the door, the hat, the chair, the fact
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Celebrating the achievements of irreplaceable soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004), this suite of compositions by clarinetist Ben Goldberg appropriately salutes the longtime American expatriate by not attempting to replicate the honoree’s sound.

Although he briefly studied with Lacy, Berkeley, Calif.-based Goldberg’s concepts are both gentler and more tonal than what Lacy achieved. “Blinks” is the only Lacy composition performed, although the clarinetist adds to this eulogy on “Facts”, by composing music for a written statement of the soprano saxophonist’s creed.

Known for his membership in the New Klezmer Trio and the Tin Hat Quartet as well as his own bands, Goldberg has gathered similarly unique musicians around him. Similarly the instrumentation of his quintet is superficially similar to Lacy’s longtime touring group of the 1980s.

In place of Lacy’s blend of soprano and alto saxophones in that band, Goldberg contrasts the timbres of his clarinet with the part-placid, part-feverish tenor saxophone lines of Rob Sudduth, who has done everything from writing for singer Huey Lewis to playing with pianist Graham Connah’s avant ensemble. Violin and voice duties are handled by Carla Kihlstedt. Much more accomplished a fiddler then Lacy’s long-time associate Irène Aebi, she’s a founding member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Tin Hat, and has worked with musicians as different as singer Tom Waits and the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

Many of the CD’s memorable moments come by matching the violinist’s spiccato textures with the clarinetist’s coloratura pitches. This happens on “I Before E”, following Kihlstedt’s slippery runs, which evolve from her introduction of banjo-like pizzicato plucking. With Goldberg double tonguing a solo, the combined front line then produces an approximation of a free-form European country dance, with the climax a descending double bass phrase.

Unhurried and unobtrusive, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith navigate most of the tunes with a steady ostinato, sometimes producing slap bass and ringing cymbal actions in double counterpoint to offset twittering reeds expostulations. Performing on their own as Good for Cows, Smith also works with avant-rock band Mr. Bungle and Rova, while Hoff is part of the Nels Cline Singers and has also worked with Connah.

Touching on sound aspects that influenced Lacy – and Goldberg – the band invests the lower case improv “Facts” with the same concentration that it brings to “Song and Dance”, although the first features bouncing brush work and languid bass strums and the later a well-modulated boppish lilt. Awash with harmonic counterpoint, and a bow to the off-kilter rhythms of Lacy mentor Thelonious Monk, the second tune showcases a tongue-slapped tenor solo, Kihlstedt buzzing her strings like a modern day Stuff Smith, and Smith’s moderate, mallet-driven drum solo.

“Dog’s Life” with almost bongo-like punctuation from Smith and accented arpeggios from Sudduth, is one of the pieces that come across as a mix of Cool Jazz and Elizabethan balladry, with a finale of Kihlstedt’s string vibrations hanging in the air. Meanwhile “Blinks” goes through several tempo changes as thick bass pulses and splashed snares and cymbals are succeeded by spiccato actions then double-stopping polyphony from the fiddler, with everyone contributing to the final march-like rhythm.

The subsequent linkage of “Cortege” the penultimate track, followed, after 40 seconds of silence, by the so-called “Hidden Track” puts in broader relief the band’s and Goldberg’s game plan. Although the former contains shrill clarinet trills, staccato counter line from the saxophonist and sweeping sul ponticello layering from the violinist, this polytonal unison softens into Stan Getzian timbre from the tenor man.

Languid and smooth, these tracks additionally bring into bolder relief the set’s weakness: a soupçon of the sweat and experimentation that Lacy brought to his work could have made this already memorable CD much stronger.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Petals 2. Song and Dance 3. Long Last Moment 4. F13 5. Facts 6. Blinks 7. I Before E Before I 8. Learned from Susan Stewart 9. MF 10. Facts 11. Dog’s Life 12. Lone 13. Cortege 14. “Hidden Track”

Personnel: Ben Goldberg (clarinet); Rob Sudduth (tenor saxophone); Carla Kihlstedt (violin and voice); Devin Hoff (bass); Ches Smith (drums)