SECOND ACT / GOODMAN: Questions. The First Break. Departure. Losing Cool Introduction. Losing Cool.* Empty.* Heightened.* Sharon. Welcome to New York. Apprehension.* Acrobat* / Alex Goodman, gtr; Matt Marantz, t-sax; Eden Ladin, pno/el-Rhodes; Rick Rosato, bs; Jimmy McBride, dm; *Felicity Williams, Alex Samaras, voc / Lyte Records LR040
My sources who send me jazz CDs to review know that I generally stay clear of jazz guitarists. It’s that that I find their playing musically uninteresting, but that I normally find them emotionally uninteresting. Ever since Charlie Byrd hung up his instrument, we’ve been inundated with jazz guitarists who have no heart and no soul in their playing. Everything is low-key and soft to the point of being innocuous. Where are our modern-day Frank Vignolas? And why is Vignola the lone wolf in a sea of boring jazz guitarists?
No one could ever call Alex Goodman boring. He plays with a rhythmic lift and shifting dynamics that make one sit up and take notice. And his band plays the same way. This album, due out June 23, is straightahead jazz but very fine jazz nonetheless. His compositions have an interesting form and structure, they are attractive, and his extremely talented band plays them with GUTS. So too does Goodman, and he achieves this without resorting to the lamest of fallbacks, a rock beat. He’s a jazz cat, and a good one.
Just listen to the way the band tears into the opening number here, Questions, and particularly how Goodman comes charging in for his solo. This is no musical wimp! He knows what he wants to say, and says it without compromise or effete playing. The First Break has a quirky, asymmetrical tempo, led by a charging Jimmy McBride on drums, with Goodman and Marantz playing the opening theme in unison. I noticed while listening that Goodman’s guitar seems to have been recorded in a discrete space from the rest of the band, with a bit more reverb around his instrument. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, but by and large it wasn’t terribly annoying either. His second chorus skips around the music with a deftness and drive I haven’t heard since Charlie Byrd. Departure is a real hard-rhythmed piece, starting out almost like something by Lennie Tristano, in which the full band contributes mightily; and even in the relatively low-key Losing Cool Introduction, played solo by Goodman, the guitarist maintains a strong musical profile, sounding quite a bit like the legendary Django Reinhardt in his use of hard downstrokes of the pick. When the tune proper arrives, the band plays a repeated riff by was of introduction, giving way to an excellent solo by Ladin. The band really enjoys this one!
I was less happy with Empty, however, because of its strong rock beat. I don’t like rock or fusion, although this was one of a handful of tracks on the album using the wordless vocals of Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras as color in the band. Halfway through, I just couldn’t take any more of it so I skipped ahead to Heightened. This, by contrast, was a wonderful piece, atmospheric and moody, and Goodman deftly weaves the voices of Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras into the texture. This almost had a “Twilight Zone”-type feel to it, particularly in the beginning, before breaking out into a joyously swinging piece. At 3:20, we get a wonderful break played by Marantz and Goodman with Williams’ voice swinging in the background. Goodman really flies on this one!
Sharon begins as a ballad but quickly moves into a quasi-rock beat, not as aggressively as Empty but, still, rock. This is one of the tunes on which Ladin plays an electronic Rhodes clavichord, to good effect, and Marantz really swings hard on this one. When Goodman enters, the tempo halves and he plays a remarkably soulful solo, imaginative and tasteful.
Welcome to New York is a really odd piece, with a multi-tonal melodic line that’s all over the place in its first eight bars—if you can properly call it a melody. It’s more a sequence of notes that happen to follow each other in a prescribed rhythm. When Goodman finally enters, it settles down in C, yet allows the guitarist to play around the tonality in an intriguing way, as does Ladin on the Rhodes. The rhythm, too, is loose and ambiguous, albeit inflected with a quasi-Latin-rock beat. I found it amusing that, after so much harmonic dalliance, the piece ended with a very definite C chord played by the whole band!
Apprehension follows, another amorphous melody though not quite as strange as the previous piece. The vocalists are fairly clear singing the opening line behind the instruments, and Marantz takes one of his most relaxed and creative solos on this one, eventually using double-time licks in a particularly interesting manner. Goodman, by contrast, plays more with the rhythm than the harmony in his solo, finding strange interstices in which to play some very creative lines while the singers wail in the background. This one ends on an unresolved chord.
The set closes with Acrobat, a ballad that begins in a free tempo with cymbal washes and piano arpeggios backing Goodman’s lovely guitar playing. We then move into 3 for Marantz’ solo with the vocalists behind him, later shifting to a more asymmetric beat before Ladin enters on electronic keyboard. The rhythm changes once more (possibly the reason for the piece’s title!) to a more conventional slow 4 as Goodman plays a plaintive solo.
Second Act is overall a splendid recording and a fine example of a modern band and guitarist who aren’t afraid to let go emotionally. I look forward to Goodman’s future work.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley