Hailed by Down Beat magazine for his “quick-witted harmonic reflexes, fluid command of line and cut-to-the- chase sense of narrative logic,” Aaron Goldberg has made his name as one of jazz’s most compelling pianists, both as a bandleader and frequent collaborator with Joshua Redman, Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Guillermo Klein and many more. On his new release The Now, Goldberg reunites with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, the virtuoso rhythm team going all the way back to his 1998 debut Turning Point. On their fifth outing together, the trio foregrounds a central truth about the art of playing jazz: that no two performances will be the same because the music is created, in Goldberg’s words, “in the dynamic plane of the present.”
“A jazz record is literally one moment in time,” Goldberg explains. “Each song captures those five minutes, and not more. This is especially counterintuitive when you think about iconic jazz recordings like Kind of Blue, where we can all sing every solo. That record would sound totally different, we’d all be singing different solos, if it’d been recorded five minutes later or even five seconds later. That aspect of jazz is what makes it magical for me. I think every time you make an album you contribute to this illusion that jazz operates like other forms of music, where you figure out the song, you practice it, you play it a million times, then you record the definitive version. Jazz doesn’t work like that, and I felt it was time to explicitly wrestle with this in some thematic way.”
In every idiomatic zone from Brazilian ballads to roaring bebop, Goldberg and the trio have a way of spontaneously sculpting every bar as it flows by, like a wave on a river. That Rogers and Harland have also spent the last few years working with master saxophonist Charles Lloyd has deepened their communication and subtlety beyond measure. With Goldberg, they revel in the lesser-explored corners of jazz repertoire, bringing wit, explosive chops and also keen understatement to bear on the music at hand.
“I met Reuben back in 1992 in Boston, when he was going to Berklee and I was going to Harvard,” Goldberg recalls. “He had just started playing upright bass. Eric I met in 1997, playing with [saxophonist] Greg Tardy. I felt an instant connection with them. There was never a feeling of having to tell them what I want or even what I want the trio to sound like. It was intuitive in the way that friendships are, or romantic relationships. It feels right and you find yourself growing, discovering things, getting somewhere new that you wouldn’t have gotten to alone. When you feel that connection, it opens a path to your subconscious — you can escape your preconceptions, the need for an agenda, and you can just let the music be.”
Goldberg became a jazz devotee in Boston during high school. After spending a year in New York City at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, he enrolled at Harvard College and graduated magna cum laude in 1996 with a concentration in Mind, Brain and Behavior. A founding member of Betty Carter’s famed and indispensable Jazz Ahead program, he continued his ascent performing in bands led by Al Foster, Freddie Hubbard, Nicholas Payton, Stefon Harris and Mark Turner among others. By the late 1990s, he was garnering wider attention, and an incessant touring schedule found him both inspired by music from around the world yet appreciative of the zen creativity that only jazz demands.
On Chico Buarque’s “Trocando em Miúdos” (roughly, “settling the small things” in Brazilian Portuguese), Goldberg and his partners reveal the sense of inner dynamism and flux that perfectly embodies the concept of The Now. “It’s a song about a couple that has broken up and they have to divide up all their common belongings,” the pianist says. “I heard it at a point when I was ending a long relationship and dealing with many of the same emotions, so I had a kind of total body experience of the song. It was a song I needed to play. In the studio was the second time we ever tried it, so it was being worked out in the moment and it has that explorative quality.”
Extending the Brazilian theme, Goldberg interprets Djavan’s “Triste Baía da Guanabara” and Toninho Horta’s “Francisca” with great lyrical and virtuosic flair. “There’s a deep Brazilian songwriting tradition, every bit as deep as our American songwriting tradition,” Goldberg says. “In the same way that our Tin Pan Alley composers were thinking equally about melody, harmony and lyrics, these Brazilian composers were also synthesizing melody, harmony, lyrics — and their best songs are pristine in all respects simultaneously.”
“Yo Yo” is a traditional Haitian song with lyrics “about a guy who’s a seller in the market,” Goldberg says. “The idea is that he always gives you more meat or more vegetables than you ask for. Everybody loves him — the women in particular love Yo Yo because he always gives them more than they bargain for. It’s a great tune for improvising, oddly related to some more familiar standards like ‘Autumn Leaves.’ Rhythmically it’s open to many approaches even though there’s something deeply African in the groove. Reuben is from St. Thomas and has a very intuitive concept of a range of Caribbean music.”
Goldberg’s lyrical waltz “The Wind In the Night” is “basically a love song, where the male character is the Wind and the female character is the Night.” The subject of “E-Land,” meanwhile, is Eric Harland himself. Goldberg offers “a sort of introduction to the world of Eric, or at least one of his realms. I wanted to design an environment for him to unleash the ‘drummer’ side of himself. The piece has a few different sections, we move between them, and essentially he’s at liberty to do whatever he wants.”
Goldberg’s bread-and-butter jazz vocabulary, his mastery and sense of invention on blues and standards, is second to none. On The Now, he lends Charlie Parker’s “Perhaps” a twist: the melody is played one quarter note apart in the right and left hand. Warne Marsh’s “Background Music,” on the changes of “All of Me,” is jaw-dropping in its speed, precision and unrelenting swing: the trio at full blast. “One’s a Crowd,” in another twist, uses the chord changes to Joe Henderson’s “Serenity.” “On Worlds (2006), we recorded a tune called ‘Unstablemates,’ and this is a similarly respectful de-rangement,” says Goldberg. “‘Serenity’ has a 14-bar form, while ‘One’s a Crowd’ drops a bar to 13, which alone renders it less serene. Melodically and improvisationally it aims to capture that mood when you’re alone but your inner voice won’t stay quiet.”
“One Life,” the closing track, brings Goldberg’s friend and sometime employer Kurt Rosenwinkel on board as a guest. The eerily peaceful, almost whistling sound of Rosenwinkel’s guitar has even more impact when one learns that Goldberg wrote “One Life” at the request of a married couple who had lost their teenage daughter. “It’s impossible to capture a life in music and I’d never met their daughter in person,” he says. “But their loss moved me, and I was moved that they asked. It took a long time just to sit at the piano and believe I could write something worthy of this one Life. We learned the song and then right before we recorded it, I told Kurt [about the dedication]. I watched him process this for a few minutes, he closed his eyes and sat with it. He didn’t even know the people involved, but he internalized the purpose and urgency. It’s hard to channel your emotions to that degree of depth in the studio, and Kurt was magnificent.”
Jazz has a way of summoning that kind of spirit from musicians, and Goldberg knows exactly how to capture it, surrounding himself with kindred spirits in pursuit of the highest expression. He and the trio embody the best of what jazz can be today: the ability to speak from deep within the tradition while putting their own collaborative imprint upon it. Combined with his personal take on jazz’s intangible and viscerally uplifting heritage, this makes Goldberg just the player to share all he knows about The Now.