James Finn | Deanna Witkowski | Leon Lee Dorsey | Klaus Kugel | Great Spirit | Not Two Records

Not Two, 2005 | MW 763-2 | CD

James Finn – tenor saxophone | Deanna Witkowski – piano | Leon Lee Dorsey – double bass | Klaus Kugel – drums

Recorded at Leon Lee Dorsey Studio, NYC October 8, 2004. Producers: James Finn and Leon Lee Dorsey. Record engineer: Natale Tomaino. Compositions: James Finn, Deanna Witkowski, Leon Lee Dorsey, Klaus Kugel – Voluble Horn Music, ASCAP. Cover design: James Finn. Executive producer: Marek Winiarski

Tracklist: 1. Great Spirit [13:38] 2. Give Us Strength [12:21] 3. Give Us Wisdom [05:17] 4. To Deliver Your Song [05:42] 5. Of Hope and Forgiveness [12:05] 6. Of Love and Peace [07:34]

Saxophonist James Finn

was born in Brooklyn in 1956. Legendary saxophonist JR Monterose was a crucial early mentor; later teachers included Sir Roland Hanna, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Andrew Cyrille. But despite his background in straightahead jazz, and a grounding in many other styles (he paid his dues in countless blues and funk bands, and later studied classical and contemporary music), Finn’s central passion was for free jazz in the tradition of Coltrane’s post-1965 work. A move to upstate New York put Finn in contact with two likeminded figures, pianist John Esposito and the brilliant, ill-fated multi-instrumentalist Arthur Rhames, who became close friends and playing partners.

Finn emerged on disc unusually late, with the powerful Opening the Gates (Cadence, 2004), a trio album with Dominic Duval and Whit Dickey. It was followed in quick succession by Faith in a Seed (CIMP, 2004) and Plaza de Toros (Clean Feed, 2005), and a series of concert recordings issued on Finn’s own CDR label Gingko Leaf: The Last Matador, Into the Afterworld, Life at the Via Della Pace, Inside Eye and In Stravinsky’s House.

Our phone conversation took place on June 6th of this year, at a time when many things were happening in Finn’s life: he had just launched the Gingko Leaf label, Clean Feed had released Plaza de Toros, and in addition he and his wife, the coloratura soprano Jennifer Finn, were anticipating the birth of their first child. The interview that follows is an edited and slightly rearranged transcript of our conversation. I have placed a passage from a later email from Finn at the head of the interview as an introduction. Some other emails have also been stitched into the body of the interview. More biographical information about Finn is available in Susan Goldsmith’s excellent essay “The Musical Journey of James Finn”. — Nate Dorward ( you can read the complete interview by clicking here…)

After a slight hiatus signaled

by the birth of his daughter, saxophonist James Finn is back with a new album, this time calling the Polish Not Two label home. Once again, his religious faith guides the journey on The Great Spirit, a session taped on the fly without the crutches of rehearsals or charts and the first of Finn’s improvisatory albums to feature piano. His ensemble certainly has its share of diversity. Pianist Deanna Witkowski comes from a Cuban music background while ace bassist Leon Lee Dorsey held posts in the bands of Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey. And there’s drummer Klaus Kugel, who’s appeared regularly on the saxophonist’s own Ginko Leaf ventures. The titles of the six songs here string together to form the phrases of a devotional prayer, though the match between titles and actual track sequence appears somewhat jumbled (at least on my pressing). As in the past, Finn relies primarily on malleable motivic material as his improvisatory fodder, shaping lines that snake and slither with tension, only to erupt in outbursts of horn-scouring multiphonics. But even the numerous segments of cathartic release never fully abandon their sense of order and intent.

Finn’s formidable skills on his tenor allow for the instant translation of thought to sound. Witkowski’s solos are almost a balm by comparison, Tyneresque in their application of rich cascading chords. Dorsey’s bop credentials pose hardly a problem in these freer seas and his plumply amplified bass serves as a buttressing plumb bob for the band’s bottom end. The opening title piece supplies solo encapsulations of each player’s vernacular, useful reference points for the more colorful music to follow. “Give Us Strength” at once opens up the playing field and solidifies it on the symmetry of Witkowski’s opening piano sortie and Kugel’s shuffle boil drums. Finn bats around another melodic kernel, the pressure building almost imperceptibly toward another purgative absolution in the final minutes of cleansing cymbal spray and stabbing piano clusters. “To Deliver Us” originates from a space of greater calm with Finn’s tenor inflecting a broad burnished rasp while Kugel’s bowed cymbals and Dorsey’s porous bass throb hint at more sinister forces at the edges. “Of Hope and Forgiveness” is almost an emotional flip, as Finn voices bright skyward-fluttering figures that set the stage for the incantatory action to follow, including a corker of a solo from Dorsey. And as if designed to quell any stray and stubborn unbelievers, his somber statement on “Of Love and Peace” is even more striking, moving from lush liquid melody, tractably tender in its execution, to soul-burrowing legato drones shadowed by Dorsey’s whispery arco harmonics.

