Jonathan Finlayson’s compositions and trumpet playing have had an undeniable influence in New York City’s Creative Music and Jazz scenes for close to two decades. After relocating to New York City in 2000 from his hometown Oakland, California he’s recorded dozens of albums with his mentor Steve Coleman’s various ensembles and most recently with Henry Threadgill on his soon to be released album, Dirt… And More Dirt (2018). Aside from recording with those two luminaries, he’s also played in pivotal groups led by Von Freeman, Craig Taborn, Steve Lehman, Jason Moran, David Virelles, Dafnis Prieto and Vijay Iyer, to name a few.
Our writer Malik Crumpler recently caught up with Jonathan in the first of a two-part conversation about his; formative years, detail, sonic galleries and of course his new album, 3 Times Round (2018)
Is there a continuous narrative weaving through all of your albums?
I would say, yes and part of that narrative is myself. But I think, if anything, each album is like a personal or public marker of my development, in terms of composition and playing. I mean, they’re in the world and they’re produced by me and they’ve taken place over, I don’t know, five years. I like to look at the whole thing as a work in progress or continuum of progress, for myself. Hopefully I am making progress.
Essentially, you’re the musical narrator in these albums?
Well, you know, albums are very personal each one is indictive of a very specific point in my life. Part of that narrative is me. Sometimes when I look at albums, it occurs to me that they’re also a product of everything I read up until that point. Even if it’s not necessarily reflected in the song titles. I think about all the things that influenced me leading up to an album. In that way, they’re also markers of sorts. They represent years of interest in a thing, or specific art exhibits that resonated… passages that stick in the head. Anything you’ve read, that’s extra-musical. The albums also represent, simply, the things I was investigating musically which results in the final product. They also represent a lot of the unseen and unheard things that don’t get recorded or conveyed musically. It’s similar in the way a photograph kind of reminds you of what you were doing at a point in time. An album is a denser distillation of that same concept, I guess.
Piano solos feature more prominently in 3 Times Round (2018) than on your other albums-did your time with Muhal Richards Abrams influence that?
That might have something to do with it. I gave the piano a stronger role on this album. Unlike with Sicilian Defense, there was always a balance between the piano and guitar. On 3 Times Round, I rely on the piano more than on other albums because it’s the single chordal instrument, so to speak. So, I think there’s that influence from Muhal there, not necessarily stylistically, but just in the usage of the piano as an instrument, using it in a more specific manner and not just playing chords. I treated the piano more as an instrument and not an accompaniment in this new album. I put a little bit more energy into writing for it, rather than having it be like a traditional jazz accompaniment instrument. I made it more central, you know and a lot of that comes from the fact that I like to play the piano too.
When did you start playing the piano?
I think I started playing piano around the same time I started playing the trumpet, which is around 13 or 14.
What drew your interest to it as a teenager?
There was always a piano in my home growing up. But I didn’t take an interest in it until I was a teenager. I realized that it was an integral part of learning and playing music, especially being a horn player and my trumpet teacher, Robert Porter was insistent upon me learning how to play piano just enough. But I kinda got really into it. So, I kept checking it out and kept learning a little bit, more and more, each time I checked it out.
So, the piano’s your main device for composing?
I do a lot of my composing at the piano. That started out in high school. When I figured out there was nothing to stop me from making a song just like anyone else makes a song… You know, it doesn’t have to be good.
So, wait a minute, when you didn’t know you could compose what were you doing?
Mainly, I was only playing trumpet and you know, once I started at Berkeley High, I played in this small ensemble and someone brought in an original composition.
You didn’t have originals yet, yourself?
No. So, someone brought in something they wrote, and I was like, how did they do that? I was like, you can do that? And it just dawned on me, that I could probably do the same thing- I didn’t know much but you know, I went about trying to write something that I wanted to hear.
How did it dawn on you?
Well, I really learned from the example of older musicians. Seeing and being in proximity (by proximity, I mean in a group) where I’m the youngest- I’m like fourteen, you know- but someone brought a composition and we played it. I was like, wow, check that out! I thought I was only going to be playing the music of whoever; something that had already existed, but he brought in an original. I was amazed. You know, my mind state’s always like, well if he can do it, I can definitely do it. So, I did it.
