Trombonist Nick Finzer, 27, keenly recognizes the ebbs and flows of the jazz idiom. He appreciates its fluidity as pop music melds into the straightahead language of the jazz legacy. But he's taken a different road for revitalizing the heritage of jazz for the modern age.
"I don't want to abandon the tradition," said the tall and slender Finzer, who plays his instrument with a combination of fat-sound power and rich lyricism. "I want to continue to swing, which really wasn't in the air for my generation. But hip-hop wasn't part of my influence. I want to keep jazz alive by incorporating sounds and emotions that are part of today."
That flies true on his spirited second album, The Chase (Origin), where swing dominates and his 10 original compositions sway with curves and flow with colors. "All of these songs have a story behind them, and I wanted to capture a specific feeling," Finzer said. "For my first record [2013's Exposition], I used a more academic approach, controlling the musicians who played the music. This time, there's less of me and more of my group. Like Duke Ellington, who wrote with a range of emotions, I write music for the members of the band. That serves the emotion I was going for, and the sessions were more relaxed and free-flowing. The focus was on passion and energy, versus technical execution."
A Rochester, New York, native who went to Eastman School of Music and earned a graduate degree at Juilliard, Finzer was mentored by Wycliffe Gordon, whom he met after hearing him perform as a high school junior. "My mother forced me to go up to him after his concert and introduce myself," he recalled, sipping a Coke at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, close to where he has lived since arriving in New York in 2010. "He was friendly and asked me if I had my horn. It was in the car. I remember it was in February when the temperature gets to 10 degrees below zero. So I went out to get my trombone, but I had to wait a while for it to warm up before I could play for him. He was great. He invited me to New York to take lessons and later he wrote music for me and my band. He helped me with my Juilliard audition, and he always comes to my shows and gives me pointers."
A fan of bandleader Maria Schneider's music, Finzer would sell her namesake orchestra's CDs at her annual Thanksgiving shows at the Jazz Standard. That's where he established a friendship with bandleader and arranger Ryan Truesdell, another important figure in his artistic development. "Ryan allowed me the opportunity to play with his band," Finzer said. "He became another sounding board, and he also opened the door to Gil Evans' music for me - [showing] how the orchestration has a passion behind it, beyond the notes."
Both of Finzer's albums feature the same line-up - reedist Lucas Pino, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Dave Baron, drummer Jimmy Macbride - with the exception of pianist Glenn Zaleski joining in for The Chase. Some of the more dynamic tunes on the album showcase Finzer with his longtime friend Pino in the front line - doing a trombone-bass clarinet dance through "Search For A Sunset," weaving bone-sax conversations on the catchy "Spheres Of Influence" and speeding together through the rollicking title track.
Finzer points out that the title track was written with Pino in mind. "There are tons of guys who play tenor and bass clarinet, but Lucas adds the color," he said. "Lucas is someone who pursues the highest level of musicianship, improvisation and harmony. It's inspiring to see. So this song is about what it takes to pursue music in New York, to pursue the goals and dreams, to pursue the tradition of jazz. It's a rocky road, traveled at a fast pace with shifts of being uneasy and not settled."
"Nick's music has really evolved," said Pino, leader of the unconventional No Net Nonet, which includes Finzer. "He stills works on technique - he's an excellent trombonist - but the further away we get from school, we are digging deeper into our lives to discover what it means to be an artist. That's where Nick is. He's confident being himself musically. He's taking risks. His compositions are very thoughtful. He's thinking about the tradition and the art form as well as his colleagues. That motivates me. He forces me to keep pace so I won't get left behind."
While Finzer is only playing a few dates to support the release of The Chase due to his band members' busy schedules, he's not idle. A few days after our conversation, he's heading to Australia as a sideman with pianist Scott Bradlee's immensely popular New York-based Postmodern Jukebox show of pop covers performed in a quasi-jazz style. There's also an increasing demand for programs from the education-based Institute for Creative Music (ifcmusic.org), which Finzer co-founded and for which he serves as artistic director. The institute presents tours and workshops with young musicians to teach them how to improvise, as well as lessons on teamwork and technology. "We focus on improvisation in general with jazz bands, choirs, classical performers, rock bands," Finzer said. "We teach students how to take it to the next level."