Aaron Goldberg is Between Two Worlds

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Aaron Goldberg’s academic work might have influenced his music in more ways than he’s aware of, at least in a conceptual sense.

(Photo: Jack Vartoogian)

On a cold December evening, Aaron Goldberg was giving a piano lesson in Spanish at his Brooklyn apartment, working his way through “Old Folks” with a student whose English isn’t particularly strong.

Goldberg doesn’t do much teaching nowadays—he’s on the road too often—but as a youngster he benefited from helpful instructors, and he likes to pay it forward. He sat at the piano, guiding his young charge through the canonical tune.

Goldberg learned Spanish in high school, and he somehow has managed to retain the language, despite having lived in Spain for only six weeks, at the age of 14, as part of an exchange program. “The best way to learn languages is [also] the best way to learn jazz, which is by ear,” said Goldberg. The Boston native also speaks French, Italian and Portuguese, which comes in handy, given his affinity for Brazilian music.

It should come as no surprise to those who have followed Goldberg’s distinguished career during the past two decades that he is conversant in several idioms outside of jazz as well. A polymath of sorts, he holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Tufts University, which he received well after he established himself at the turn of the millennium as one of the most in-demand pianists in jazz.

His excellent new trio album, At The Edge Of The World (Sunnyside), is his first in four years and represents something of a conceptual shift for the pianist—a strikingly contemplative inquiry into the language of improvisation. That’s due in large part to Goldberg’s bandmates, the sensitive New Zealand-born bassist Matt Penman and drummer Leon Parker.

From 1998 to 2014, Goldberg released five highly acclaimed albums with a core trio—bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland—and the music they produced was tightly arranged and highly mathematical. “We would definitely get into some spacious playing,” recalled Goldberg, who speaks swiftly and logically, befitting his academic background. “But we would also sometimes get into some overly informational playing, where there’s too much to listen to.”

For his latest release, Goldberg wanted to pare things down. Parker in particular was an able accomplice, with his less-is-more approach at the kit. Before he decamped to Europe in 2001, he’d made a name for himself in New York jazz clubs by abjuring the typical trappings of a drum set, occasionally using just a ride cymbal or simply pounding on his chest with his fists in a subtle, yet driving, percussive style he refers to as EmbodiRhythm. On At The Edge Of The World, Parker plays with a ride, snare, kick and two toms, forgoing a hi-hat, the absence of which gives the music a loose, floating quality, complementing Goldberg’s crystalline sound.

Goldberg has a longtime affinity for drummers, and his newfound connection with Parker, he says, has allowed him to explore a side of himself that listeners haven’t heard before. “It has more to do with Leon being a minimalist,” Goldberg said, “and what that brings out of me, that difference.” He added, “I think every great jazz album, and every great jazz band, has had a strong element of simplicity.”

Goldberg, 44, is taking stock of his trajectory and re-evaluating his place in the jazz tradition. It’s that kind of thoughtfulness that has defined his career. And if one thing is clear from his new album, it’s that Goldberg is continually evolving.

“I didn’t know that I was going to be a jazz musician,” Goldberg said matter-of-factly, taking a seat at his dining room table after his student’s lesson had concluded. “It seems silly to say this now, but I could almost say that I still don’t know. I am a jazz musician, and I’m very happy about that—I would even say proud of it. But I never had my life planned out in advance.”

That he discovered jazz at all was a bit of a fluke. As a youth, Goldberg attended Milton Academy, a prestigious Boston preparatory school. Without knowing anything about improvisation, he enrolled in the school’s jazz program, taught by bassist and educator Bob Sinicrope, whom Goldberg credits with sparking his interest in music. Sinicrope’s one requirement was that students listen to a mixtape of jazz classics the summer before the semester began. The goal was to immerse each musician in the language, so they’d be prepared to play it by ear. “I didn’t know what I was listening to,” Goldberg remembered, “but I started to fall in love with it.”

Despite this initial enthusiasm, Goldberg, who was classically trained, still had a long way to go. “I brought him into my classroom and I asked him to play a C chord,” Sinicrope recalled. “He didn’t know what that meant, so he played a Rachmaninoff piece in C. He was a blank slate.” Goldberg struggled at first, but he proved precocious, and by the end of the program, he was helping teach the class.

After high school, Goldberg took a circuitous route to life in jazz. He moved to New York, enrolling in The New School for a year, where he immersed himself in the scene—future icons Larry Goldings, Brad Mehldau and Roy Hargrove were students at the time—before matriculating at Harvard University. On paper, Goldberg was a consummate liberal arts student; he wrote his thesis on scientific theories of consciousness under the guidance of Robert Nozick, the celebrated American philosopher. But he spent most of his time at Berklee College of Music, mingling with jazz students.

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