Fresh & forward

Ben Goldberg, Gerald Cleaver, Liberty Ellman

Friday, June 30

7:30 p.m.

Campbell Recital Hall

SJW MEMBER: $39 | Child (17 and under) & Student (present valid student ID card) $10

NON-MEMBER: $47 | Child (17 and under) & Student (present valid student ID card) $18

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Programs, personnel, venues, and pricing subject to change without notice.


Ben Goldberg, woodwinds
Gerald Cleaver, drums
Liberty Ellman, guitars

About Ben Goldberg, Gerald Cleaver, and Liberty Ellman

“[Goldberg] is an artist who seems to find beautiful melodies at the end of every path.” — NPR

Ben Goldberg’s thoughtful, compelling music has tributaries from klezmer, bebop, and contemporary concert music. His unique approach to the clarinet and other woodwinds has been inspired and informed by artists as diverse as Joe Lovano and Steve Lacy. As a composer, Goldberg is a seeker and sorcerer all in one, delighting audiences with the unexpected. Joined by some of his closest musical friends, this performance will draw from his Porch Concert Material program.


While the ties that bind clarinetist Ben Goldberg, drummer Gerald Cleaver and guitarist Liberty Ellman were forged in New York City, the trio they’ve turned into a working ensemble owes its existence to Berkeley. Goldberg is longtime resident of the city, and he’s been teaching improvisation at UC Berkeley for the past decade. But the California Jazz Conservatory in downtown Berkeley gets the credit for coaxing Cleaver to trade his New York digs for a Bay Area address, and with bringing North Bay reared Ellman back after years in Brooklyn.

Goldberg first played with Cleaver during his week-long run at New York’s The Stone celebrating the clarinetist’s 60th birthday in 2019 “and right away felt a real connection,” he said. “He’s such a beautiful cat, and I love the way he plays the drums. He’s got all the wonderful technique but he’s just being himself. He is himself. He brings that. And he’s diligent. He’s really playing the drums. When someone is doing exactly what they need to be doing you can trust them completely, because they’re not going to be wondering what you wish they were doing.”

Cleaver has added a bracing jolt of creative energy to the local scene since the California Jazz Conservatory recruited him for a professorship in 2020. A Detroit native and son of a jazz drummer, he grew playing and loving just about everything the Motor City scene offered. But his musical identity is indelibly tied to the tradition-extending idioms that coalesced in the mid-1960s, an incomplete, if entirely understandable, picture of his aesthetic.

Ellman also made the move to the Bay Area from New York after joining the CJC faculty. While he’s recorded a half dozen critically hailed albums as a leader he’s probably best known for his extensive work with Vijay Iyer, Henry Threadgill, and Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret. “He’s an amazing guitar player,” Goldberg said. “Playing with Threadgill there’s this whole harmonic language that he’s had to master. He’s really taking care of business in so many dimensions. We can phrase together, and then he blasts off.”

A master improviser who first earned renown three decades ago for his pioneering work melding avant-garde jazz and klezmer music, Goldberg has increasingly unleashed his gift for sustained lyricism in recent years. The body of tunes he’s been performing with Cleaver and Ellman, Porch Concert Material, reflects the way he composes for particular situations.

Spending time with family back in Colorado, where he was born and raised, he gave in to his brother’s request for regular performances “and I started playing them on the porch of this cabin every afternoon for a week.” Goldberg said. “It turned into another experiment. ‘Ben’s going to do a concert on the porch’ feels funny. Is there some way to deal with this? Let’s find a new way to listen to music where it doesn’t feel like it’s being molded into a certain idea. We’re going to talk about it. You can ask questions or criticize. It’s a hang, not a presentation.”

He’d been listening to a lot of music by Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982) and became enamored with the great Texas bluesman’s intuitive sense of structure. Rather than playing the standard 12 blues form, Hopkins “just puts the next phrase where ever he feels like,” Goldberg said. “It’s something deeper and more true and sophisticated. It takes more musical strength to trust yourself for when the next phrase comes. That’s the real storyteller and poet at work.”

He documented the music on his 2022 album Vol. 2: Hard Science, but Porch Concert Material has undergone considerable evolution since he recorded it with the Ben Goldberg School sextet featuring altoist Kasey Knudsen, trombonist Jeff Cressman, accordionist Rob Reich, electric bassist Nate Brenner, and drummer Hamir Atwal. In another iteration of the experiment, he didn’t give his collaborators any music beforehand, and the album captures their spontaneous reactions and interactions.

The dynamic between structure and freedom also runs through Ellman’s music. His discography is small but potent, though his latest release, 2020’s Last Desert, got lost in the disruptions wrought by the pandemic. Featuring Berkeley-reared trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, drummer Damion Reid and bassist Stephan Crump, it’s full of oblique melodic lines that shimmy and careen in unexpected directions. A skilled sound engineer, Ellman also produced and mixed the project (one of many albums he’s mixed and mastered including Gregory Porter’s Grammy-nominated Be Good).

In many ways Ellman is still reintroducing himself to the Bay Area scene. His family moved to the Bay Area in the early ’80s when he was 11 and he started making a name for himself in the mid-’90s. Living a few blocks from the old Yoshi’s in North Oakland, he was a regular at the jam sessions in the basement and in the club where he first experienced masters like McCoy Tyner, Tony Williams, Michael Brecker, and Henry Threadgill. He went on to become an essential part of Threadgill’s Zooid, playing on the composer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 album In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi Recordings). He’s played a similarly essential role in Joe Lovano’s Village Rhythms Band, the JD Allen Quartet, Adam Rudolph’s Go Organic Guitar Orchestra, and various projects with Vijay Iyer. He’s known Goldberg since his formative years on the Bay Area scene, but they reconnected years later in New York, including a week-long run of Goldberg’s at The Stone.

“Ben is a very interesting guy,” Ellman said. “His music is deceptively simple, always some very creative ideas. My experience is he’ll give you a page with not a whole lot on it, but full of rich ideas and different lines and harmonies. He’s one of the best improvisers in the Bay Area, and his music reminds me sometimes of the Bagatelles that Zorn did. There’s a similar kind of creativity. I love the idea that he writes these tunes to play them on the porch, somewhat simple music to serve as a creative catalyst.”

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