Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Looking Back Over a Few Weeks: Ben Goldberg/Michael Coleman, Nathan Davis

In the print media world, it's no big deal if an article about an event runs 10 days after the event happened. In the online world, it feels like I'm behind the times if it takes me that long to blog about something. But I'm here and you're here and you should know what you missed anyway.

On Saturday, April 28, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and keyboardist Michael Coleman played a show at Hambone's, in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Hambone's isn't exactly a bastion of free improvised music, but it's still a great joint, with a good sound system and plenty of seating. And bar food, for those who are so inclined. 

It was clear, walking through the door that the line between the bar room and the music room was going to be a serious dividing line that night. No one in the bar was rowdy, but during the quieter moments of the music, conversations could be hearing spilling through the doorway, even though a plastic shade was strategically hung over the doorway to cut out the sound.

Apologies to Mortis, who opened the show. I arrived 10 minutes into Goldberg and Coleman's set. There have been a handful of clarinet players involved in adventurous jazz but Goldberg is one who really makes me want to hear more clarinets in this setting. He plays with such a strong, deep tone on his B-flat instrument, making it resonate in all sorts of warm ways that I can't get enough of it.

He and Coleman recently released Practitioner, an album of works by Steve Lacy. Taken from the late soprano saxophonist's Hocus Pocus - Book H of Practitioners, the pieces were composed to be used as complex exercises, built on challenging lines. Watching Goldberg play, it was clear they could be quite the workout, with rapid lines that contained convoluted melodies. Not only did he dig into them, he used them as gateways to improvisation. Along with his clarinet, he used his contra-alto clarinet, which has a tone that could be mistaken for a bass clarinet or a contra-bass clarinet, for those who don't know their low reeds or forgot what they read on the back of CD covers.

Coleman was surrounded by a bank of keyboards and mixers. He accompanied Goldberg's playing with atmospheric swirls and sounds and he worked as a second melodic instrument, playing his own lines built out of a good melodic sense and a dexterity that helped him reshape the lines as he created them. During one particularly inspired moment, Coleman kept repeating a melody as his instruments seemed to make it melt and get lower with each repetition.

Not only does Practitioner include six Lacy works, it also includes baseball cards, one for each of the musicians who either played or wrote the music (the duo, Lacy, etc.) and the artists who inspired it and created the artwork for the cover and recorded it. Alas there is no flat, hard piece of bubblegum to go with it, like the Topps baseball cards of bygone days. But Goldberg and Coleman provide enough to chew on otherwise, pun intended but true anyway.


By now it's common knowledge that saxophonist Nathan Davis died on April 8, but his passing is not something I feel I should have overlooked. The saxophonist was a fixture in Pittsburgh,  almost to the point where he was taken for granted. But his creation of a Jazz Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969 was pretty groundbreaking, coming at a time when jazz musicians weren't often held in higher regard than hippie groups. I remember Davis telling us in his History of Jazz class about walking across campus and running into people who were surprised that he was a clean-cut well dressed guy and not someone more raggedy.

Hopefully the Pitt Jazz Seminar that he started - and which was continued by Geri Allen before she too passed last year - will still be maintained in coming years. I often bemoaned that Davis often drew from the same circle of players each year, with only a few wild cards thrown in on occasion. But I also realized that it gave aspiring musicians and fans a chance to hear these players speak at informal seminars, allowing us all to get close to them and bask in their history. And all the seminars were free!

Finally, at several of those Seminar concerts. Davis got a chance to really perform on tenor and soprano saxophone. Maybe it was the idea that he was among heavy hitters that spurred him onto higher levels, or maybe he just didn't get a chance to blow like that very often. Whatever it was, it left me with a greater appreciation for his technique. That musicianship, and his verbal insight, were a big part of Resonance's CD set Larry Young In Paris The ORTF Recordings that came out in 2016. Davis talks a great deal in the liner notes about how he connected in Paris with both trumpeter Woody Shaw and organist Young, who he was reticent to hire until he heard him play.

RIP Nathan. Um - I mean, Dr. Davis.

No comments: