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Jonathan Finlayson and Sicilian Defense

Moment & the Message

(Pi; US: 28 May 2013; UK: 28 May 2013)

If you’re a fan of precise, complex modern jazz—the kind of daring and often thrilling stuff that Steve Lehman, Henry Threadgill, and Mary Halvorson have been making in the last decade—then you’ve been wondering when trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson would make his debut as a leader. He has been gracing cutting edge recordings with his precise and pungent sound for a good while now, always seeming to be telepathically connected to the other players, no matter how tricky the compositions or concept.


In short, the cat is incredible. So what’s he got to say?


Moment & the Message is his first foray as a leader, and it fulfills every promise. It is intricate and alluring, melodic but daring, riveting and rare: a mature disc that threads together modern jazz styles without seeming like a jumble.


Finlayson is in his early thirties, from Oakland, CA, and someone schooled by the composer Steve Coleman. He has played in Coleman’s Five Elements band since 2000, and he is dazzling on Coleman’s latest release, Functional Arrhythmias. He was also a highlight on the two releases (so far) by guitarist Mary Halvorson’s quintet. He always plays with the facility and technical accuracy of a bebop player, but he is a fully modern, multi-dimensional player who couldn’t get caught in a jazz cliché any more than Wynton Marsalis would be caught in a 1970s loft playing energy music.


Much of what’s great here is in the make-up of this amazing band. Damion Reid, who has been playing with a baffling combination of power, lightness and hip-hop influence in other bands, is on drums. Miles Okazaki, recently with Steve Coleman, plays guitar. The pianist is the young Cuban phenom David Virelles—who has never sounded better. Keith Witty is strong on bass. Finlayson doesn’t share the front line with another horn, so his tone gets a full showing, and the rhythm section can busy itself with all manner of complex and clever arrangements.


All the tunes are by Finlayson, and he proves to be an exceedingly wide-ranging and catholic thinker about music. Though Finlayson is mainly identified with Steve Coleman and his scene, the music here does not sound overly influenced by Coleman’s aesthetic. Instead, this music manages a collision of complexity and almost pop-like pleasure—a bag that finds the compositions often jumping from one attractive theme to another.


“Lo Haze” has two distinct parts that meet each other—two tempos, two different feelings, but a marriage by motif nevertheless. The first is a medium tempo groove that uses syncopated two-note toggles in bass and piano, trumpet whole notes set atop, a running blues line on guitar, and a stuttering commentary from Reid, all of which shifts and transmutes into improvisation. At the three minute mark, however, there is a pause and a new rhythmic figure appears at a quickened pace. The second theme is snappy enough that it could be on a “fusion” record or the soundtrack to a chase scene in a film, with a hurtling momentum that sets up a dazzling trumpet solo. Finlayson plays with a mostly clean sound and mostly “inside” harmonic content—he could almost be a Freddie Hubbard acolyte in a different context—but his melodic choices are super-fresh.


The band also plays pretty. “Ruy Lopez” (another chess reference, yes, like the name of the band, “Sicilian Defense”) is an aching theme for block chords and long trumpet tones over brushes, which develops into conversation between Finlayson and Okazaki over a set of irregularly timed but gentle measures.


The “trickiness” of this music is remarkably inviting. Rather than seeming technical or egg-headed, Finlayson’s themes seems natural and flowing, as if the irregular measure counts developed from breathing or walking rather than music school fancy-pantsiness. “Carthage” moves in pretty flows and surges, and “Circus” pulses but also locks together like a puzzle, each written part for piano, guitar, drums, bass, and trumpet feeling as hip and necessary as a part in a Journey song.


And that’s the thing with Moment & the Message, it may well be complex, interwoven modern jazz, but it refuses to alienate its listener. With a tune called “Circus”, things ought to feel high-wire…but fun. And they are. “Tensegrity” starts with a cool, strummed acoustic guitar part, and it develops a roiling momentum that matches a hip Flamenco bluesiness. “Scaean Gates” is built from a funky unison pattern for bass and left-hand piano that is one part “Super Mario Brothers” and another part Kind of Blue. “Five and Pennies” uses a simple idea—a repeated note almost like a clock’s chime—that accelerates in tempo and shifts in texture until you feel like Finlayson’s trumpet solo is on the verge of ecstasy.


While Finlayson takes the lead solo on most tunes, it would be wrong not to single out Virelles’s dramatic voice throughout. He keeps the various moving parts of the ensemble on track, hemming in the proceedings with carefully defined chords but also letting his improvisations fly. He seems perfectly in the center of the current crop of jazz pianists (Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer) in versatility and range while also reminding me of the young Herbie Hancock. He’s doing interesting new things, yes, but he seems connected to an older jazz sensibility as well. Okazaki is similarly working across different styles, constantly making a melodic contribution. And Reid is busiest of the bunch, treating Finlayson’s tunes like they were written for him to dance over and celebrate at every step.


The truth is this: the current jazz scene is filled with extremely accomplished music that fuses intelligence, art, and technique. But Jonathan Finlayson, in Moment & the Message, has created a great modern jazz record that also sounds like joy and feels like a dance. It leaps into your ear even if it is challenging.


That’s a rare enough accomplishment that one hopes Finlayson moves on to become a full-time bandleader. It’s time for more ears to turn his way.

Rating:

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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Jonathan Finlayson and Steve Coleman play a duet version of "Body and Soul"
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