Unfold Ordinary Mind makes its Baltimore debut at the Windup Space
The recent announcement of Unfold Ordinary Mind, a new quintet led by Ben Goldberg and featuring Nels Cline and Ellery Eskelin, was pretty exciting in and of itself. But even more so, at least in Baltimore, was the news that Creative Differences would be bringing the group here for a performance at the Windup Space, in advance of the band’s debut album due out in February 2013. Eskelin was raised in Baltimore and comes back home for performances from time to time, and Cline visited the Windup Space last year with his Nels Cline Singers and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. But to have this much talent from the worlds of jazz and avant rock in one group, making an early appearance in Baltimore, was a special occasion on Saturday night.
Ben Goldberg, who formed the group as an experiment in using his Eb contra alto clarinet in the role of a bass player, was the de facto frontman for the night, introducing each song with short, playfully strange speeches. At the top of the set, he said simply “The name of this group is Unfold Ordinary Mind. Unfold…” he then paused, and blew into his instrument, letting out a deep blurt of melody. “…Ordinary…” Another honk. “Mind.” Another burst of sound from the clarinet, and so on. The beautifully unpredictable composition that followed, he later explained, was called “The Introduction,” and was written in tribute to the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith.
Unfold Ordinary Mind is a fascinating band, perhaps more than the sum of its impressive parts. Tenor saxophonists Eskelin and Rob Sudduth sometimes lock into warm harmonies, sometimes go off on simultaneous, beautifully discordant solos. Drummer Ches Smith has a full arsenal of relaxed grooves, unpredictable accents and atmospheric textures at his disposal, each song tracing a winding but cohesive narrative narrative thanks largely to his steady hand. Goldberg’s sturdy low end is the eye of the storm, and Cline, as always, is the subtlest of guitar gods, blending into the ensemble until he’s ready to stand out with an incredible sequence of tones that magically emanates from his strings and array of effects boxes.
The band reportedly recorded their upcoming album, which is being released by Goldberg’s BAG Production Records, on the first day of rehearsing together. But their Windup Space set was not an improv free-for-all; the musicians referred to sheet music throughout the set. Some moments were very clearly composed but still allowed for spontaneity. After “Breathing Room” opened with an especially lovely melodic passage, Goldberg stopped and politely asked the band, “let’s do that again,” seemingly just for the joy of playing it rather than to correct a mistake. Leaving the stage after an hour and a half, Unfold Ordinary Mind returned for one last song, the lengthy and deceptively titled “The Second Interlude,” which ended up being downright funky in places. Guys like the musicians in Unfold Ordinary Mind are always combining for new groups that only make a couple records or gig sporadically, but this combination felt special enough that hopefully there’ll be lots more to come, perhaps even in Baltimore.