After earning his undergrad degree from UC Berkeley in 1991, Bay Area native Matthew Goodheart wasted no time fooling around. Serious about exploring improvisational music, the young pianist sought out the elders of the scene to deepen his ongoing education. He hooked up with veteran drummer Donald Robinson, bassist Lisle Ellis, and the late saxophone colossus Glenn Spearman, all of whom appear on Sonoluminescence, Goodheart's supremely focused 1996 debut.
The pianist's recently issued follow-up, Interludes of Breath and Substance, pairs him with another seasoned improviser — incomparable trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Titles of pieces like “Conference,” “Suite of Talking Music,” and “Utterance I & II” illustrate the conversational tone of this largely improvised set, which often pits the trumpeter's lyrical brilliance against the pianist's dark, solemn percussiveness. In a masterful execution of minimalism, each instrumentalist defers to the silence, or breath, between the notes as an essential buffer that both propels and absorbs the sounds.
On First and Last, the just-released recording of Glenn Spearman's final live performance — with Goodheart and drummer Rashid Bakr — the pianist roars. Going head to head with Spearman's brawny tenor squall, Goodheart at once supports and drives the saxophonist's eruptions with his irrepressibly percussive approach. His clean rhythmic punch swings from rolling barrelhouse melody to mighty keyboard crashes to a classically minded high drama perfectly suited to the moment-to-moment shape-shifting of the music. It's clear from these exceptional new albums that Matthew Goodheart's studies have indeed served him well.
Matthew Goodheart performs with Garth Powell and Tara Flandreau on Friday, Sept. 24, at 10:30 p.m. at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), S.F. Tickets are $6-10 sliding scale; call 289-2000.