JOE FINN QUARTET - String Theory
by J Hunter
There's a small black pot on the mantelpiece in our family room. It is Navajo in design, a gift from a good friend in Arizona. From a distance, it does not impress; it just seems like a simple black pot. It's when you get up close that you see the craftsmanship, the care, and the love that turned clay into beauty. I get that same feeling when I listen to String Theory, the latest disc from the Joe Finn Quartet.
Not that the JFQ is a lump of clay - far from it. What I mean is, if you look at the back of the disc and check out the song list, you could dismiss it as another set of standards from a band whose roots are in the past, not the present. True, Finn's attack recalls other hard-body guitar artists like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. But like the pot, you have to get up close to this music, so you can see joy its creators take in making it.
As with most JFQ live sets, String Theory opens with Pat Martino's The Visit. Far from being skittish about tackling a modern-day hard-body whiz, Finn bites down hard on the tune and takes off like it was written especially for him. There's a fluidity to Finn's playing that always makes me smile whenever I hear him. The notes just flow out like water over a gorge. I always got the sense that Finn used The Visit to loosen himself and his players up for the rest of the night. There's nothing tight about this take, including the sweet piano solo Scott Bassington slips in halfway through the song.
Finn and Bassington have an ongoing conversation throughout String Theory - Finn making his point while Bassington fills in the background, and then the players switch roles in half a heartbeat. This carries through the entire disc, though it's especially effective in covers of Cedar Walton's Bolivia and Cole Porter's I Get A Kick Out Of You. The former has Finn taking over a piano tune with Bassington's help and making it an ensemble piece; the latter is delivered in a decidedly non-poppy arrangement that would leave Old Blue Eyes dizzy, but left me hungry for more.
The leaders are ably supported throughout String Theory by bassist Mike Wicks and drummer Sam Zucchini. Yes, that Zucchini! Forget the kiddie-show music. This here is big-boy music, and Zucchini's more than up to the task. His brushwork on the wistful Finn original Never To Return is outstanding. Wicks keeps this house's foundation solid, though he gets credit for a solid solo on a bluesy take of Benny Green's Captain Hook. Finn is not shy about giving his bandmates space, and they return the favor by matching quality with quality.
If there's one complaint I have with Finn, it's that he's kind of like a butterfly on speed: He doesn't light anywhere, choosing more often to go off on another lightning-fast run of notes than to let a good note sustain, or to just let silence do some work. Even on the classic ballad Lush Life, Finn couldn't help but run off a few times where one or two long, lingering notes would have done nicely. He has to understand that being the fastest gun in the West doesn't mean you have to prove it every second, no matter what Gregory Peck said.
Still and all, String Theory is a complete capsule of the JFQ's current sound. It's substance delivered with style, and it's plainly baked with love. Joe Finn loves what he does, he does it well, and so do his mates. And with any luck, there'll be more to come.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.