Much has been written and expounded regarding Finn’s obvious ties to John Coltrane. Critic Dan Warburton connects the familiar dots once again in his sagaciously boiled down liner notes. But Finn’s kinship with the Heavy Weight Champion is more conceptual than concrete. His passionate exhortations often scale similar ecstatic summits, pitch narrowing to pin point-precise altissimo peals. But, as this album and the rest of his consistently rewarding and ever-expanding back catalog prove, he is most certainly his own man on the horn. — Derek Taylor


Following James Finn’s outstanding releases on Cadence

(Opening the Gates) and CIMP (Faith in a Seed) and the awesome Plaza de Toms on Clean Feed, and hard on the heels of a slew of releases on Finn’s own Gingko Leaf imprint, here comes further proof that the Brooklyn-born 49-year-old tenor saxophonist is arguably the hottest property in modern jazz.

Saxophonists for over a quarter of a century have been quick to pay lip service to John Coltrane, but it seems that only a few have realised that true freedom i.e. having the technical facility to play instantaneously on the horn whatever is going through your head comes at a hell of a price. Call it woodshedding, paying dues, or whatever: one of James Finn’s closest friends, the late Arthur Rhames (and if you don’t know Rhames’ work you owe it to yourself to check out The Dynamic Duo, with Rashied All, on Ayler Records) understood all too well that it was a question not of months but years of serious practice. Finn does too.

The molten lava associated with several free jazz tenor titans (John Gilmore, Franks Lowe and Wright, Arthur Doyle, Peter Brotzmann, and, more recently, Paul Flahefty and Mats Gustafsson) has often been interpreted as some kind of reaction against the slick pyrotechnics of hard bop. For a long time it was a question of choosing your camp: happy are those whose collection includes both Blowing in from Chicago and Alabama Feeling… There aren’t many players who are equally at home destroying the universe, to quote Byron Coley, and giving a complicated modal figuration an epic workout in every conceivable transposition: David Murray is (was?) one; James Finn is another. He’s all over the horn, so much so that any pianist who wants to tag along has to be careful to leave him enough room to manoeuvre. With her arranging skills and background in Cuban music, Deanna Witkowski does it to perfection; her spare accompaniment and the exquisite linear logic of her soloing are the perfect foil to Finn’s explosive, extended motivic investigations. And in former Lionel Hampton and Jazz Messengers bassist Leon Lee Dorsey, and drummer Klaus Kugel, whose other playing partners have included Theo Jorgensmann, Petras Vysniauskas and Steve Swell, Finn’s found another superbly responsive rhythm section to ride high on.

That’s all I have to say: after all, James Finn “put the session together in about two hours and it flowed like a river.” In any case, I don’t believe in providing blow-by-blow commentaries on pieces of music, especially since most listeners don’t need to be told how to listen, and most musicians worth their salt make it abundantly clear what they’re up to. It was never in any doubt where a Coltrane solo was headed; the same can be said of Arthur Rhames, and of James Finn. The answer is not just upward, but heavenward.– Dan Warburton– www.paristransatlantic. com

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One thought on “James Finn | Deanna Witkowski | Leon Lee Dorsey | Klaus Kugel | Great Spirit | Not Two Records

  1. What should instantly grab the attention of James Finn fans is that this is his first quartet recording. His previous efforts (on Cadence, CIMP and Clean Feed, plus five on his own Gingko Leaf label) were all trios, matching his tenor and flute with drums and bass or two drummers. Finn kicks up enough dust that it takes a few listens to Great Spirit for it to settle—and to take in Deanna Witkowski’s role, since the saxophonist’s playing has so much charisma and propulsion from the first notes that it’s difficult to think of piano as anything other than a side instrument. But cut for cut, Witkowski manages to stay right with him.

    Recorded performing a series of unrehearsed improvisations (with titles that read as a prayer), the quartet is energized and continuously creative throughout Great Spirit. Finn opens the title piece with a flourish and carries on for a relentless, striving five minutes before resting. “To Deliver Your Song opens with a cadenza, and Finn does more with it than anyone this side of Sonny Rollins. “Of Hope and Forgiveness is taken at a slower pace with longer lines, Finn concentrating on the midrange of his horn, whereas on “Give Us Strength, following Witkowski’s introduction, Finn joins in with the tinkling percussion and ringing cymbals. He flirts with a groove but doesn’t pursue it, electing instead to extrapolate farther, delivering his most expressive and wide-ranging blowing on the disc.

    Much has been made of Coltrane’s influence on Finn’s playing. And nothing demonstrates this as clearly as the tone poem “Give Us Wisdom, carried along by drummer Klaus Kugel’s mallets, Witkowski’s gentle piano chords and Finn’s whispering, squeaking reed. But Finn uses it as a starting point, not an end in itself. Here’s hoping he continues to vary his instrumental attack.

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