Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense – Moment and the Message (2013)

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Very soon, Jonathan Finlayson will lose his distinction as jazz’s best trumpet player on the scene today without a record under his name.

Coming out next week, Moment and the Message is a debut more than twelve years in the making, a destination Finlayson was ultimately going to reach when he joined Steve Coleman’s Five Elements band as a teenager in 2000, a gig in which he is thriving to this day.

It doesn’t stop with Coleman. Whenever there’s a really good jazz album by one of the progressive types on the cutting edge, Finlayson tends to be present on it. Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara, David Virelles and Steve Lehman all made well-received records with Finlayson’s help. Everywhere he’s played, he’s shown an ability to create meaningful shapes with his trumpet and exploit the intervals with effortlessness, no matter how impenetrable the material.

As bandleader, Finlayson distills his influences, leverages what his bandmates bring to the table and projects his own personality into his music. Coleman, unsurprisingly, comprises of a large part of that personality with his usage of angular, driving pulses that get dyed into the harmonics of the songs. He parts ways with his boss when it comes to the melody itself, which is calculating, almost mathematical. That’s by design: he even named his quintet “Sicilian Defense” from the famous chess strategy. Songs run like smooth running machines with dozens of gears, belts and other moving parts, and like any machine with so many moving parts, you’re waiting for it to malfunction. Only, the Sicilian Defense never does.

It’s a strategy announced on “Circus,” a choppy, funky strain that, appropriately, adopts many principles of composition and arrangements heard on Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus (Finlayson has performed with Threadgill, too). “Circus” brings the concept of being contrapuntal to the extreme: the leader, Virelles, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Keith Witty and drummer Damion Reid are all following different paths, but collectively, it makes a coherent whole. It’s a strategy that shows up again on “Carthage” and “Scaean Gates,” with elements of it popping up on other songs as well. Incidentally, “Circus” isn’t like that all the way through because right in the middle of it, the song stops and restarts as a dirge. It’s a revelation in how Finlayson’s clear but fragile tone is perfectly effective for both attitudes.

“Lo Haze” operates under three streams, one from Virelles, one from Okazaki and one from Finlayson. Like “Circus,” the song also switches gears in the middle, this time from slow to a fast, dynamic ostinato, forcefully propelled by Reid. “Ruy Lopez,” with its moderate Spanish flavor, contains a wonderful little exchange between Okazaki and Finlayson, followed by Virelles and Witty, and uniquely engaging brushwork by Reid. The Latin flavorings continue with “Tensegrity,” which is essentially a tango, with Okazaki on acoustic guitar. Finlayson trumpet sounds especially pretty and expressive here. “Le Bas-Fonds” is another occasion where knotty rhythms are integrated into the melody but this time, the band members are playing together tightly. Okazaki and Virelles both contribute stellar solos.

“Fives and Pennies,” by far the lengthiest performance, is also the one that is most unique among these nine Finlayson originals: a very long, very diffused intro, a fragile construction built by spare guitar, bass and piano. The song’s pace rises very, very gradually while Finlayson emits some soft shapes from his trumpet. Once the tune reaches a certain pace about seven and a half minutes in, a syncopated rhythm is established and a real harmonic figure is formed and cycled through. The performance shows that Finlayson is just as adept at creating loosely defined sonic terrain as he is with authoring the sharp corners found in most of the other tunes.

By hanging out with so much greatness for so long, Jonathan Finlayson has become pretty darn great himself. But perhaps the most important guidance he obviously gained from these mentors and peers is the importance of finding his own voice if he is to make his mark in jazz. He’s got that down already for his well-contemplated introduction as a leader. Moment and the Message is the debut album to beat in jazz this year.

Moment and the Message will be released May 28, by PI Recordings.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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