improvisational-music scene ever since he helped put together the New Klezmer Trio two decades ago. More recently, as a member of the quartet Tin Hat, he's set e.e. cummings poems to music. In between, he's recorded in a wide variety of settings, sometimes including other prominent Bay Area players — as on two new albums for different quintets.

Goldberg's harmonization of Bob Dylan's loose version of the country tune "Satisfied Mind" comes out like a 19th-century field holler in modern dress. Old and new often get mixed up in Goldberg's music; the clarinetist first made his name playing avant-garde klezmer, as if that traditional style had never stopped evolving. His new album, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, was inspired by the stately counterpoint in Bach's chorales.

But the spontaneous counterpoint threaded through Ben Goldberg's quintet music sounds more like an update of old New Orleans jazz. His front-line partners are tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Ron Miles, while Devin Hoff on bass and Ches Smith on drums play new music with an old feeling. Old and new music share so many characteristics, it can be hard to sort out one from the other, let alone do something truly new. But that's okay: Reinventing wheels keeps venerable ideas sounding fresh. Sometimes, musicians revisit classic strategies just to make them their own. Goldberg's tune "Who Died and Where I Moved To" revives that 1960s Latin jazz beat, the boogaloo.

In "Who Died and Where I Moved To," Goldberg solos on the big contra-alto clarinet. He mostly plays that monster horn on his other new quintet album, Unfold Ordinary Mind. This one has two tenor players, Goldberg regular Rob Sudduth and New York's Ellery Eskelin, and they make a great tag team. There are more good tunes and spirited collectives, but the clarinetist approaches the music from another direction. Usually, he rides on top of the ensemble. On contra-alto clarinet, he's this band's bass player.

Unfold Ordinary Mind has a harder edge than much of Goldberg's music. The players who set the tone are returning drummer Ches Smith, who's always ready to rock out, and guitarist Nels Cline, who lost none of his improviser cred after joining the band Wilco. In "Stemwinder," Cline puts rock swagger and vintage blues licks to good use over a cushion of moaning reeds.

Unfold Ordinary Mind was recorded four years after Ben Goldberg's other new release, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues. In between, he had a quartet with funky guitarist Charlie Hunter, who inspired Goldberg to sharpen up his own sense of groove. Some of Goldberg's new tunes sound like forgotten pop songs — an air of familiarity that keeps the music's feet on the ground even when the improvisers start to fly away.

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