Are we in the midst of a trombone renaissance in creative music? Young and not-so-young voices on the instrument suggest so—with recordings from Ryan Keberle and Joe Fiedler hanging around the top of many lists, certainly mine. Nick Finzer is sliding into that conversation as well.
Wycliffe Gordon and Steve Turre have mentored Finzer, he has studied at Eastman and Julliard, and his lifelong reverence for Duke Ellington tells you something too. He has played with some of the crew recording on Posi-Tone Records, making slick “new mainstream” jazz of a high order, including his own No Arrival from 2018. He also plays with the folks in Postmodern Jukebox, injecting some brass into that YouTube project. But his latest, Cast of Characters, on Outside in Music, can stand on its own.
Finzer has been recording with this band in different forms for a while, and their familiarity and ease comes through with swinging joy on a set of varied Finzer originals. When the rhythm section of Jimmy Macbride (drums) and Dave Baron (bass) takes off, it gallops, with Glenn Zaleski’s piano and Alex Wintz’s guitar as willing collaborators. On a tune like “Evolution of Perspective”, the forward momentum of the group is irresistible, sounding like a contemporary version of the kind of pure cooking that made so many of us jazz fans because we loved those great Blue Note dates of the 1950s and 1960s. Lucas Pino’s tenor saxophone jabs and skitters across the band’s fire, and the leader is every bit as fluid and bopping on his more cumbersome horn. During the ensemble passages, the tenor/bone combination sounds like the early, straight-ahead version of the Jazz Crusaders: modern post-bop with a soul center.
But that element of the recording, as joyful and essential as it is, and as frequently as it graces this recording, is not the core of Cast of Characters.
Rather, Finzer has put together a set of compositions that evoke a wide set of moods, using his sextet to conjure colors across a huge spectrum. With Pino just as fluid and comfortable on bass clarinet as on tenor and with his own array of mutes and tonal shifts, Finzer conducts the band’s sonorities with a masterful touch. For example, “Patience, Patience” begins with Zaleski chiming in his upper register all alone, evoking Bill Evans, before Finzer’s arrangement brings in bass and bass clarinet to play a resigned three-note figure. After a satisfying set of repetitions, muted trombone joins the figure, prefiguring its acquisition of a hip rock groove on brushes from Macbride. A guitar counter-melody provides melancholy interstate’s. Cool, but it’s even cooler when the first—breathtakingly quiet—solo goes to Baron’s songful acoustic bass. The horns improvise collectively in dialogue, with Wintz making it a threesome after a few bars. No one has to try too hard to make it beautiful because the whole conception is so artful.
“Venus” also uses Pino’s bass clarinet orchestrally, casting it as the bass instrument as Finzer plays a melody that could have been written for a great 1940s ballad. Ultimately, the whole band moves into a gently swaying reverie that sets up a lovely piano solo. Even during this section, however, Finzer deploys the horns in playing extremely quiet figures of counterpoint beneath Zaleski’s improvisation, ultimately bringing back the melody as he finishes his statement. “You’ll Never Know the Alternative” is a mid-tempo charmer that blends trombone, electric guitar, and bass clarinet in a unique set of voicings on the theme. “The Guru” also uses the bass clarinet sound as both a subtle color in the ensemble and for a lead solo that takes the performance in the most mysterious possible direction. Zino’s end-of-track bass clarinet solo on “Brutus, the Contemporary” is particularly juicy, highlighting the way this instrument—tied back to its wondrous use by Eric Dolphy in the 1960s—can be throaty and free.
Of course, the conceit of Cast of Characters is that this sextet is not unlike a play, with distinct voices that interact on the musical stage. There is also the implication that Finzer is referring to a cast of influences on him, with one of the six cartoon figures on the cover looking distinctively like Duke Ellington. “A Duke” is reasonably Ellingtonian in its elegant blend of 6/8 time and straight 4/4 swing, the trombone playing a Juan Tizol-esque lead with tenor and guitar in contrary motion, only to have them all surge together on the theme in other spots. This idea of influences is name-checked on Finzer’s closing tune, “We’re More Than the Sum of Our Influences”, a brief track that ends things on a somber note, with a set of cadences around which the band is calmly orchestrated.
The other brief track is, oddly perhaps, one of the best. “(Take the) Fork in the Road” has a very hip, clattering opening from Macbride’s drums with an accompanying guitar lick grounded in an Afro-poppy kind of loop, with the horns fading in slowly from the background and them emerging at full volume in a joyful collective improvisation. This, really, is where the “characters” in this band are at their best: in seamless interplay.
If the characters are the players themselves, then it’s fair to ask how fully they distinguish themselves as improvising soloists. Zalenski’s piano is ornamental and driving, more appealing to these ears on the uptempo material where he isn’t apt to get frilly. Zino is the most likely to take harmonic chances, reaching for notes outside the standard chords and modes, and Wintz’s guitar shines on longer solos where he is given a chance to stretch out and rev up. Finzer is best of all, a player of great imagination within a mainstream style. He surges and toys with rhythm so nicely on “Weatherman”, for example, using the waltz time to create lines that tumble down with true momentum.
The lead character, however, remains Nick Finzer’s tunes, which wear particularly well on repeated listenings, always suggesting another harmonic layer or flashing your ear a counter-melody that wasn’t obvious at first. They are pleasant and consonant in a 1950s-jazz vein but harmonically sly like Wayne Shorter’s material. And those are good bones.
The “new mainstream” that Finzer occupies here and in his sideman work with players such as the other folks on this record as well as with reed player Alexa Tarantino (her Winds of Change) features excellent Finzer playing) is promising but perhaps a curiosity. It builds on a wonderful jazz vocabulary developed more than 50 years ago and well-trod by master musicians who, more and more, are leaving the scene. This music is well-represented by a new generation that not only learned it in school but also is finding ways to use this vocabulary to tell new stories. But the audience for this music is neither that of popular styles nor that of progressive art music. What will distinguish this new mainstream jazz in the end, if it is neither “classic” nor vanguard?
I suspect the answer is less in the playing than in the compositions and how they demonstrate that the mainstream jazz vocabulary still provides fertile ground for moving musical thought. Cast of Characters makes me hope that Nick Finzer, with his skill at orchestration and voicing, gets to work on a more epic production, assembling his influences and ideas into an even more populous stage play. The Nick Finzer Large Band? Food for thought.