“Contemporary” when used as an idiomatic reference is frequently derided by people who consider themselves true music fans. They view it as an overly inclusive term that devalues authenticity and celebrates trendiness and imitation.
But drummer Marcus Finnie and his band showed Saturday night as they launched the 2013 edition of the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Contemporary Jazz series that a great band can simultaneously be modern and traditional.
Finnie plays with a fire and rhythmic vitality that honors the masters, yet he’s familiar and accomplished at operating in current styles. He writes originals that test and extend the powers of his bandmates, but the group’s songs also include tunes with catchy hooks and a melodic sensibility to attract fans who didn’t grow up with ’50s Blue Note LPs or ’60s soul-jazz sessions.
Finnie and his outstanding group (tenor/soprano saxophonist Don Aliquo, acoustic/electric keyboardist DeMarco Johnson, guitarist Alex Bachari, electric bassist Brian Allen, plus special guests organist Ralph Lofton and on one song organist/vocalist organist Mabel Pleasure) gave an overflow crowd at the Workshop’s Jazz Cave nearly two full hours of superb music over two sets.
Much of it featured Finnie’s compositions. Some numbers like “Boundless” and “Identity” were updated renditions of songs he’s done frequently or featured on past LPs. “Passport” and another song he dedicated to his as yet unborn son (his pregnant wife was in the audience and their child is due within 2-3 weeks) were newer works.
But few were arranged or performed in the less rigorous patterns often associated with “contemporary” jazz. Instead, songs frequently surpassed the 10 minute mark, contained multiple sections, stirring solos, and offered impressive displays of individual talent and group cohesion.
Johnson, Bachari and Allen might have all been on electric rather than acoustic instruments, but they displayed a ferocity and versatility every bit as exciting as any one doing strictly mainstream or hard bop fare.
Aliquo’s a superb stylist, able to dazzle whether doing smooth, swing-influenced material, blues, or surging pieces. He was outstanding on both horns, consistently delivering rich, dense and delightful solos, extending ideas and statements, weaving in and out of movements and giving listeners a lesson in managing to quote and refer to influences while still maintaning his own sound.
Finnie also avoids gimmicks and repetition as a soloist, something that’s often a problem with drummers. Sometimes he’d demonstrate his speed, other time his mastery of the full kit and cymbals. He joked during the setup for “Tennessee Waltz,” which featured Pleasure (his mother) on organ and vocals that “this time she won’t be calling for a replacement while church is in session.”
Lofton provided stirring organ contributions on a couple of numbers, showing how gospel flourishes and bluesy refrains nicely fits into a jazz vein. He was particularly strong on “That’s All Right,” and offered first-rate embellishment on the night’s finale, “Bird’s Blues.” This was another Finnie original dedicated to bassist John Birdsong, whom Finnie complimented for helping launch his career when he relocated from Memphis.
Other memorable moments included the stirring opening number, a powerful cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof,” and a lengthy, crowd-pleasing version of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a tune Finnie said “I’m sure everyone here recognizes.”
Thankfully Finnie didn’t make the assumption too often made by bandleaders that everyone in the audience knew the set list. He frequently interacted with and genuinely responded to the sizeable following, showing his appreciation for their uniformly warm response and reception to the band’s music.
With the Marcus Finnie band’s explosive Saturday night opening performance, the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s 2013 Contemporary series is off and running.