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Clarinetist Ben Goldberg explores the repertoire of Thelonious Monk

Cover of the recording being discussed, designed by Smith Dobson
Cover of the recording being discussed, designed by Smith Dobson
courtesy of Ben Goldberg

Ben Goldberg is one of the more imaginative clarinetists I have encountered over the course of my jazz listening. As I wrote a little over a year ago, I first encountered him through his album Junk Genius, which took many of the “classic” bebop tunes of Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie and refracted them through distinctively contemporary lenses. At the beginning of this past June, Goldberg released his latest album, which is available through only as digital download. The title is Worry Later; and it is similar in nature to Junk Genius, concentrating this time exclusively on ten compositions by Thelonious Monk. Goldberg leads a trio with rhythm provided by Adam Levy on guitar and Smith Dobson on drums.

The album title is one of several given to a piece that Monk composed early in 1960 at the Weehawken home of Pannonica de Koenigswarter. The original title was “Classified Information.” He changed it to “Worry Later” in the hope that he would come up with a better name at some later time. The piece was given its first performance in April of 1960 at the Black Hawk nightclub in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where it was also recorded for Riverside by Orrin Keepnews. By the time the Riverside recording was released, the name of the piece had changed to “San Francisco Holiday.” The album tile is thus a somewhat convoluted reference to Goldberg’s roots in the Bay Area, and all of the ten tracks were recorded in San Francisco.

Goldberg has a keen analytic mind, with which he can approach Monk’s tunes from a wide variety of perspectives. Often this involves distilling everything down to one or two fundamental motifs. This can be found in many of Monk’s own recordings; but Goldberg has his own way of working with such “seeds,” allowing them to “grow” in directions one would not normally associate with Monk. For example, “Criss Cross” starts in territory that any Monk aficionado would quickly recognize; but then it moves into far more adventurous territory with a fair amount of elaborate contrapuntal interleaving between clarinet and guitar, enhanced with a generous share of clarinet arpeggio work. Clearly, none of this would have emerged from Monk’s fingers at the keyboard; but it would be fair to say that the “Monk sprit” is as present in this excursion as it is in any of his own recordings of that tune.

Taken as a whole, one might then say that this album is less about “listening to Monk” than it is about “Goldberg listening to Monk.” Goldberg then expresses his own listening impressions through the means that he knows best. He offers those impressions as a new set of listening experiences of his own design.