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Jonathan Finlayson. Photo by Everett McCourt.

Jonathan Finlayson. Photo by Everett McCourt.

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.


Chris Morrissey. Photo by Chris Shervin.

Chris Morrissey. Photo by Chris Shervin.

Bassist Chris Morrissey hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like other Twin City-natives drummer Dave King and saxophonist Mike Lewis, Morrissey wears quite a lot of hats (okay, maybe not these kinds of hats like King). Anyway, you never quite know where Morrissey is going to play on a given night. He could backing up pop singers like Andrew Bird and Sara Bareilles (for whom Morrissey is the music director). He could be holding sway at Rockwood Music Hall for a regular gig with guitar hero Jim Capilongo, or as a part of drummer Mark Guiliana’s jazz band. Or he could be leading his own groups, like his quartet with Guiliana, Aaron Parks, and Mike Lewis that released the critically-acclaimed album North Hero (Sunnyside) in 2013.

While it has always been common for jazz musicians to moonlight in pop music (like bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay playing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks), Morrissey doesn’t just see pop music as a day job—the sounds and forms of contemporary music refract their way through Morrissey’s own compositions. While the music on North Hero was instrumental jazz colored with the energy and immediacy of pop, the music for Morrissey’s newest project goes in a different direction. For his new group Standard Candle, Morrissey has written a series of songs for a band of singer-instrumentalists.

Featuring guitarist Gray McMurray, saxophonist Mike Lewis, and drummer Josh Dion (who will all sing as well), Standard Candle is the result of a Jazz Gallery 2014-2015 Residency Commission, a program that helps support new work in the New York jazz community. We sat down with Morrissey this week to talk about his new, exciting project and his evolution as songwriter.

The Jazz Gallery: First, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you came together with The Jazz Gallery as the first commissioned composer in this Residency Series.

Chris Morrissey: The first part of that question predates the residency and the commission. I always heard that The Jazz Gallery was a place where a connection had to be made, if you wanted to participate in the jazz scene in New York City. Through Sunnyside, which is the record label that puts my music out, I got connected with musicians who were frequenters of The Jazz Gallery—Nir Felder, Aaron Parks, Ben Wendel, Mark Guiliana. I played there as a leader a couple of times, as a sideman a couple times, then got to know Rio [Sakairi, Artistic Director of The Jazz Gallery]. The Gallery was incredibly supportive throughout that time, and the commission is an extension of that. I was very moved, and here we are today, a few days away from performing this new music.

TJG: So what has this position as a recipient of the commission allowed you to do musically, in terms of the project’s scope?

CM: You know, the main thing was that it instilled a confidence and sense of job surrounding the creative process. Simply the gesture, the vote of confidence in me, made me realize that if other people in my community are interested in what I can come up with, I’d better give that the respect of showing up to the craft every day. So for the last year or so, knowing that I had this sort of end goal, this thing that was expected of me, I could approach it like a job in a way that I’d always sort of romanticized.

TJG: To get into the specifics of the projects a little bit: You’ve been called a musician who wears many hats, from rocker to quartet leader to composer, arranger and director. How did you choose musicians for this project who would match your versatility?

CM: Well, after I got the call from Rio, these guys were the first thing to appear in my mind. It wasn’t sound, or work, or anything visual. It was these specific guys. Besides just being the musicians in New York who I happen to play with a lot, they’re also the ones who have moved me the most in my quest to Mind my musical team. Of course, that team extends beyond the band that I’m bringing to the Gallery.

Josh Dion and Grey McMurray are two guys that I play a lot of music with. I play in the Jim Campilongo trio with Josh, and my own band and Grey’s band with Grey. To me, they’re an example of a rare thing, something analogous to the way I like to hear music and how I hope my music is heard. Kind of an uncategorizable, un-genre-specific motherfuckery. Josh is like this funk-drumming soul singer, who is also an incredibly musical free player. Grey happens to be holding a guitar but isn’t just a guitarist. And Mike Lewis, who I grew up with, saxophonist who plays on both of my quartet records, is a guy for whom when I’m writing something, it’s his voice that I hear. You’re never getting something you expect from them. They all share a reverence to serving the moment as improvisers, aside from being some of my best friends.

TJG: What are some of the major musical themes that underpin this project?

CM: I’ve written for a rock band that I sing in, I’ve written for quartets, and this represents the combination of those two things. It’s something that could be presented as comfortably at The Bowery Ballroom as at The Jazz Gallery, in that it is very much drawing from my rock influences in terms of instrumentation, but I wrote many of the songs on piano, and the piece has a lot of freedom and improvisation woven into it.

Thematically, there are lyrics in about half the songs, where we’re all singing. I think both musically and lyrically, I’ve spent a lot of the last few years diving into readings on the merger of science and spirituality. I’ve gotten into these from spiritual practices that have come to me through yoga, and from seeing that this is a moment in human history where we’re faced with stark, un-ignorable realities about how close we may be to having seismic global shifts in tragic ways, and how that’s being responded to in humanity, accepting the links and oneness between universe and spirit, between humanity and nature. The Neil deGrasse Tyson show Cosmos really hit me hard, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction really hit me hard. A lot of these things were on my mind as I wrote. I went into some of this science and spirituality stuff at the acceptance gala, and I wanted to impress upon people a promise that the music is more romantic than all that.