It’s been is a long time — almost five years — since clarinetist Ben Goldberg made a record with the New Klezmer Trio. But the experience of taking the klezmer framework as a starting point for free jazz improvisation still rings true for Goldberg, whose most recent recordings probably owe more to early Ornette Coleman or Jimmy Giuffre in their song-like compositions and artfully intricate structures. He says it’s like a downbeat that runs through his whole career.
“It has to do with the intensity of that time of my life,” Goldberg says, “of really wanting to get started in the world of art and not really knowing how to do it, but knowing that I had to make a move. The intensity of the kind of research I did at the time into the musical materials, I was so focused on taking apart and understanding the sounds of klezmer music. I really wanted to find my own way to make use of those sounds. That really stays with me.”
You might not hear much klezmer in the groups that Goldberg will lead during a weeklong stay at The Stone at the end of February, but you will sense Goldberg’s connection to that part of his life. Perhaps it comes out in his recent return to the song form.
“I’ve been becoming more and more aware for myself of the importance of song,” he says. “To me, when I write music now — and I write a lot of music — I want it to be a song.”
He explains, “When I write a melody, my aesthetic used to be very abstract, but that whole thing has evolved for me. I’m just increasingly impressed by musicians like Ben Webster and Lester Young and, of course, Louis Armstrong, when they improvised something it sounded like a song, not a dissertation on how much they knew about harmony.”
As his two most recent records testify, Goldberg still knows a lot about harmony, but he also knows a lot about songs.
Ben Goldberg will be curating a week of performances at The Stone (Avenue C and Second Street) Feb. 25-March 2. His guests will include Myra Melford, Rudy Royston, Steven Bernstein, Ellery Eskelin and many others. Tickets are only sold at the door and cost $15 per set, $10 for students and free for children 12 and under. More information at thestonenyc.com.; His two most recent recordings, “Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues” and “Unfold Ordinary Mind,” are available on the BAG label.
Cellist Matt Haimovitz’s Shoah-tinged ‘Akoka.’
When he was 16, Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz was invited to play Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote” with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Berlin? Strauss, a darling of the Nazi regime? Von Karajan, who was a member of the Nazi party? But a career breakthrough of immense proportions.
He was pondering the offer when his grandfather extended another invitation.
“My grandfather took me to Yad Vashem,” he recalled in a telephone interview last week. “The experience was so powerful that I turned them down. It was a very difficult decision. It was a pinnacle on a professional level, but I couldn’t do that to my grandparents.”
Haimovitz’s career survived. He made the difficult transition from prodigy to adult professional by gradually moving away from the standard cello repertoire and expanding his horizons to take in new music and the challenges of experimentation. And he has paid back his debt to his grandparents handsomely with his new album, “Akoka,” a stunning combination of the old and the new that evokes the Shoah in an elegant way.
The centerpiece of the CD is a shatteringly beautiful performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a deeply spiritual piece of music written while Messiaen was a prisoner in a German POW camp. The clarinetist for whom he wrote the piece was a fellow prisoner, an Algerian Jew named Henri Akoka. When a sympathetic camp guard arranged for Messiaen and the other musicians to be sent back to France, Akoka’s Jewish features led to his being kept in the POW camp. He eventually escaped, jumping from a train with his clarinet under his arm.
Haimovitz has teamed with David Krakauer and Socalled to create two pieces in response to the Messiaen, a composition by Krakauer bearing Akoka’s name, and a mash-up by Socalled that combines the Messiaen with the beat-maker’s usual witty collection of sound bites, musical samples and frisky beats. The result is compelling listening, particularly when you know the story behind the compositions.
“It’s always powerful to play the Messiaen,” Haimovitz said. “To think of the circumstances, that makes it an even more spiritual experience. It’s an extraordinary statement that under those conditions you could come up with something so beautiful and transcendent. It lifts the spirit.”
“Akoka,” a new album featuring Matt Haimovitz, David Krakauer and Socalled and Friends, will be released Feb. 25 by Oxingale Records.