Album review…Nick Finzer, “Exposition” (Outside In, 2013)

Earlier this year, trombonist Nick Finzer released his debut album, Exposition, a compelling opening statement for the beginning of his recording career and an enticing introduction to the subsequent albums that will surely follow. Featuring a cohesive group of young musicians with strong individual skills, Exposition comes together around the strength of Finzer’s compositions and his intelligent and empathetic arrangements for this well acquainted ensemble. Trained in the jazz programs at both Eastman and Julliard, Finzer effectively and creatively translates study of his musical predecessors into a unique, updated, and engaging take on the straight-ahead jazz quintet.

Exposition, Outside In Music 1201, 2013. Personnel: Nick Finzer, trombone, compositions; Lucas Pino, tenor saxophone; Alex Wintz, guitar; Samora Pinderhughes, piano; Dave Baron, bass; Jimmy Macbride, drums. Tracks: Alternate Agenda; Lit By Lightning; Twisted Perception; The Ramp, Eventide; With Gratitude; Third Stratum; 2.4 Cents; Introspection; Overexposure. Recorded May 22-23, 2012, at Kaleidoscope Sound in Union City, NJ. www.nickfinzermusic.com

The album opens with “Alternate Agenda,” which from the first bars shows Finzer’s talent for enriching traditional jazz settings with inventive arranging techniques: before the main statement of the melody, pianist Samora Pinderhughes opens with a dynamic and confident piano solo that establishes a solid precedent for compelling improvisations for the ensemble which they continuously and constantly satisfy throughout the album. Finzer’s setting of the melody demonstrates his aptitude for harmonizing and scoring, with subtly crafted contrary lines and a keen ear for variation through successive repetitions of the song’s form. His first solo features an adept, bebop-informed approach that balances melodic development, deft navigation of the chord changes, and use of sequences. “Lit by Lightning” continues in a similar vein and further showcases Finzer’s fine melodic writing, which balances lyrical singability and engaging variation. Pinderhughes offers another commanding improvisation characterized by a sensitive use of space and complete coverage of the piano keyboard. By the time Finzer’s second solo ends, it’s clear that the trombonist’s fluid, almost effortless, sound will be a consistent highlight of the album.

Finzer’s penchant for intricate composition continues with “Twisted Perception,” which offers a slightly different melodic color and a bossa-esque vibe refreshing the standard head-solo-head arrangement. The first three tunes of the album all include complex harmonic progressions with lots of chord changes, rhythmic accents, and alterations in feel. It’s a credit to Finzer—as composer, bandleader, and musician—that so many moving parts are orchestrated with such finesse; and a further credit to his ensemble that such complex music could come across as organically as it does. In their solos on “Twisted Perception” both Finzer and Pinderhughes demonstrate mastery of the song’s harmonies and arrangement by weaving in and out of the orchestrated hits but never at the expense of their own improvised ideas. Theirs are followed by energetic solos by tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino and drummer Jimmy Macbride that offer stark and effective contrast to the restated melody at the end of the track.

“The Ramp” offers another take on Finzer’s sonic aesthetic, moving away from the well-established straight-ahead vibe in a very positive way. Polyphonic, contrapuntal, and teeming with drive, this track is one of the album’s highlights. In his solo, Finzer finally stretches out a bit more—in his ideas, aesthetic, and improvisational choices. Pino’s solo is very strong, utilizing the higher registers of his instrument and demonstrating excellent versatility. The tune’s form is very refreshing, complex, and a fine balance of different feels, which naturally builds a narrative structure into all the solos. To my ears, this is one hallmark of a solid jazz composer: Finzer’s writing facilitates and enhances the exemplary improvisations of his sidemen, augmenting but never interfering with their individual abilities and approaches.

Both “With Gratitude” and “Third Stratum” highlight the contributions of guitarist Alex Wintz. In the former, Wintz shows great sensitivity and sympathetic ears in his background work behind another stellar Pinderhughes solo and the first by bassist David Barron. Barron transitions nicely into a restatement of the melody, a subtle but highly effective arranging choice that Finzer uses to refresh the composition. On the latter, Wintz delivers one of the finest improvisations of the album: exciting, engaging, and open, Wintz shines here, offering up an extended listen to his significant skills and a sure highlight of his contributions on the album. Finzer’s solo shows another side—even more lyrical and highly organic in its development—to his improvising, one not so laden to chromatic changes and bebop licks, but still possessing the same level of sophistication and energy.

The album concludes with three more contrasting compositions: “2.4 Cents” brings back the swinging, straight-ahead, bebop approach that finally gives Macbride some space for improvisation. The ballad “Introspection” showcases a more relaxed vibe, in which Wintz demonstrates clear understanding and internalization of Finzer’s composition by adding just the right sensibilities to complement the trombonist’s finely crafted tune. Finally “Overexposure” offers a strong last statement by each of the band members, ending with an extended group improvisation that Finzer once again successfully orchestrates into a cohered, confident ensemble.

Overall Exposition is an immensely satisfying album, rich in variety and of very high quality. Finzer’s fine compositions, supported by a cast of talented improvisers, provide a perfectly balanced, deceptively simple album that, for all its complexity and artful construction, will prove accessible and inviting for a wide range of audiences. Finzer’s resume thus far includes a long list of highly respected jazz elders, with whom he has worked as student, sideman, and mentee. On Exposition Finzer offers a strong debut, no doubt indebted to these collaborators but nonetheless establishing his own artistic outlook as leader that is rich with potential for future projects.

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