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By Jonathan Widran
Sofia Goodman finds a depth of expression in her musical explorations of sea and shore.
If not for the fire that destroyed her Boston flat, the most impactful moment in Sofia Goodman’s development as a versatile, risk-taking progressive jazz drummer would be having her mind blown by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at 17. Throwing off the rebellious sensibilities she cultivated in middle school, Goodman set her sights beyond punk-rock gigs and onto successfully pursuing rock, blues and jazz opportunities. This dovetailed perfectly with her high school music teacher helping her get into a summer workshop at Berklee College of Music, where her instructor was future Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding.
Obsessed with nonstop practicing and developing her jazz chops after a time of self-doubt and soul-searching, Goodman graduated from Berklee in 2011 with a degree in Drum Set Performance and soon became a regular performer at Wally’s Café Jazz Club. Then came the fire, and a powerful moment of reckoning. Escaping with only her cymbal bag, snare drum and computer, she asked herself, “If I don’t die here, what are the things I want to do?” Yet the obvious answer — playing music — manifested in unanticipated ways.
Goodman regrouped while living with her parents and contemplated staying in Boston or maybe trying her luck in New York City. When friends in Nashville invited her to move there for a ridiculously low rent and the opportunity to use their home studio, she hightailed it to Music City. The first jazz gigs she checked out were shows by the Wooten Brothers featuring bassist Victor Wooten, who frequently lectured and played at Berklee. To her surprise, after cutting her teeth at a series of blues jams and playing some requisite country gigs, she began playing standards at restaurants with students and grads from Belmont University, where she later earned a master’s degree.
Eventually, Goodman tired of the freelance gig-to-gig lifestyle. In 2016, she developed a repertoire of original material and put together The Sofia Goodman Group, which soon transcended local hero status and became a popular draw at regional jazz festivals in the South. Though the band’s debut release, Myriad of Flowers, was nominated for Best Jazz Album at the Nashville Music Industry Awards, the drummer says she now sees it mostly as a “great learning experience to help me know what I want and don’t want, an awareness of how to create what feels good.”
Goodman, 35, feels that her pieces on the group’s recent follow-up, Secrets From the Shore (Joyous), showcases her growth as a composer. Conceived of as a thought-provoking meditation on the mysteries of the sea, the album explores deeper melodic and improvisational territory and features more advanced, piano-generated harmonic voicings that were later recorded by keyboardist Alex Murphy. Though she admits it’s traditionally difficult to keep an ensemble together because of outside musical and personal commitments, she’s excited by the chemistry she creates on these sessions with Murphy, saxophonists Joel Frahm and Dan Hitchcock, trumpeter Matt White, trombonist Roy Agee, clarinetist Max Dvorin, bassist Leland Nelson and percussionist Carlos Duran.
Press materials suggest that Goodman’s escape from the fire may have fueled her interest in water. But Secrets From the Shore, recorded in Nashville and financed by a grant from Pathways to Jazz, emerges from the sweet sense of nostalgia the Ann Arbor, Michigan-born artist feels for North Reading, Massachusetts, where she grew up with her adoptive family. While she enjoys the creative opportunities of her jazz life in landlocked Nashville, she has fond memories of driving with friends to Rockport and Gloucester and spending time in their harbors and by the Atlantic Ocean.
Starting with the mysterious, hypnotic free improv prelude “Siren Song” (inspired by the mythological sirens that called sailors to their deaths), track titles find Goodman and company taking listeners on a unique seafaring exploration. The music mirrors the emotional waves — boisterous and thunderous, curiously hopeful, seductively tranquil — of meaningful inner journeys. “Skipping Stones,” “In Barbara’s Mist,” “Buried Treasures,” “Shadows in the Sand,” “Coast to Coast,” “Sea Legs” and “Stowaways” — the group presents these pieces as elements of an ongoing impressionistic flow, connecting seamlessly without hard pauses from track to track.
“From my childhood on, the ocean has always been my place of solitude and healing,” Goodman says by phone while visiting family in Rockport. “I’ve always felt that the best music is inspired by nature, and being away from home for so many years inspired a longing to connect with the water via my music. I was also inspired by The Odyssey in wanting to tell a story best experienced by listening straight through rather than broken up by specific chapter narratives. Being inside during the pandemic gave all of us time to think, write and self-reflect. Some of the songs on the new project — which took shape at the height of lockdown — are like buried treasures with foreboding textures and harmonies that capture my striving for peace and resolution of deeper emotions.
“Beyond the water imagery, the theme behind the project is self-exploration and healing,” she adds. “When we start to work on ourselves, we discover things in our subconscious we didn’t know were holding us back. The music is a means of going inside, discovering and unpacking all that. I’ve always associated the ebb and flow of water with the tides of our emotions. The album title reflects how personal the uncovering of these emotions and the lessons we learn are to us. Each song expresses an aspect of this mystery. Just as we can explore previously undiscovered creatures in the ocean, we are always uncovering secret treasures within ourselves. It’s the same feeling I get as a mentor to a 20-year-old female drummer I’m working with. I see a lot of myself in her. In a cosmic way, I feel that by helping her, I’m helping my younger self and understanding me better.”
One of the tracks that taps into emotions outside Goodman’s own psyche is “Alberto’s Dreamland,” a low-key, breezy and soulful tune marked by the soul-jazz shimmer of Murphy’s electric piano and a recitation in Spanish by a half-brother she never knew while growing up. The drummer was born to parents who had met in college, a-first generation Puerto Rican American mother and a Nicaraguan father of Lebanese descent. An Irish couple later adopted her. She recently began to learn more about her biological family and the many blood siblings she had, which both directly and indirectly sparked her passion for self-discovery through music.
“In Spanish, Alberto is saying how calming the oceans are to him, so that’s a powerful point of connection,” Goodman says. “When he looks out into their infinity, it reminds him how fragile he is while at the same time he feels comforted. When I asked him to talk about what the ocean meant to him, those words just came out. With its burst of horns and cool samba vibe, the following track, ‘Coast to Coast’ covers that theme to a certain extent, as well. To me, the samba is a celebratory style, but the song has a lot of twists and turns to express the strange feelings inherent in meeting your brothers for the first time as an adult.”
Featured photo by Nathan West.