By Hrayr Attarian
Ben Goldberg – Clarinet, contra-alto clarinet
Geof Bradfield – Tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Dana Hall – Drums, percussion
Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, reedist Geof Bradfield, and drummer Dana Hall are all intrepid innovators—each with his own unique style. It is this individual distinctiveness that makes their easy camaraderie so singularly delightful on the vibrant General Semantics. The music the collaborative trio performs is a mix of category-defying originals as well as covers from sources as diverse as pianist Cecil Taylor and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal.
For example, Goldberg’s “Last Important Heartbreak of the Year” is a laid back, swinging conversation between woodwinds over Hall’s exuberant percussion. The propulsive beats and the overlapping lines from the two reedmen color the uptempo tune with crisp, early-jazz, hues. This is underscored in its New Orleans-esque funèbre conclusion.
In contrast, Bradfield’s “Never Met a Stranger” opens with a Western classical touch as two clarinets perform alternating angular refrains. As the piece evolves it takes on an Eastern European feel—Goldberg playing the lyrical melody with elegance and panache while Bradfield anchors the interplay with his bass clarinet. Meanwhile, Hall drives it with his tight and exacting cadence.
On Taylor’s “Air,” Hall lays down an intricate and dynamic groove while Bradfield and Goldberg let loose stream-of-consciousness improvisations. The main theme is embellished with atonal phrases and fiery, yet controlled, spontaneity that does justice to the composer’s legacy. Similarly, Pascoal’s “8 de Agosto” maintains its Brazilian origins. Hall’s funky and infectious rhythms serve as a focal point around which Bradfield, on soprano sax, and Goldberg engage in an ebullient instrumental dance.
The ensemble’s take of Duke Ellington’s “Half the Fun” is intimate and introspective. Hall’s percussion and Bradfield’s bass clarinet flirt stimulatingly with dissonance. Gradually the track returns to the original theme, as Goldberg deconstructs the standard with deference, infusing it with bittersweet tones. His bandmates keep the darkly hued and expectant mood going with their shimmering vamps.
General Semantics is an exciting album, both brilliantly irreverent and accessible. The balance of whimsy and depth delivered with sophistication and panache makes it singularly enjoyable and satisfying. The virtuosity with which the three musicians approach their material—and its refreshing mix of relaxed ambience and electrifying creativity—nourishes the mind and the soul.