James Finn: Plaza De Toros & Michael Blake: Right Before Your Very Ears


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From Sonny Rollins' stint at the Village Vanguard (famously captured on three Blue Note records) to "Chasin' the Trane, the venerable format of tenor saxophone, bass and drums has produced a staggering amount of innovative and fiery recording situations (Ayler, Sam Rivers, Peter Brötzmann, the list goes on).

With all the landmark trappings that the "power trio" has, it is no wonder that many reedmen choose to make their unfettered mark sans piano, or another front-line instrument for that matter. The seamless, cooperative nature of the trio is used to great advantage on recent recordings of tenormen James Finn and Michael Blake, both issued as part of the New York-Lisbon connection that is Clean Feed Records.

James Finn
Plaza de Toros
Clean Feed

Plaza de Toros, Finn's third entry as a leader (though numerous self-released CDRs have since almost rendered that old hat), features his gutsy post-Coltrane tenor in a cooperative unit with bassist Dominic Duval (like Finn, a self-taught player whose mark on the scene was not keenly felt until his 40s) and drummer Warren Smith, a veteran of Sam Rivers' overdriven groups of the '70s and early '80s.

Finn's approach is decidedly relentless, and if not "screaming energy music," certainly in line with the driving kinetics of Trane, early Pharaoh, and Gato Barbieri, the latter possibly a result of the Latin themes that gird the "bullfight" motif of the record—particularly on the opening "Toreo de Capa, its theme implying a standoff between bull and bullfighter before Finn cuts loose with buzzsaw harmonics. Duval's Garrison-like alap is the cue for the title track, Finn's tenor reaching tormented Barbieri-esque heights over roiling bass and percussion, a tidal wave of screaming high-register reeds and hurled salvos of sound that seems less a sparring contest than a manifestation of the passion-play that bullfights are often couched in.

To be sure, late-period Coltrane is a certifiable influence on Finn, if not his predecessors, but somehow the modal plateaus for which '66-'67 Trane was so well known sound far less idyllic and even ominous in Finn's hands ("The Phantom Bull of Seville ). "El Tercio de Vanderillas might be "Leo under another name, but for the subtle underpinning of Smith, whose varied and informed percussion canvas does wonders in opening up what might otherwise be a maelstrom. Finn certainly has a habit of letting his flurries fill in, so the presence of Smith's expanded approach allows the music to breathe where fierce intensity would otherwise reign.

In some ways it might be a detriment when one's influences are rather obvious—making it difficult to get beyond a certain lineage. But the fact that Finn, Duval and Smith convey such conviction and necessity in their music trumps derivativeness with sincerity and power, something which a lot of contemporary music could do well to study.

Michael Blake
Right Before Your Very Ears
Clean Feed

Right Before Your Very Ears is reedman Michael Blake's latest entry in a fairly long-running career that has included work with the Lounge Lizards in addition to his own groups, which often feature bassist Ben Allison and drummer Jeff Ballard, his cohorts here.

While uncompromising fire music is the modus operandi and pedigree of James Finn, Blake's trio is considerably more difficult to pin down (as is his own pedigree), and despite the presence of three group improvisations, the inclusion of Monk's "San Francisco Holiday (on which Blake doubles tenor and soprano a la Rashaan) and the traditional "Careless Love belie an allegiance to tunefulness amid the skronk. "Funhouse is a loping number that quickly becomes a free-bop barnstormer, Blake's tenor sounding more sandblasted than burnished, until Allison inserts a funky blues line halfway through, bringing the piece back in as Ballard takes a calypso-inspired drum solo that oozes Denis Charles—a slippery group identity, indeed.

"Mt. Harissa is a stark, moody ballad alternating "Round Midnight references as well as guttural squall (which Blake inserts at oddly slow tempo here), girded primarily by Allison's fluid pizzicato and appearing as though it wants to break loose at every turn. "Flip appears at the outset to be a set-closer, its theme a plodding snatch of gutbucket tenor honks, which soon becomes a delicate, lilting blues tenor solo over subtle toms and bass work, then into fleet Texas-style phrasing over a (literally) galloping rhythm section.

As a trio, these musicians have logged countless hours playing together—but there are a considerable amount of groups that never approach this fluidity not only in communication, but in compositional structure, allowing Trane-ish free-bop numbers like "Fly With the Wind equal space with free improvisation, bluesy bar-walks, calypsos ("All of This is Yours ) and delicate Lacy-inspired readings of Monk. The history of modern jazz is, as the title says, Right before Your Very Ears.

Michael Blake and James Finn have found much to say in the "power trio" format, and that is a communicative equilibrium is endemic to the art of creative music, whether in high-octane energy music or subtle parsing of song form. Three is a prime number, indeed.

Plaza de Toros

Tracks: Toreo de Capa; Plaza de Toros; The Phantom Bull of Seville; El Tercio de Varas; Eyes of Angelina; El Tercio de Vanderillas; El Tercio de Muleta; La Estocada; Toro Bravo.

Personnel: James Finn: tenor saxophone; Dominic Duval: bass; Warren Smith: drums.

Right Before Your Very Ears

Tracks: Run for Cover; Funhouse; Mt. Harissa; Right Before Your Very Ears; Flip; Fly With the Wind; San Francisco Holiday; All of This is Yours; Careless Love.

Personnel: Michael Blake: tenor and soprano saxophones; Ben Allison: bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.


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