This weekend, June 26th and 27th, The Jazz Gallery presents the third of our 2014-2015 Residency Commission projects. While the first two by Chris Morrissey and Becca Stevens featured gorgeous songs that found new musical spaces between jazz and contemporary rock, our next commission by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson goes in more abstract, but no less exciting direction.
Finlayson is an integral member of several of today’s most acclaimed experimental jazz ensembles, from Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, to Steve Lehman’s octet, to Mary Halvorson’s quintet. For his own commission, Finlayson has assembled a sextet of strong leaders in their own rights—saxophonists Brian Settles and Steve Lehman, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Craig Weinrib.
We caught up with Jonathan by phone during his residency earlier this spring for a heady conversation about the compositional process, creating spontaneity on the bandstand, and even the experience of elapsing time.
The Jazz Gallery: How did you get started on this project? Did you have a concept that organized everything, or did things develop more gradually?
Jonathan Finlayson: First, I had to figure out what I was going to write for. I had to line up some people and see who could play. So I decided to go with six people in total—three horns and three rhythm players. I personally really enjoy writing for three voices. In my current group, that means distributing the voices between me, the guitar, and the piano. The nice thing about the piano and guitar is that they’re not monophonic instruments, but the texture of blending the trumpet with them is always pretty particular. I don’t get to write for multiple horn voices that often, so I thought I’d give myself that opportunity this time. This size group—trumpet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—preceded any writing.
TJG: All of the members of your group are bandleaders and composers in their own rights, and they all have very identifiable musical personalities. How has this impacted what you have written?
JF: Yeah—I’ve either seen these guys’ groups perform a lot, or have played in them, in the case of Steve Lehman.
Having played with every one of them before, I have an idea of their individually capable of and what direction they lean in aesthetically. So some of my ideas have been about wanting to create a framework for improvisation for one of them. Like, I can hear this guy right here doing this kind improvisation, or I can hear him play this kind of melody at this section, or maybe he’s doing something rhythmically in this area… I mean everyone is really different, but they’re all great improvisers.
I went to see Mark Helias not too long ago. He played “’Round Midnight” with Uri Caine, but he has this extension on the bass, and so he was able to walk down from B-flat to D-flat to C playing that song. It just had this sound! It reverberated through the club, and I was like oh man! I mean he already has this amazing sound on the bass, and then you don’t hear those low notes too frequently on an acoustic bass—you usually have to take it up to the A string or whatever. So that’s one thing I wanted to do—I wanted to access that range of the acoustic bass.
And then I play with Matt, I play with Brian, I play with Craig, and they’re all really great musicians. I don’t have to worry about putting anything too complicated in front of them, or too simple. They make anything sound hip.
TJG: You mentioned earlier that you like writing for three voices. Do you usually take a linear approach and write the lines first and then see what the harmonic implication is? Or do you like working with a harmonic outline and then thread the lines through that?
JF: I’ll start with a melodic figure most of the time. Generally the harmonic implications come later. But just having two notes already creates a harmonic implication, and I can either stick with that, or change it as I go by changing what lies beneath it. In that sense, I like to start kind of plain and then add the harmonies later. I don’t necessarily like to have a preset notion of how a particular tune is going to develop. And sometimes, some of what I end up doing doesn’t fall into a typical classification, harmonically speaking. I try not to limit myself in that way right out of the box. I like to keep it open and give it a name later.
But I will do both approaches on occasion. Sometimes I will have a progression and work backwards. It can be easier sometimes when you have that progression because the voices have to fall into a certain place. I guess I have some tendencies, but I don’t like to do just one thing.
TJG: It’s as if different musical ideas suggest different means of crafting.
JF: Sure, sure!
TJG: Now that we’ve discussed how you think about writing individual voices, how do you think about writing large-scale structures? How do you set up the improvisational frameworks that you mentioned earlier?
JF: I actually do a lot of that in rehearsal. I might take something in, and then after I hear everyone play it, the idea is live. I might be like, “You what would be great? If we could take these three bars or these six bars and then rework it on the spot.” I can’t always tell between playing on piano or working in Finale what it’s really going to sound like.
But other times, I do feel that there are clear-cut spaces for soloing. Like it might be, “I’m going to play on this, and then someone else will play,” and it’s very simple. Then other times, you discover things in the midst of playing. Those are the moments I usually like the best, because I’m not married to what I put on the page. It’s not as spontaneous as hearing everyone’s contribution and going, “Wow! Those six bars sound amazing,” or, “those two bars over here and these three over here would sound great together.” It’s totally different being there with the band and being involved in the music. For me, it’s better than being at home and making decisions in silence.