A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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.

TJG: So are you interested in bringing together some preconceived elements and some spontaneous elements? Do you use pre-written material to set up and motivate a spontaneously-composed section?

JF: Yeah. I’ll sometimes do something like that to help the narrative of the piece. There are a number of ways to make something interesting, or have a piece tell some sort of a story and have an arc. Having someone solo against some other written part is a tool or device to help create that narrative.

TJG: I’m interested in how you think of that concept of a musical device. I feel a lot of the time a musical device is something with a pre-determined effect or outcome, rather than something that develops organically.

JF: Just because I use the word device doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. I’m not degrading it in any way, but I recognize it. I’ve heard enough music, I hear enough people do certain things, it happens all the time. I would love the music to develop completely organically all the time, but it doesn’t happen every night, which is a characteristic of spontaneity. But it’s nice when you can use something like a device to create a part of a story, and that helps the music be more effective at creating momentum.

In it’s rendering, I hope the piece to feel fresh and new every time. I don’t want to feel every time like, “Here’s the part where you two play, and then we all the play the melody at the end.” If you don’t approach the music with that kind of rigor, it gets stale. The device loses its intended effect anyway. I mean, the effect of any device I use is to give the music some quality of organic growth. It’s supposed to feel like, “Whoa. The music has never done this before.” For me, the best moments are when I’m left dumbfounded, and I think having musical devices and improvisation developing in the moment can make that happen.

TJG: In a way then, preconceived devices can actually make the music feel more spontaneous because it can help break down the feedback loops that encourage improvisers to play in their comfort zone.

JF: Without a doubt. That’s one of the best ways to induce some kind of new creative response, or to coax something new out of the band.

I’ve been in situations recently where someone asked something of me that was totally foreign than what I’m accustomed to doing and I had to rethink my relationship with time—not like a time-feel, but just time in general, time elapsing. When I’m improvising normally, I don’t pay attention to time elapsing, but then someone put a clock in front of me and I had to negotiate with that time. This piece just had this pace of development that I wasn’t accustomed to. It took a second for me to acclimate myself and move into this foreign space. It was a real pleasure to operate on that level. It wasn’t like improvising when playing in a jam session, or something like that. It was very devoted to the development of ideas over a very long… It actually wasn’t that long, but it felt long, and it required a completely different mindset. This was a strategy or a device or an approach to music—call it what you will—but it was a fresh experience that took me to another place as a soloist and improviser.

TJG: Has this experience informed your own improvisational and compositional practice?

JF: Certainly in both respects, but more so compositionally. This example I’m talking about fell into the overall framework of a larger composition. The larger musical context helped give rise to musical things I could do myself, incorporating small elements of this piece into what I’m working on.

TJG: Now that you’re doing your Gallery residency, how are you going about working on material for the commission? Are you starting with a single idea and trying to develop it linearly? Or are you working with different fragments and will decide what to do with them later?

JF: Right now I’ve just been amassing little ideas. I go to the Gallery and I bring paper, a pencil, and a ruler. I sit at the piano and copy some things down, write some things. Then later I’ll pick one and see if I can work further through it. It might be that all these ideas are connected, that they’re one composition. I don’t know yet. I just know I have the makings of one piece right now, and a bunch of little ideas sketched out.

TJG: How do you go about deciding which little idea will make the most interesting large piece?

JF: I guess you have to be there! I play it to myself, I look at it, I listen to it, I imagine other people playing around it and then I think, “Yeah! That could be something.” I think that thought process is strong enough. If it’s strong, I can hear it developing mass in the bass, drums, piano. It’s a bit hard to explain how I make that judgment about an idea.

TJG: That’s interesting because I know a lot of composers who have different strategies or processes for evaluating ideas as a way of trying to narrow the huge range of possibilities that a blank page gives you.

JF: No, I don’t do that, but it could be good to do!

I mean, some of things that I have sketched out are just a single line. Some of it already has three voices in it. Mainly, it’s just what sounds best to me. That’s what I go off of.

TJG: But sometimes I feel it’s easy to question something that sounds good because it might be something you’ve already done before, something you already know.

JF: I don’t really concern myself with that so much. It’s really hard to not repeat yourself in some way. I’m trying to be honest with myself and what I’m writing. It boils down to whether I really agree with a phrase—is it really me, or am I trying to do this for some other reason? I generally try to get in place where I write things down and I go, “Well that’s hip.” And I’m like, it’ll work, it’s cool. I don’t try to worry about anyone else, or really too much of anything. I kind of don’t judge myself at that point. And then maybe I’ll look at it again and go, “Well that’s corny.” Beyond that, I don’t think about what someone’s reaction will be. I’m pretty confident that I can at least make it not boring.

But I’m really not concerned about repeating myself. It’s like I was saying earlier—in composition, we use devices, things that we’re accustomed to. I mean it would be amazing if you could do something that was all new, but then it wouldn’t really come from you. Would it really be you if it were all things you hadn’t done before?

TJG: But what if you don’t like your own compositional decisions?

JF: Well I deal with that every day. Every day.

The 2014-2015 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission series continues this weekend, June 26th and 27th, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. Mr. Finlayson is joined by Brian Settles on tenor saxophone, Steve Lehman on alto saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano, Mark Helias on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.