Wait -- for the first time, I saw Ben Goldberg smile. More than once. He was standing holding his clarinet in the middle of his all-star Orphic Machine, and he just couldn't help himself. Hard to blame him; it was one of those times when somebody has put a lot of sweat into composing, arranging and assembling just the right musicians for a project he particularly cares about, and it SOUNDS GOOD. Everyone in the full room agreed; you could tell by the way they nodded. And then clapped, of course.
It seemed as if Goldberg actually cared whether a range of humans might connect with his sounds. He hasn't always cared much: Even when the long-running Berkeley explorer has approached a familiar form such as klezmer or bebop, there's been something confrontational about it. Although the quintet on his 2006 Cryptogramophone record, "The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact," served as the basic personnel for tonight's nonet, that record twitched with a far more abstract quality.
I mean, Goldberg started the set with a blues -- the rolling river "Immortality," employing violinist Carla Kihlstedt, a gorgeous elf with a wispy voice, to sing lyrics about "the autonomy of the will." Goldberg held on to words as the main remnant of his customary conceptual rigor, an appropriate choice since the suite he was playing (also called "Orphic Machine") wouldn't have existed without inspiration and quotations from poet Allen Grossman's book "Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics." Did Grossman's aphoristic brain twisters really penetrate our media-thickened crania? Maybe not, although it was worth pondering titles such as "How To Do Things With Tears" and notions such as "If we see William Blake in a vision but Blake does not see us, that's a fiction."
After the blues, a sensual bossa and a softly tangy waltz proved equally absorbable. Goldberg set up groove after easy groove to support a series of repeating riffs loosely stated by his ultraskillful band: along with Kihlstedt, drummer Ches Smith (recently reviewed here in Tim Berne's Snakeoil), keyboardist Myra Melford (recently reviewed here in Trio M), bassist Greg Cohen, vibesman Kenny Wollesen, trumpeter Ron Miles, saxist Rob Suddoth and Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker. While they made a wonderful collective impression (in only their second gig!), the solos I can still hear in my mind's ear include the carving violin lines of Kihlstedt, the bluesy economy of Miles, the dense melodica chordings of Melford, the physical flyswats of Wollesen, the clean adventures of Parker and the New Orleans celebration of Goldberg on the big vertical contra-alto clarinet.
Chamber Music America and the Jewish Music Festival commissioned the writing of "Orphic Machine." They ought to be slapping backs all around.