The instruments on stage at Johnny Brenda's on Sunday night suggested jazz, but the music coaxed from two tenor saxophones, a guitar, drums, and a rarity called the contra alto clarinet straddled the lines between traditional and avant garde, among rock, jazz, and blues.
The performers for this one-act, weekend-ending bill were Unfold Ordinary Mind, a five-member dream team led by composer and clarinetist Ben Goldberg and featuring guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco), percussionist Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu), and tenor saxophonists Ellery Eskelin (bandleader) and Rob Sudduth (Norah Jones). The band's name proved apt; over an hour and a half, the quintet, making just its third live performance, deconstructed familiar genres and reassembled them using alien schematics.
With the low tones of Goldberg's contra alto clarinet providing the bass, and Eskelin and Sudduth's tenors splitting time between rhythm and melody, Cline and Smith were free to wreak havoc on numbers like the shredding, multi-movement "Parallelogram" or "I Miss the SLA," both from an eponymous due-in-February album.
Using an array of effects pedals perched atop a stack of milk crates, Cline's sound manipulation added explosiveness to the kinetic compositions. Smith's animated drumming, which he highlighted by placing his sneakered foot atop the snare drum as he played, brought quirk. And Goldberg's soulful grooving on his odd instrument was enhanced by his inventiveness: Taking a pause from blowing during a solo on "xcpf," he continued pressing the keys for percussive effect.
All night, the band transitioned deftly between moods. Notably, the mesmerizing "Stemwinder" began with a slow, romantic tenor melody, segued into an extended Santana-esque guitar jam from Cline, and culminated with the band riffing in a manner reminiscent of the closing bars of the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."
The evening was book ended by songs in tribute to Elliott Smith, the set-opening "Introduction," and the encore, "Second Interlude in G" from Goldberg's suite Come Back Elliott Smith, a touching elegy which paid, said Goldberg, "a visit to country blues." It was the crowning moment in an evening that constantly challenged paradigms, unfolding minds in the process.