Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ben Goldberg's Invisible Trio, Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

It's been a couple weeks since the show, but I feel like I should mention the Ben Goldberg Invisible Guy Trio's appearance at the Thunderbird Cafe, which happened on Monday, Feb. 8. I missed this group the last time they came to town because I was playing with the Love Letters the same night, and hosting Matt Bauder's trio Hearing Things, one of the greatest examples of bad timing ever.

But that was then.

Goldberg is an amazing clarinetist. As in, you never realized that instrument had the potential to do this kind of heavy music before (unless you've followed the prolific Mr. G, or Perry Robinson or Don Byron, to name just a few). His trio mates were Michael Coleman (keyboards) and Hamir Atwal (drums). The sound was never spare and never ventured so far into the free dimension that it lost its sense of swing. That was probably due in part to Atwal, who had an ecstatic smile on his face through most of the set that I caught.

At the start of the second set, Goldberg was playing some loopy introductions that seemed kind of circular, and slowly settled into a form. It was a pleasant surprise when it became clear that they were playing "Light Blue," one of Thelonious Monk's deep cuts and a song that can very easily turn lugubrious. (Check out the composer's version on the Always Know album, which proves what it was initially passed over.) But these guys, Atwal mainly, made it swing.

It was hard at times to tell when one composition ended and the next started. One of the tunes was recently released on an album of duets that Goldberg did with pianist Myra Melford, and it seemed to take on a larger life than that version. Coleman had a couple different keyboards, adding an approximation of electric piano at times and parts that acted as bass lines too. It was a great show that, typically, was patronized by just a small but devoted group of listeners. The fact that it was a Monday night might have had something to do with it.

This past Saturday, however, the Undercroft Gallery at First Unitarian Church was filled with people there to see the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. This time drummer Kahil El'Zabar was accompanied by Craig Harris (trombone, digeridoo) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone saxophone, clarinet). (I profiled Bluiett in City Paper last week and it can be found here.) This was quite a pleasant surprise, not realizing that such a diverse crowd would come out for such an adventurous group. Perhaps the weekend date has something to do with it. The guy who put on the show said my article might have helped. I'll leave that to others to debate.

EHE's set followed a similar pattern to others they've done on previous visits. El'Zabar starts off on mbira (kalimba) playing a droning "riff" and tapping the bells on his ankles. Then a tune from the drum kit, then one with hand percussion. Second set followed the same pattern.

But within that set, there was magic. The first trap kit song was a woolly version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Without the support of a bassist, the drums still seemed to create a droning "note" that acted as a pedal point. The second set's trap kit song was John Coltrane's "Impressions" which also held together without a rhythm section. For the final hand percussion tune, the group made a surprising choice of "Cherokee" that inimitable swing song that later became a bebop proving ground.

During my interview with Bluiett he talked about suffering from a stroke and injuries to his rotator cuff. He moved around slowly between songs and solos, but most of the time he sat on a piano bench in front of his baritone, which was perched on a stand. Yet when it was time to blow, he blew hard. His upper register work was as impeccable as ever. Like Ben Goldberg, he blew the B-flat clarinet with clarion force that probably surprised many.

Craig Harris put on a pretty muscular performance too, especially when he blew the didgeridoo. This wasn't your typical Australain didg either. It was a long piece of wood with holes in either end. Yet he blew a drone with gale force, taking time to throw in a solo too.

Both El'Zabar, that night, and Bluiett, on the phone a few weeks earlier, talked about being on a tour that was all about healing. It might sound flaky (or old) to say it, but the world could use a good deal more of that right now. And that night, their beliefs weren't merely idealistic words, they became reality.

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