The dreams of clarinetists are filled with strange and wondrous things.
In the case of Ben Goldberg, the inspiration for his project Unfold Ordinary Mind came to him in a flash, complete with instrumentation, personnel and his own role as the quintet's bassist.
What's odd about this vision is that Goldberg is one of jazz's most creative and acclaimed clarinetists, an insistently inventive player who was recently named "#1 Rising Star" on his instrument in the 2013 Downbeat magazine critics poll, the second time in recent years he's earned that distinction.
Rather than pushing away his unlikely epiphany, Goldberg quickly assembled an astonishing cast of improvisers and set out to write a collection of unabashedly beautiful tunes with sinuous bass lines delivered on the contra alto clarinet, an unwieldy beast of an instrument out of which he wrestles a rumbling, freight train whomp.
"It's scary, a completely different world," says Goldberg, who notes that the standard B-flat clarinet tends to sail over the rhythm section. "A lot more depends on you if you're the bassist. You're the middle of the storm and have to hold it together. You have to be so courageous. You're saying, 'This is the groove.' I had to really step up my game in the rhythm section."
Featuring Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Ches Smith, and tenor saxophonists Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth, Unfold Ordinary Mind plays a series of Northern California shows as part of a national tour, including Thursday at Kuumbwa and Friday at Duende in Oakland.
The tour caps a banner year for Goldberg, who released the album "Unfold Ordinary Mind" in February in conjunction with another critically hailed quintet session, "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues," which features tenor sax star Joshua Redman (both albums are on Goldberg's label BAG Production). With reviews on public radio's "Fresh Air" and in the New York Times and dozens of other publications, Goldberg has finally broken through to headliner status in the U.S. after years as an exemplar of underground ingenuity.
Born and raised in Denver, Goldberg earned an undergraduate music degree from UC Santa Cruz and a master's in composition from Mills College. The Berkeley clarinetist has released more than half a dozen albums under his own name over the past two decades, but his best known work has taken place in bands, such as the seminal New Klezmer Trio, the Thelonious Monk repertory trio Plays Monk and the new music chamber quartet Tin Hat.
Goldberg hasn't abandoned his love of improvisation, but his recent music delves down into bedrock forms and rhythms, an evolution that manifested itself vividly in the gutbucket roots jazz of "Go Home," his 2009 album with guitarist Charlie Hunter. Pivoting on Cline's volatile guitar work, Unfold Ordinary Mind marks the next step in Goldberg's fascinating journey.
He connected with Cline years before the guitarist joined Wilco, when he was a revered figure on Southern California's underground music scene. While guitar geeks genuflected over his notorious shredding sessions with the likes of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, Cline has always been a supremely versatile player. He first connected with Goldberg over the music of reed master Jimmy Giuffre, whose folklike themes introduced a radical simplicity to jazz.
An avid Goldberg fan ever since, Cline jumped at the opportunity to join Unfold Ordinary Mind, reveling in music that has "a serious traditional aspect -- almost like gospel/R&B at times," he wrote in a recent email.
With Goldberg holding down the low end, Smith driving the pulse in unpredictable directions, and Eskelin and Sudduth delivering the sumptuous melodies, Cline serves as the band's disrupter (or would that be unfolder?), creating a dynamic that "often wrings more and more screaming guitar textures out of me," Cline wrote.
"At one or two points during the recording session, Ben said, 'More noise. Not so restrained. Destroy the piece!' As such the band tends to feature me in a sort of mega-distorted blues mode."
What's most fascinating about Unfold Ordinary Mind is the way that it gracefully contains Goldberg's contrasting impulses. By indulging his need for luminous consonance as well as his urge to shatter the beatific tunes into glistening shards of sound, Goldberg feels like his music is more personal than ever.
"I don't want to hold anything back, to be elusive or oblique," Goldberg says. "I want extreme melody, the most beautiful melody I can possibly write. I want it to be the strongest most interesting groove. And then a freaking Nels guitar solo. I feel like maybe I'm getting better at putting everything in its place."