By Howard Reich, The Chicago Tribune:
The smart and soulful music that clarinetist Ben Goldberg played Saturday night at Constellation defied easy categorization.
In that Goldberg performed alongside pianist-keyboardist Michael Coleman and drummer Hamir Atwal, the band – which they call Invisible Guy – conveyed a nearly nostalgic jazz-trio ambience. Goldberg's clarinet lines often bounded over a swing backbeat from drummer Atwal, with pianist Coleman riffing on Goldberg's motifs.
And yet, at the same time, this music pushed subtly against convention, each player frequently going off in his own direction with distinct musical ideas, even as the three shared a spirit of invention and a common emotional tone. Listen closely, and you heard an unusually focused ensemble inventing a musical syntax for itself, the delicacy of its work enriched by other-worldly sounds from Coleman's electronic keyboard.
At the core of this music was Goldberg's softly stated but unmistakably urgent lyricism, his playing characteristically sensitive regardless of how novel an instrumental technique he might be invoking. Even passages of sustained circular breathing, free-flying improvisation and microtonal pitch brought forth a tenderness of expression that long has distinguished Goldberg's work. (Disclosure: some of Goldberg's music with a different band was used in the PBS documentary film "Prisoner of Her Past," inspired by my Tribune story and book of the same name.)
Mood, tone and atmosphere are of high importance with Goldberg, which perhaps explained why he and Invisible Guy played multiple compositions in sequence, without pause. Any interruption would have shattered the austere and somewhat fragile ambience these musicians conjured, the audience leaning in to catch every shade of pianissimo.
The primary virtuosity at work here concerned the way these players interacted and played with time. Though Goldberg and Coleman often dealt with precisely the same melodic material, for instance, they frequently played themes slightly out of sync, giving listeners a double-edge perspective on particular ideas. Add to this Atwal's own contributions, which added additional layers of rhythmic complexity, and you had a great deal more musical information than one might have anticipated from such a whispering music.
Some of the most bracing work of the evening's first set unfolded in "One Through Eight," in which Goldberg produced a whirl of notes accompanied by oscillating sonic effects from Coleman's keyboard, plus rhythmic counterpoint from drummer Atwal. The musicians steadily built up energy through depth of sound, not volume, and through a profusion of musical events, not mere speed.
They closed their performance with Thelonious Monk's "San Francisco Holiday," performed as an uncharacteristically brawny statement, reminding listeners that Goldberg can yield a big sound and sharp attacks when so inclined. The sheer exuberance of the performance made you realize how controlled and muted everything else had been until that point.
Goldberg and Invisible Guy were passing through Chicago on the eve of the release of "Orphic Machine," a larger scaled project notable for its stunning instrumental work for nonet, including trumpeter Ron Miles and pianist Myra Melford. Notwithstanding its distinctly unpersuasive vocals, "Orphic Machine" richly merits being heard here in concert, Goldberg's performance with Invisible Guy whetting one's appetite for the bigger, more ambitious venture.