Joel Forrester’s Second nature: Down the Road

Quirky-brilliant pianist-composer Joel Forrester has gained a rabid cult following for his wondrous Monkish ditties penned on behalf of the Microscopic Septet and the offbeat, thoroughly engaging People Like Us quartet. His strong individualist streak is in full effect on his latest outing, but the composer is courting a decidedly different muse here-a touch of Starless and Bible Black-era King Crimson on “Second Nature” and “Vortex.” Clearly a detour for the prolific Forrester, who penned the catchy theme song for NPR’s Fresh Air radio show, Down the Road was recorded in Paris with a new group of musicians, including the great French guitarist Manu Codjia.

The slamming “Rockabye” and the avant garde-ish “Vortex” must certainly be the loudest tunes Forrester’s ever played on, perhaps a nod to the Bad Plus. “Skirmish” carries the same quaint quirkiness we associate with Forrester, but then Codjia comes in with distortion-laced fusillades to suddenly pull the whole thing into Allan Holdsworth land. “Spring Ahead” is another one of those dainty, engaging melodies that Forrester seems to be able to toss off in his sleep. But at the 1:30 mark, he gives it up to an unaccompanied four-minute drum solo by Frenchman Richard Portier. It’s as if he’s purposely avoiding all his usual comfort zones on this project, pushing himself in different directions.

The title track is the one tune that sounds like it could’ve been on a People Like Us album. But the conversational free-jazz exchanges between guitarist Codjia and drummer Portier at the opening to “Who Ever Knew” is a new color in his composer’s palette, and it includes some killer baritone sax work from Brooklyn-based Alex Hamlin. The charming closer, “Underwater,” reveals some heartland elements (think Frisell, Metheny) before heading into a lightly swinging mode reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi. In short, this is a rewarding new venture from an enigmatic player and composer.