By Emily J. Weitz
Morris Goldberg has brought his soulful saxophone to the jam session at Bay Burger pretty regularly since he first stumbled into the joint about seven years back. The usual suspects will be there, keeping a tight rhythm and steady bass line, and then Morris strolls up to the mic. As soon as his lips touch the brass, a sound emerges that seems to come from deep inside, and somehow, it reaches in and touches something deep inside the audience.
As the first in a series called Improvisational Conversations, which I’m conducting in conjunction with WPPB 88.3FM and The Sag Harbor Express, I caught up with Mr. Goldberg about his inspirations and background, so we might know a little better how he does what he does.
Mr. Goldberg was born in South Africa, and grew up during Apartheid. His memories of segregation loom large in his consciousness – playing in an integrated band, he often had to play obscured by a screen and he had run-ins with police. But his love of South Africa is strong.
“I grew in Cape Town,” he recalled, “and my ears were open to the music. There were vocal groups on the corner, or three kids playing penny whistle with a guitar.”
The penny whistle is an instrument unique to South Africa and Ireland, and it became a claim to fame for Mr. Goldberg. Many years later, after he had lived and thrived as a musician in New York, he got a phone call from Paul Simon, which resulted in his timeless solo on the Graceland album.
“Everything about that day was improvised,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Talk about improvisational conversations. I was playing tennis that day, and I got a message that I had to call Paul Simon. He said he was looking for a South African penny whistle player, and I said, ‘Okay, that’s me.’”
The rest is history. Mr. Goldberg went in to the city (without even taking a shower) and recorded “You Can Call Me Al” with Simon. The album became one of the most well-known in rock and roll, and Mr. Goldberg’s solo, which emerged off the top of his head, has become an enduring piece of music for generations.
But that’s skipping ahead. Even though Mr. Goldberg had heard the penny whistle growing up in South Africa, it was not his first or his greatest musical love. His first performance: a harmonica rendition of Buttons and Bows at the age of eight. First instrument he mastered: the clarinet, which he studied in Cape Town. But the instrument he really came home to: that was the alto sax.
“When I found the alto sax,” he said, “I felt like I had found my left arm.”
He started listening to Paul Desmond, and then got turned on to Charlie Parker.
“When I left home for New York,” he said, “I had ten Charlie Parker albums in a suitcase. Now of course, you’d just carry an iPod.”
But Mr. Goldberg still values the importance of records. He has a turntable in his house, and loves to sit down with an album to listen.
“There’s nothing like a record,” he said. “It gives that live sound. There’s a texture to it.”
When Mr. Goldberg played at Bay Burger a few weeks back, the featured guest musician was Yacouba Sissoko, a Cora player from Mali. Mr. Sissoko explained before his performance that the Cora, which he had made by hand from a hollowed-out gourd and 21 strands of fishing line, was a spiritual instrument. After he played to a captivated audience, I wondered how anyone could follow up. But then Mr. Goldberg stepped to the mic, and his saxophone carried on seamlessly.
“It’s the African kinship,” Mr. Goldberg said of playing with Mr. Sissoko. “The music that comes from Africa has this open space. It’s never cluttered.”
To create a sense of space in Bay Burger takes skill, with the clamor of the kitchen a constant in the background. But Mr. Goldberg thinks that, even though the jam has tried other venues like upscale restaurants and vineyards, this burger joint is just perfect.
“I always looks forward to playing at Bay Burger,” he said, “because there’s a real dedicated audience. They come to listen to the music. It’s like they hang on every note. I would say I’ve played at almost every major jazz club throughout the country, and this is unique. This is so intimate.”
To listen to the full interview with Morris Goldberg, go to the Peconic Public Broadcasting WBBP 88.3 website at peconicpublicbroadcasting.org. Each month, WPPB 88.3 and The Sag Harbor Express will feature a special guest musician scheduled to play at Bay Burger’s Jazz Jam.