Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense: Moving Still
Pi Recordings

Moving Still is an apt choice of title for this exemplary set by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, his second recording as a leader and follow-up to his well-received Moment and the Message debut. Every one of the six pieces on Moving Still is a restless creature, surging forth at every moment; even those tending towards balladry (e.g., “Cap vs. Nim”) reveal a constant forward motion, and none conform to anything remotely resembling traditional, laid-back swing. Simply put, there are no static vamps, and each musician contributes to the kinetic thrust of the material. It's telling that during the final minutes of the sultry closer, “Folk Song,” the music accelerates rapidly, the band racing furiously towards the finish line.

Finlayson's pieces are complex affairs, though not as intricate as Steve Coleman's, one of the outfits in which the trumpeter plays (he's also performed with leading-edge figures such as Steve Lehman, Henry Threadgill, and Mary Halvorson, and can be heard on the latter's just-released octet recording Away With You). No one should be surprised that some of Coleman's composing style has rubbed off on the trumpeter, especially when he's been a Five Elements member for over fifteen years, though it's important to clarify that Finlayson's his own man in the writing department. Certainly there's a cerebral quality to the material (significantly, the band name Sicilian Defense refers to an opening counter-move in chess, and the aforementioned “Cap vs Nim” was even harmonically and melodically structured in accordance with moves made during a match between grandmasters José Raúl Capablanca and Aron Nimzowitsch), but its intricacy never gets in the way of the music's natural, freewheeling flow. As a player, Finlayson's bold but not brash, agile but not reckless, while the Sicilian Defense team, guitarist Miles Okazaki (also a Five Elements member), pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Craig Weinrib, show themselves to be up to the music's abundant challenges.

By introducing “All of the Pieces” with a becalmed guitar episode, Finlayson's opens the album with a bit of playful sleight-of-hand. It doesn't take long, however, for the restlessness and forward propulsion that mark the album as a whole to assert itself. Typically moving in counterpoint to one another, the instrumental voices pursue separate yet nonetheless complementary paths, Okazaki first, Mitchell second, and the leader third. All push the music forward, no one more so than the ever-inventive Weinrib, for eleven minutes a veritable study in perpetual motion. An adventurous lot, the musicians take the album to different places: African and Latin rhythms both seem to surface on “Space And,” whereas “Folk Song” draws for inspiration from an Afro-Cuban melody. Nowhere, however, is the strength of Finlayson's writing better demonstrated than during “Flank and Center,” where brief statements by the pianist, guitarist, and trumpeter are staggered using hocketing, a daring move that produces one of the album's most arresting episodes. Here and elsewhere, all involved navigate the leader's knotty lines with seeming ease, something that speaks to the superior level of musicianship in play.

October 2016