Ben Goldberg’s Love of Steve Lacy Takes Him into New Territory


New York multi-instrumentalist Ben Goldberg likes Steve Lacy as much as Steve Lacy liked baseball.

(Photo: Peak)

All it took was one note for Ben Goldberg to fall in love with the music of saxophonist Steve Lacy.

At the time, Goldberg was in his twenties, studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and playing, as he puts it in his bio, “jazz on the saxophone and classical music on the clarinet.” One afternoon, he stopped by a record shop, carrying his soprano in with him. Recognizing the instrument, the clerk excitedly told Goldberg about a recent in-store appearance by Lacy.

“I said, ‘I don’t know who that is,’” Goldberg remembered. “The guy said, ‘OK, you have to buy this record.’ He showed me this record called Evidence.”

The 1962 album featured Lacy, trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Carl Brown exploring the work of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Goldberg put on the record at home and, from the jump, was hooked.

“I was, like, ‘I have no idea what this guy is doing,’” Goldberg said. “It doesn’t sound anything like Charlie Parker, which to me was kind of the definition of jazz at that point. And I couldn’t get enough of it. I listened to that record every day for years, eventually learning all the solos, even though I had no way of understanding what they were.”

Fast forward a decade or so, Goldberg found himself in France, during a tour with the klezmer band The Klezmorim. He sought out Lacy, in hopes of getting a lesson from one of his musical idols. For a while, that request was denied, but eventually Lacy relented, inviting the younger player to his Paris home. They spent the afternoon together, with Goldberg learning some exercises that he could use to improve his playing. And just as they were parting ways, Lacy gave him a copy of this then-new album Hocus-Pocus, a 1986 recording of soprano sax solos that spins in circles and undulates.

“Part of the reason he wrote those pieces,” said Goldberg, “is that it’s a distillation of his vocabulary. The way those lines are laid out and the intervals they’re made out of, and the phrasing. If you want to know what’s behind his playing and in his mind, here’s a pretty good representation of it.”

That album not only helped inform Goldberg’s own work for the next three decades, but it forms the basis of Practitioner, a project released during April that finds the clarinetist performing the music on Hocus-Pocus alongside keyboardist Michael Coleman. Initially, the pair stuck to the script, playing these intricate pieces in perfect unison on stage as part of a San Francisco concert marking the 10th anniversary of Lacy’s death in 2004. But when they decided to make a recording of their efforts, each wanted to find a way to make something that transformed Lacy’s vision into something entirely new.

With the help of sound engineer Eli Crews and mixing engineer Mark Allen-Piccolo, Goldberg and Coleman’s performances on Practitioner have been bent and stretched and layered into dense, abstract works of sonic art. The original melodies get their time to shine, but just as often, Lacy’s compositions are smeared out of recognition through Crews’ live electronic processing.

“The Heebie Jeebies” starts off with Goldberg and Coleman working over the fluttering lines confidently, as a decayed echo of their playing—sounding like a sci-fi sound effect—slowly enters the picture. Eventually, that digital refrain completely takes over, joined in the background by a live recording of the same piece that Coleman made on a microcassette recorder. As chaotic as it gets, the music never loses its intoxicating tang.

According to Goldberg, the real MVP of Practitioner is Allen-Piccolo. The Bay Area musician and studio wizard helped bring some focus to the project, blending together five or six different versions of the songs with Crews’ computer-driven efforts and the live recordings. All told, it added up to something like 120 different tracks.

“It was really like magic, speaking of ‘hocus pocus,’” Goldberg said. “We would start with one section of one song, and then think, ‘What else do we have? What if we put this next to that and faded from here to there, and use some of these weird sounds from Eli?’ We went back every day, hour after hour, and it just gradually came into focus.”

To round out the physical release of Practitioner, each copy of the CD comes with a small pack of baseball cards, made as a tribute to Lacy’s love of the sport and to honor the people that inspired the music on Hocus-Pocus, including magician Harry Houdini, musicians James P. Johnson and Sonny Stitt, and circus performer Karl Wallenda. On the front of each card are portraits painted by Berkeley, California-based artist Molly Barker, who’s worked on previous Goldberg projects. And on the back are poems about the people on the cards.

The whole experience has had a huge impact on Goldberg. Not only has it forced him to shift his usual method of performing in concert, adding loops and effects pedals into his live arsenal to better bring the songs on Practitioner to life, but it also has opened him up to new possibilities in the studio.

“I always thought of a record as a snapshot of what you might do in a live performance,” Goldberg admitted. “Maybe you’ll edit between take one and take three to get the right solo or something like that. I was really scared to do something in the studio that went beyond that. This record really broke that open for me.” DB

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January 2024
Samara Joy
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