"I am so excited. We sold out, standing room only, and the trio got a standing ovation at the end," said Bonnie Wright immediately following the first installment of her Fresh Sound concert series, which also happened to be the first time San Francisco clarinet virtuoso Ben Goldberg, Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker and NYC drum phenomenon Ches Smith played together as a trio.
I'm usually suspicious of trios which do not feature a bass player--but this group was so strong, it really wasn't necessary. There was a unique aesthetic going on, many times, Goldberg and Parker staked out independent lines which only intersected occasionally, and they were countered by the astonishing percussive contributions of Smith, who summoned up waves of activity while keeping his volume low enough to allow Goldberg's clarinet to be clearly heard without a microphone.
Beginning with "All Chords Stand For Other Chords," Parker and Goldberg eased into the angular theme in unison, while Smith created a world of micro gestures. As clarinet and guitar began to diverge into elliptical orbiting lines, the drummer kept up a relentless series of strikes, rubs, clangs and sometimes alien chatter.
They segued seamlessly into "Snow Notes," a dreamy tone poem that sounded like a three way conversation between sonic magicians. Smith began echoing the melody on a small, child's xylophone before creating eerie squeaks from rubbed drumsticks on metal. Parker and Goldberg came together for a recap of the melody, offset by the guitarist's use of volume pedal tremolo's.
"Habituary," began with Goldberg's keening, wailing upper register while Parker raced scales up the neck of his guitar. Smith held his unusually small drumsticks like steak-knives, and proceeded to tattoo irregular patterns all over his kit. A secondary free-bop theme emerged that gave birth to an astonishing drum solo, which Smith self-edited into a near silence while Goldberg sighed and cooed over dreamy guitar chords.
"Phony False Alarm," employed a Monkish, jerky, start-and-stop theme over the aggressive paradiddles and semi-martial cadences of Smith, shifting into the set-closing "Bongoloid Lens," which began super quietly before morphing into something approximating a Slovenian funeral dirge.
Guitar and clarinet began "How To Do Things With Tears," in a sweet, diatonic unison, which slowly began to dissolve into simultaneous, yet independent discourse before drawing down into wafting silence. "Long Last Moment," contained very minimal written material and a spooky, repeating theme of odd intervals. Parker kept up the repetitions and Goldberg snaked long lines punctuated by yelping trills and screeching multiphonics. Roles reversed, and the guitarist's solo took flight with short declaratives and melodic fragments, widening to include double-stops and slurring hints of the blues.
Parker plucked modal inversions to support Goldberg's bittersweet melody on "Heads & Tails," which was the most "conventional" sounding piece of the evening. Smith got an almost Elvin Jones kind of groove happening, and when the tune dialed down to a vamp, he snuck in a roiling solo that was over too soon.
While Parker and Goldberg waxed poetic on the pensive melody to "Drops Off," Smith removed his ride cymbal and began striking it as it rested on his snare. Guitar and clarinet interlaced contrapuntal lines that intersected at odd angles, then dropped into a whispered dialog.
The group left the room and the crowd leapt to their feet, keeping the applause up until the trio returned for a swinging encore of Thelonious Monk's "Lets Cool One."
Kudos to the ever vigilant creative tastes of curator Bonnie Wright and the folks at Space 4 Art for giving San Diego jazz fans the rare opportunity to witness music like this live.
Photos by Michael Klayman