Though Goldberg is not flashy, his music works a kind of magic.
Pianist Aaron Goldberg has been part of the New York jazz scene since the early 1990s when he moved from his Boston-area home to attend the New School jazz program. That he spent four years at Harvard getting an undergraduate degree and later got a Master’s in Philosophy from Tufts is part of his story too. Goldberg is that kind of jazz musician—searching and curious but also part of the academy in various ways. His longstanding trio with Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums straddled the progressive and the traditional. He has played with his generation’s most acclaimed musicians such as saxophonist Mark Turner and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel as well as with the essence of the older establishment in jazz: Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
His latest recording, At the Edge of the World, features a new trio, and it also takes in the wide swath of music that Goldberg has spanned over the last 25 years. There are a couple of Brazilian tunes here, reflecting the considerable time he’s spent exploring that culture’s connection to U.S. jazz; there are jazz standards by McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson; and there are original compositions as well. And while a blend of blues, ballads, swing, modal playing and bossa nova is the recipe for a rather traditional jazz date, Goldberg’s latest distinguishes itself through intimacy and a particular surprise.
What makes this recording pop out from others is the presence of drummer/percussionist Leon Parker. Parker was a jazz sensation in the 1990s, playing as a sideman with pianist Jacky Terrasson and saxophonist Joshua Redman, then recording his own acclaimed albums for major labels Columbia and Blue Note through that decade. Parker was an infectious rhythm player who created the deepest grooves but in the lightest manner—most famously by using a stripped-down drum kit. Often, Parker’s whole kit consisted of a bass drum, a snare and one ride cymbal. Just as often, he stuck to hand percussion or body percussion. In 2001, Parker released A Simple Life, on which he reconceived the music (including songs by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk) for just his body percussion in conjunction with other jazz musicians.
And, then, just like that, he moved to France and vanished from the scene. Disillusioned by the music industry (and, for the record, that was perfect timing, as the new century marked the end of selling records for a living in creative music), he became a teacher and a sometime-performer, but not in the United States and not making his own recordings. Indeed, Parker claims that when Goldberg reached out to him for a European gig in 2013, he had not owned a drum kit, by choice, for the prior 15 years. A grant from the French American Cultural Exchange allowed Goldberg and Parker to tour together in 2015 and 2016, and now this recording is here.
As a pure jazz drummer, Parker remains marvelous. “Isn’t This My Sound Around Me,” a tune by vibraphonist Hutcherson, calls for straight-ahead swing, with bassist Matt Penman playing a throbbing pedal tone or a fast walking bass to which Parker attaches his incomparable sense of time. Goldberg is critical too—playing the tune’s engaging melody with a light touch and beautifully timed chord punches, then following Penman’s improvisation with his own—but it is Parker’s gradual crescendo of swing that makes the performance. It is subtle at first, brushes against snare or the lightest possible touch on the ride cymbal, but Goldberg’s solo increases in intensity and asks more of the drummer. Parker—using a kit with toms, not his most minimal one—matches the urgency bit by bit, dancing on the drums with a tapper’s grace and surprise. If you were a Parker fan 20 years ago, it’s like having an old friend over for dinner.
Parker is also very active on Tyner’s “Effendi,” a modal tune in the style of “So What” or “Impressions.” Again, Penman drives the tune from the bottom with four even but rubbery bass notes per measure as Parker sparks his drums all around the improvisations. Behind Penman’s quiet solo, the drums and piano are partners in small gestures, and then Parker trades eights with Goldberg enthusiastically. It’s about as bombastic as you will ever hear the drummer, though at any moment he is likely to pull back to near-silence, understanding the importance of drama to this art. The Brazilian classic “Black Orpheus (Manha de Carnaval)” allows the whole trio to engage in playful polyrhythms, each musician playing across the other in grooves that interlock even as they are different. Goldberg’s solo is the highlight here, with the trio seeming to be at least five or six musicians because of the way the rhythmic conversation grows heightened and complex.
That said, the part of “Black Orpheus” that is most unique is, again, Parker’s feature. After the first statement of the melody, the trio gets very quiet, with Goldberg playing a single percussive hand-dampened note on piano as Penman plays a simple descending pattern. Parker then sings a brief percussion solo on his voice, imitating the sound of a drum vocally. For listeners who remember the vocal play of Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin from a generation ago, that is the sound. The opening track does even more to give us a sense of what Parker was up to during those drumkit-less years in France: on “Poinciana,” Goldberg and Penman play the familiar melody as Parker drums on his own body, slapping with both hands as he creates sibilant sounds with his mouth. It is fun to hear—a kind of approximation of a jazz drum kit but without the kit—and again connects the idea of jazz rhythm back to the simplicity of hand drums and dance. It inspires Goldberg to one of his most attacking solos, tasty and pointed. And then, for Parker’s solo, he not only drums but also sings, this time in full voice and melodically as well as rhythmically. It is a burst of humanness that you’d be churlish not to find delightful.
There are several fine ballads here as well, more conventional in general but played with lovely detail. Goldberg’s “Luaty” develops into a gentle waltz that sways, and “When You Are Near” (also by Hutcherson) is a gorgeous tune that deserves to be played more, with Penman’s opening improvisation as a stand-out. “En La Orilla del Mundo” (the title track: “At the Edge of the World”) is an aching melody played by the leader on his own. The sumptuous harmonies alone are enough to steal the show as they cycle around and keep leading Goldberg back to the tune’s elegant melody.
The thrill of this recording, initially, is in hearing Parker again, matched with great musicians who are so sympathetic to his kind of music. The album could be heard as Parker’s rebirth, I suppose, particularly given that it seems like we first got to know him when he was the sideman for another sensitive pianist (Terrasson). Though Parker is from White Plains, New York, his music always seemed to lean toward a cross-cultural place, away from traditional modern jazz. Why, then, does modern jazz suit him so well?
The other angle on At the Edge of the World is as a strong statement by Goldberg himself. Though he is not flashy, his music works a kind of magic. The arrangement of “Black Orpheus” used here is by pianist/composer Guillermo Klein, with whom Goldberg has collaborated to shimmering effect. That music—like the music here—relies not on speed or volume or fancy footwork but on an understated sense of form and beauty. Goldberg is still decidedly part of the “mainstream” jazz of New York, but on this recording his own aesthetic seems easier to hear, even with the wonderful distraction of having Parker return to his home on the same date.