Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Jonathan Finlayson’s Jazz Is Cerebral and Strutting on ‘3 Times Round’

Trumpeter and composer Jonathan Finlayson's third recording continues his streak of crackling, urgent music, this time matching his horn with two saxophones in a set of swirling new jazz.

3 Times Round
Jonathan Finlayson
5 October 2018

The fountain of musicians who have come out of Steve Coleman’s M-Base approach is impressive, a group that has had their own profound impact on the new jazz that currently dominates creative improvised music. Jonathan Finlayson still plays regularly with Coleman, but his three recordings as a leader manage to take Coleman’s ideas and transform them brilliantly. The first two sets featured Finlayson’s trumpet paired with the guitar of Miles Okazaki, plus a piano-bass-drums rhythm section. The music was fiery and swirling, funky and swinging, great.

3 Times Round keeps the rhythm section intact from Finlayson’s Moving Still from 2016 (Matt Mitchell on piano, John Hebert on acoustic bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums) but replaces the guitar with two reed players. The result is a sextet that replicates the instrumentation of many of the great hard bop bands of the ’50s and ’60s—trumpet plus tenor saxophone and alto saxophone (think of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers or the Cannonball Adderley bands)—but uses that punching sonority in the service of tunes of rhythmic complexity and multi-layered melodies.

The opening track, “Feints”, is a perfect example, a thesis statement if you will. The basic pulse and one slip of the circular melody is set out by the piano trio, after which the three horns jump in with dash and daring and in every combination: tenor sax (Brian Settles, a talent deserving wider recognition from the DC scene) alone, trumpet and alto sax (Steve Lehman) twinned together, or trumpet and tenor for a deeper sound, or all three in bracing harmony. Short, spinning phrases are traded back and forth between these combinations, as the rhythm section rattles and scrabbles at the odd-meter pulse—everything sounding utterly urgent and sharp as if a Jazz Messengers track had been chopped up into small pieces and then taped back together into a ripping new permutation. It is the Naked Lunch of head arrangements. Mitchell takes a thorny, roiling solo, his two hands in constant, rushing dialogue, giving way to the main event, again reminiscent of band like the Messengers: the three horns “trade fours” for an extended period, a short statement from Settles followed by Finlayson’s reply, followed by Lehman and then back around again in a cycle. This kind of musical sparring is a thrill, each musician daring to one-up the other, but it is also an act of empathetic communication, with each soloist continuing or complementing the idea of his predecessor. When the written arrangement returns, it is sudden and quick, the tune cutting off suddenly so that we feel you have to suck in a quick breath at the end: yes, we made it!

This kind of rotating structure is common to several tunes, but Finlayson’s arrangements also take advantage of the fulsome sound of the three horns playing together. “Grass” features another tumbling groove from the rhythm section, but the horn ensemble is both a rondo of voices and a wedge of unison sound that moves as one. Lehman and Settles play a counterpunching duet that develops friction, and then Finlayson and Mitchell each get to stretch out. The leader plays delicately on this one, placing each short phrase in careful sequence. The pianist manages to develop both right and left-hand improvisations at once, allowing each line to stutter and strut.

Not all the compositions here are as knotty as these two, however. “Rope From the Sky” uses a slow polyrhythm from Mitchell’s piano and then layers on top a melody for muted trumpet, flute, and saxophone. “A Stone, A Pond, A Thought” creates a rumbling bed of toms and piano, over which the horns develop of a brooding, minor theme, followed by a mysterious Hebert solo accompanied by Mitchell’s impressionistic tinkering. “Refined Strut” is a funky piece with a delicate heart. Weinrib and Hebert manage to create a pocket despite the odd time signature, each moving the groove with a hip-swaying, natural attack. Above that, Finlayson has written a sensual theme, a melodic seduction. The new jazz doesn’t often sound like programmatic music, but from its title to its sound, this tune and the improvisations that define it are a slow walk on a night sidewalk, right into your sense of need.

The longest track here, “The Moon Is New”, is the most cinematic and symphonic, moving across several movements or landscapes. The opening is a small piece for the trio, with Mitchell stating a mechanically rotating theme that eventually evens out into a feature for Hebert’s bowed bass. The horns enter with a theme that is faster and more involved, locking into a start-stop-start pattern by the piano trio that eventually returns to the opening section as Finlayson improvises. Lehman’s solo follows the same pattern, but he comes at it very differently, with an acidic tone that carves melody more aggressively and then settles into multiphonic beauty in the ballad section. Settles gets a say and then Mitchell, whose presence on so many of the critical recordings of the last ten years is now impossible not to remark on, shines. Mitchell is special—and he shows it on his solo here—because he weaves together understanding of perhaps four distinct and critical jazz piano traditions, pulling in impressionistic texture from Bill Evans/Hancock, ravenous but dynamic attack from Cecil Taylor/Don Pullen, the rhythmic rush of Bud Powell, and the comfort with abstract melodic logic of Paul Bley. Does Mitchell, therefore, sound schizophrenic or derivative? No—over and over he sounds like himself: the most complete and well-integrated improvising pianist of the last 15 years. He and Hebert finish “The Moon Is New” with a sumptuous return to the theme, fizzling it into the mist.

Perhaps because he shares the front line with two other capable wind players, Finlayson’s playing seems less prominent on 3 Times Round than on his last two releases. The melding of the horns as a unit is so attractive that it might also distract from noticing the leader’s liquid tone. On “Tap-Tap” the horns bite as beautifully as any hard bop unit, but then Finlayson’s solo ends up being the stand-out. First, he comes in on top of Mitchell’s improvising, blending in with subtlety, then he develops his own story before being challenged by Lehman’s more aggressive sound, which Finlayson, in turn, matches with a sharper attack. Rather than using the trumpet’s natural swagger, Finlayson mines it for its colors, its pastels, its shadows, and then can let it rip—though cleanly—as necessary.

3 Times Round continues the superb writing and development of Jonathan Finlayson, placing his work both in league with and slightly apart from the music of his mentors and his peers. Finlayson embraces the systems and complexities of post-Steve Coleman new jazz, whirling his tunes in a dizzy rhythmic funk and melodic consonance, but he also embraces some of the linear traditions of 50 years ago: sequences of solos by great players and heads that are capable of shouting with some blues clarity.

It’s a cool combination because the accusation that sometimes stands against the new jazz is that it can be cold and cerebral, without the joys of the blues, the fun of just hearing great players wail. Once again, Finlayson is smart and complex but also lets the players play and generate heat. He’s building a career that speaks well of the music’s potential to be cerebral and strutting at once.

RATING 8 / 10