STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
On a single afternoon in 2012, in a studio somewhere in Brooklyn, NY, Bay Area-based jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg assembled four friends to record a full album, beginning to end, in a single, fevered session, pretty much laying it all down between breakfast and dinner.
“It was astonishing to me,” Goldberg said over the phone Friday afternoon. “I had never made a record in that short of a time before … I think we had seven hours in the studio, altogether, and that included all the rehearsal, learning the songs, working on them and recording them.”
The band, which came to be known as Unfold Ordinary Mind, is a quintet comprising Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Rob Sudduth on tenor saxophone, Ellery Eskelin on alto saxophone, Ches Smith on drums and Goldberg using his contra-alto clarinet as a surrogate for the bass guitar.
“First of all,” he explained, “I wanted to have a band where I was the bass player, using the contra alto clarinet. I just kind of had a vision. And from there it became pretty obvious to me who I needed in the band.” This premise, however, wasn’t fully explained to his recruits beforehand.
“I didn’t know specifically when we went to record that [Goldberg] was going to be the bass player,” Cline said during a separate interview Friday afternoon. “I didn’t really think about it … It was the fact that it was a Ben Goldberg project, you know. If there’s time, I’ll pretty much do any project Ben has in mind.”
Unlike so many records — the making of which can be long, arduous ordeals taking months of detailed planning, recording, rerecording and polishing, until, at the distant end, the product is cleaned of any so-called flaws — this record, appropriately borrowing the band’s name, is a loose, melodic jazz haze.
There’s distinct, airy texture to the record, created by the layering of saxophones over Goldberg’s clarinet — a smoky sound which flits from R&B grooves in “Parallelogram” to more rock and roll vibes in “xcpf,” a track in many ways guided by Cline’s stabilizing work on the guitar.
“There might have been a time in the past when I might have been embarrassed to write a song like ‘xcpf’ because it’s so obvious,” said Goldberg, who suggested UOM represents a sort of juncture for him as a composer, a meeting of his early free jazz leanings and his later appreciation for “beautiful melodies and harmonies and satisfying grooves … I had to get my skills together and my courage together to be able to follow a melodic and harmonic line in a song.”
Blemished and often spontaneously beautiful, much of UOM’s charm, it seems, is owed to the haste of its making. “Looking back on it,” Goldberg said, “I’ve felt like the lack of time helped everybody really focus, and it helped everybody stay loose, because there were no expectations of getting it right or anything like that; it was just a matter of getting to the point.”
The point, as Goldberg puts it, is the essential heart of a good piece, even if one cannot always exactly articulate that point.
“Everybody has a point, you know; that’s why we talk to each other. When you’re having a conversation with somebody or speaking in some way, there’s something in your heart, something in your mind that you need to express. And for me, music is the same way. When I play music, I want to be in that place, of needing to say something or needing to express something. That’s when it comes together – that’s what shapes the music.
“And you don’t have to set out to do something unique or different,” he continued. “You are unique. The way you talk, the way that you walk; you don’t have to think about that stuff. It’s just who you are.”
Goldberg’s words here zone in on an interesting aspect of recording an entire album in a day. When looking back on it, musicians are able to assign very specific, personal memories to the experience. Rather than a conglomerate of weeks, a collection of moods and feuds and personal problems, a brief recording session retains the spirit of a day in the life.
For Nels Cline, the decades-long Wilco vet and leader of The Nels Cline Singers, to recall the making of UOM is to recall a day of self-doubt, anxiety and vague distress.
“To be sort of candid, I was not in good shape on that particular day,” the guitarist said over the phone last week. “I was really kind of sick of myself when I went that session, kind of tired, kind of burnt out on myself, on my playing; I just went in there feeling kind of dispirited, I guess, about what I was going to be able to contribute, and feeling kind of unprepared in terms of how to play this music, because I didn’t know what it was going to be.”
Of course, “when I heard the record back it sounded fine,” he said, laughing. But approaching a session in such a state of mind “totally affects everything,” the voice of the guitar, the way the fingers manipulate the fret board; everything harbors this distorted sense of self.
What’s perhaps more interesting, though, is how the UOM session exorcised this bit of personal turmoil for Cline. “I mean, this has happened to me before,” he continued, “so I guess I’m a little bit of a head case sometimes. But I think that I kind of gradually became more relaxed based on [Goldberg’s] leadership and based on where I heard the music going.
“Music’s just not that easy for me,” he added. “It’s always a challenge. There’s always this sort of slightly nerve-racking aspect to it. But I love to play music, and I love to play music I love, so I just throw myself into it, again and again, even though it doesn’t get much easier.”
This recollection shines a light on what’s so precious about jazz. It’s a genre that captures the feeling of the present and expresses of the musician’s emotional state, however gleeful or morose. For all the work Goldberg put into writing these songs, so much of the record is a snapshot, a glimpse into the minds and hearts of five musicians on a given day.
The record closes with the dusky, poignant “Breathing Room,” a reflexive and drum-less epilogue to 45 minutes of at times clamoring instrumentation, an apt conclusion to an album that sharply turns between moods and genres. It’s a track that feels like a deep, relieving sigh.
“In a way, I think [‘Breathing Room’] does kind of tie things together,” Goldberg said, “with the beautiful melody [in the final minute] and that feeling of looking back.”
And Goldberg’s band will be looking back again at Boot & Saddle Tuesday night, revisiting seven tracks from UOM under the clarinetist’s focused but relaxed guidance.
“My job is to push the cart down the hill and then let it do its thing,” he explained. “As a band leader, I’m strict about the things I want, but for me that’s a way of opening a place where the individual musicians can do their thing. That’s what I want to get to. That’s what I want to have with people.”
Follow Dutch Godshalk on Twitter @DutchGodshalk.
Note on the Aug. 26 show: Standing in for Ellery Eskelin on alto saxophone will be Kasey Knudsen. Also,
instead of Ches Smith on drums, Allison Miller will be joining the band.
IF YOU GO
Unfold Ordinary Mind
will perform at Boot & Saddle,
1131 S. Broad St., Philadelphia,
on Tuesday, Aug. 26.
Doors: 8 p.m.; show: 8:30 p.m.
Tickets are $15.
For more information, visit