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James Finn - The Great Spirit

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Artist: James Finn

Album: The Great Spirit

Label: Not Two

Review date: Feb. 9, 2006

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.

By Derek Taylor

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