Here’s the thing, that’s when that piano at home became more valuable. That’s kind of when I really started to take an interest in the piano at my dad’s house, that had been sitting there, looking pretty for all my childhood. And it’s not like it was an extra musical household or anything like that, but for some reason there was a tuned piano there, you know.
Did you have any difficulty that first time?
Oh, all day. I mean, I was just teaching myself the basics at that point. So, I used it as an all-around learning tool for accessing basic theory. For instance, if I wanted to learn how to construct a chord or whatever was peaking my interest at that time, I’d figure it out on the piano. It was just amazing to have that instrument there, at my disposal.
The more you start hearing examples of what’s hip, you slowly learn to discern what’s hip.
You’re playing the piano, predominately by ear at this point?
Yeah, a lot of the time I was playing by ear on piano and on trumpet, to a certain extent. I could read music by then. I was improvising too but the keys I played in where pretty simple. So, the piano really broadened my spectrum- I was playing by ear in those simple keys and I hadn’t quite gotten to the point where I was understanding chord progressions, but that’s where the piano really came to be a very useful devise because I could sit there, and you know, teach myself. Eventually, with the help of other cats in the workshop, we started slowly figuring out what’s really going on with this music.
So, the piano was a natural fit for you?
Yeah! I had a Fake Book, I’d use at the piano to hear songs and see if I could play them, slowly. It was all an exercise in reading music, at that point. I had some Jazz theory books (or whatever you want to call them) that I would sit with at the piano, figure out things-. There was this jazz piano book by Mark Levine. It had a history of modern piano players in it and it helped my understanding of voicings and concepts. It was a well written book.
Were you studying any musicians’ biographies at that time?
No. Remember when the back of album covers used to have an awful lot of information on them? I grew up listening to the music on LPs and reading the back of the albums. You could learn a lot about the individuals and the recording sessions from those small essays. So that’s how I picked up the investigation you’re asking about. I didn’t really read jazz magazines, or biographies at that time, except for the Miles Davis autobiography (someone gave me that book as a present). I didn’t have too many books about musicians aside from that. But I had scores of records, that I studied.
My first inclination was ‘fuck you, your shit’s not so great either’.
So, how’d your first piece turn out?
It was terrible, what do you expect? Just sappy or maudlin. I mean, I only did what I could do, with the limited skill set I had at 14. So, it wasn’t great, at all. But it wasn’t supposed to be great, it’s all about the act of doing. So that kind of…inspired me. You know what’s great? Everyone told me it was not so great-you need honesty.
Had you expected all that rejection, or did it throw you off?
My first inclination was fuck you, your shit’s not so great either. But seriously, they told me it wasn’t great and then they told me why it wasn’t so great. Keep in mind, this is a workshop of teenagers. So, I was like, well it doesn’t have to be this song that happens or gets played and so, I tried to work on it some more. It still wasn’t very good, at all.
What made you keep on with it, despite the rejection?
I thought, even after we played it and it wasn’t very good. It was still exciting to know that I had put something together. It gave me a real thrill knowing that musically, in the vibrations going on, that it was like me disturbing the air, so to speak.
How did you know you could make the piece better?
Well, it wasn’t about making it better. I was just like, maybe I can make another one. Whatever it was, the first song as an idea wasn’t great to begin with. That was partly because I hadn’t listened to that much music, yet. The more you start hearing examples of what’s hip, you slowly learn to discern what’s hip. Thankfully, I had a very hip trumpet teacher, who wouldn’t let me listen to anything that wasn’t hip.
Did you ever let Mr. Porter see your compositions?
I don’t think I ever brought him a composition, but we would talk about composition. He’d explain some things that would take me a long time to understand. And it wasn’t about the actual act of composing. It was more about where it comes from, I guess.
What does that mean?
He would talk about, as he said, Master Composers but you know, just kind of like how they function, what they would check out, knowing the piano, this musical language or that musical language. Or just being slick people, in general-
Yeah, exactly. Lifestyle. Checkin’ out this or that. It wasn’t so much like, what you do is, first you start with a treble clef and a bass clef and then you work in the key of… No. It was never quite like that.
Featured image by John Rogers