Strategy and movement from a jazz master.

Jonathan Finlayson and Sicilian Defense – Moving Still [TrackList follows] – PI Recordings PI67, 52:15 [10/15/16] ****:

(Jonathan Finlayson – trumpet, producer; Miles Okazaki – guitar; Matt Mitchell – piano; John Hébert – bass; Craig Weinrib – drums)

Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson is like an expert chess player. He pays attention to what is going on; reflects on what needs to be done; and when it is all sorted in his head, he moves with surety and grace. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Moving Still is only the second solo release from Finlayson, although he’s been a professional musician for a decade and a half. This 52-minute, six-track CD is the follow-up to Finlayson’s critically acclaimed 2013 album, Moment and the Message. Like that earlier effort, Finlayson offers twists and turns which maintain a cutting-edge demeanor, similar to the music of his mentor, Steve Coleman (Finlayson has been a member of Coleman’s Five Elements and has performed with Coleman for a decade). Finlayson’s quintet, Sicilian Defense, also has Coleman alum: guitarist Miles Okazaki is also in Five Elements. The other players are equally storied: pianist Matt Mitchell has worked with Tim Berne, Dave Douglas, Rudresh Mahanthappa and John Hollenbeck; bassist John Hébert’s credits include Andrew Hill and Fred Hersch; and drummer Craig Weinrib has associations with Henry Threadgill and Ravi Coltrane.

The connections to chess filter throughout Finlayson’s compositions. Many of the pieces have titles which symbolize or connote the game, and his quintet is named after a popular chess opening counter move. Most of the tunes share some common bond, although each has different dimensions. For one, the music advances along harmonic development more often than melodic progression. There is also the use of blocks of rhythm which provide a modernist and sometimes compressed construction. Finlayson commences with the lengthiest number, “All of the Pieces,” which shifts forward with a clear vision and purpose, where the instruments rarely proceed in unison and counterpoint is persuasive. That manner of musical evolvement is readily apparent on the shortest cut, the 4:33 “Flank and Center,” where the melody employs hockets (rhythmic linear techniques using the alternation of notes, pitches, or chords). In this case, Finlayson arranges a series of three and two notes played in turn by three instruments. This tactic gives “Flank and Center” a density which doesn’t reveal the details easily: the nuances disclose themselves with careful attention and scrutiny. The nine-minute “Cap vs. Nim” is inspired by an eminent chess match between grandmasters José Raúl Capablanca (the “Cap”) and Aron Nimzowitsch (the “Nim”). Here, Finlayson assigns harmonic values to positions on the chess board with the melody determined by the origin and destination of each move. If that seems complex, the five musicians don’t make it sound complicated: there is purity, self-control and balance which lets the material breath, curve with agility and allows listeners to concentrate without distraction.

Other influences also abound. The 8:36 “Space And” is based on a traditional bell pattern of the Dagomba people of present-day northern Ghana. “Space And” has unpredictable rhythmic changes, free-flowing improvisational moments and a fast tempo, with some of Mitchell’s finest piano contributions which range from supplemental rhythmic instances to intricate, pointillistic slices where Mitchell supplies small, distinct musical designs to form a larger auditory canvas. Moving Still concludes with the 11-minute “Folk Song,” stimulated by an Afro-Cuban melody from a song cycle devoted to Oshun, a female deity connected to water, luxury and pleasure, sexuality and fertility, and beauty and love. “Folk Song” has a robust melodic pull offset by variable harmonics. Finlayson provides skilled soloing, followed by Okazaki’s supple chords and fret runs. Under it all, Mitchell, Hébert and Weinrib deliver a mutable pulse which imparts a sustained fluctuation. Finlayson and Sicilian Defense is a group which has made a conscious choice to be a decidedly forward-looking ensemble with music which intersects mathematical (or chess-like) distinctiveness with melodic and harmonic intensity. If you somehow missed out on hearing Moving Still when it came out in late 2016, take a listen and discover jazz with depth, width and volume.

TrackList: All of the Pieces; Flank and Center; Space And; Cap vs. Nim; Between Moves; Folk Song

—Doug Simpson