Alex Goodman: Second Act
Lyte Records

Two slightly different Alex Goodmans appear on his fifth album, Second Act, with on the one hand the NYC-based, Toronto-born guitarist confidently executing the kind of classic jazz one might hear on any given night at Iridium, while on the other tackling jazz-rock fusion of the kind made famous by bands like Return To Forever and The Eleventh House. One perhaps shouldn't make too much of the difference, however: on much of the album, the styles bleed together, much like a Venn diagram whose two circles partially overlap.

As intimated by the title of his previous album, the chamber jazz-styled Border Crossing, Goodman first established himself in Toronto before moving to New York City five years ago. Second Act, a full-on quintet outing high on energy and stellar in musicianship, certainly sounds like he's settled into his adopted home comfortably, given the poise with which he and his bandmates execute its seventy-two minutes. Abetted by the strong playing of saxophonist Matt Marantz, pianist Eden Ladin, bassist Rick Rosato, and drummer Jimmy Macbride, the guitarist works his way through eleven strong compositions distinguished by fluid melodies and bold stylistic change-ups. In a move that enhances the outfit's sound and bolsters the music's breezy quality, Goodman added the wordless vocalizing of Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras to a handful of cuts after the initial studio sessions were completed.

That the straight-up tunes are the more mainstream of the lot doesn't argue against their quality or effectiveness. The five dig into the breezy swing of “Questions,” for instance, with as much conviction as anything of a more experimental nature, and one imagines any number of club listeners won over by the performance. The front-line combination of Goodman and Marantz is strong, and Ladin, Rosato, and Macbride show themselves more than up to the challenge of pushing the music forward, especially when the pianist's block chords add to the tune's rousing feel.

Whereas Goodman's tone on “Questions” and the Latin-tinged “Departure” is, in keeping with jazz tradition, distortion-free, he brings a heavier, rock-tinged attack to the fusion-styled tunes. His biting tone on “Empty” might have you thinking of fellow axe-wielders Al Dimeola and Larry Coryell, even if your attention is drawn as much to the rhythm section's ferocious swing, Ladin's synth and Rhodes playing, and the band's exhilarating performance. Speaking of guitarists, Goodman even threads a Fripp-styled pattern into the spidery latticework of “Heightened,” though it's gradually left behind when the band's bop-styled swing takes charge.

An unusual rhythm design and intricate compositional structure make “The First Break” a far more interesting track. The dark melodic line voiced by Marantz calls to mind the equally foreboding sound Gary Thomas presented on albums like By Any Means Necessary and The Kold Kage, while Ladin's synth solo can't help but reawaken memories of Jan Hammer. Whereas elegant settings such as “Questions” and “Departure” impress as suave classic jazz exercises, every forward-thinking second of “The First Break” mesmerizes. Collapsing the boundaries between the two stylistic realms, “Sharon” alternates between swinging and synth-sweetened passages, with the ever-solid Macbride deftly adjusting his playing to accommodate the tune's many changes in tempo and style.

Ultimately, Second Act offers quality material capable of satisfying both the listener of a more mainstream disposition as well as one looking for something experimental and innovative. As my own taste falls into the latter category, my preference would be for Goodman to henceforth pursue his adventurous side to the fullest degree: an entire album filled with material like “The First Break” and “Empty” would be exciting indeed.

June 2017