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There’s plenty happening on Ben Goldberg’s enigmatically titled new album, which thrives on group interactions, stylistic shifts and pinpoint clarity. But Everything Happens to Be. may well be the most relaxed-sounding album the San Francisco-based clarinetist or any of the East Coast all-stars gathered here — tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — have recorded.
Most of the songs have a balm-like quality, perhaps in response to the pandemic (which Goldberg documented on Plague Diary, his extraordinary series of homemade recordings). The exceptional rapport he’s developed over the years with these musicians, who have played with each other in many settings, certainly contributes to the album’s sense of ease.
And then there’s the stirring simplicity of most of Goldberg’s compositions. Inspired by the classical chorale, most of the tunes are based on three- or four-note melodies that are introduced by the clarinetist (who’s in close-to-the-vest mode through much of the album) and then gently trailed or shadowed, note by note, in a kind of staggered counterpoint by Eskelin. While the solos are powerfully evocative, there are relatively few of them and they are brief. The rich harmonies come first.
As restrained as the musicians are, there’s a granular depth to their playing, which is grounded in Halvorson’s patented electric effects, here plinky and bright, there gnarled and machine-like. Her exquisitely controlled contribution to “Fred Hampton,” a mournful but resilient tribute to the slain Black Panther leader, is one of her finest pieces of accompaniment. The music gains complexity and inside intensity on the bluesy, impressionistic “Cold Weather,” which draws in modernistic fashion on traditional jazz and the rhapsodic Gershwin. Ultimately, though, a sunny sense of belief is cast via the classic hymn “Abide With Me” — religion, of course, being the ultimate balm for believers.— Lloyd Sachs