Maybe it happened when he hit the big four-oh last summer, or perhaps it was merely the natural evolution of a creative life taken seriously. Whatever the impetus, it's clear from three exceptional new albums issued in the past year that clarinetist Ben Goldberg has grown up.Contrary to the propaganda of our youth-obsessed culture, growing up does not necessarily mean acceding to inertia or complacency. On the new album by Junk Genius — Goldberg's critically lauded group, which includes co-leader John Schott (guitar), Trevor Dunn (bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums) — the clarinetist's compositions lean toward a scrupulously structured, deceptive kind of simplicity far removed from the furious, exploded-bop model of the band's self-titled debut. The focus on spaciousness, color, and nuance suggests a wisdom that comes from introspection.
A similar development can be heard on Short for Something, the long-awaited reunion recording by New Klezmer Trio, Goldberg's pre-Masada klezmer extrapolation with Wollesen and bassist Dan Seamans. On this disc the clarinetist's timbral shift from the relatively acerbic slings of youth to a fuller, rounder, less confrontational (but not excessively gentle) model is striking.
Almost Never, a drummerless trio venture with Schott and Dunn, provides the widest-angle snapshot of Goldberg's growth as a composer/improviser. Reminiscent of the classic Jimmy Giuffre 3 in its free-feeling harmonic breadth and eloquent melodic movement, the music explores a rare level of lyrical depth. As each tuneful phrase is played with patience and precision, the sounded moments seem to caress the silences. Lingering overtones resolve in uncanny ways. The intent here is spirit-strong, self-assured, and, yes, mature.