Consciously or not, Ben Goldberg's Orphic Machine is the realization of a project he's been working on for years. It was inspired by the late poet, professor, and MacArthur Fellow Allen Grossman's Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetry. Aphorisms were carefully chosen by the composer for their ability to turn meaning inside out metalinguistically -- these are poems about poems that transcend the form's margins to embrace questions about the nature of consciousness and being. He wrote an astonishing range of musical settings for them, played by a nonet comprising players he's long been associated with: violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, bassist Greg Cohen, guitarist Nels Cline, pianist Myra Melford, trumpeter Ron Miles, drummer Ches Smith, and saxophonist Rob Sudduth. Over ten songs ranging from under two minutes to over 13, Goldberg recombinantly presents jazz, klezmer, blues, tango, cabaret, modern classical music, boleros, and vanguard pop ambitiously yet with requisite taste. If there is an anchor here, it's Kihlstedt. Her relaxed yet breathy voice focuses each verse even as meanings shift and turn for the listener. She prefaces or intersperses them between instrumental interludes. On "Line of Less Than Ten" she hovers just above nocturnal, gauzy vibes, guitar, piano, and drums: "in the line less than ten syllables transformations occur...," stopping as Miles enters with a bluesy, lyrical solo, then begins again as the entire band comes together alongside her and does just that. On "Immortality," she reedily sings: "the function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success...." After the verse, Miles' muted horn minimally alters the lilting, languid melody. Melford shimmers in with lithe chords, fills, and a brief solo, and after the third verse, tango and klezmer take center stage. Goldberg lays out a killer solo, and the words turn back on themselves almost ecstatically: "the limits of autonomy of will discovered in poetry are death death death...." The band reacts with a celebratory, jazzy R&B groove with wonderful interaction from Cline and Sudduth. Among the three instrumentals in this set is the knotty blues of "Bongoloid Lens," with Cline, Goldberg, Miles, and Sudduth all dialoguing above the rhythm section. Goldberg, Melford, and Miles interweave on the parlor song "How to Do Things with Tears." "Care" offers a tender pop melody, textured by Wollesen's resonant vibes. Staggered melody lines from Miles, Sudduth, Goldberg, and Kihlstedt's violin add emotional depth: "i acknowledge all the nonsense of which i seem to be the sense...." Seamless movement between post-bop, modal jazz, Latin grooves, and blues assert themselves before Cline takes an angular blues solo. This may be a jazz record, but its appeal is not limited by genre. Fans of Joanna Newsom, Van Dyke Parks, Charles Mingus, and John Zorn will all find much to enjoy. Orphic Machine is wildly ambitious and sophisticated, but is also graceful, emotionally honest, and accessible. It makes the profound embraceable and, as a result, is a masterpiece.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek