Nick Finzer, jazz trombonist: Something Else! Interview
Born into a musical family, trombonist Nick Finzer – son of internationally known flautist Sherry Finzer – has worked with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Frank Wess, Lew Tabackin, Lewis Nash and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, John Clayton and others. He’s also been mentored by Wycliffe Gordon and Steve Turre, along the way. More recently, Finzer released 2015’s The Chase, which followed his 2013 debut album as a band leader, Exposition. Nick Finzer’s newest project is called Ten Year Suite. He joined Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss highlights from his musical journey, the sweeping influence of Duke Ellington, and what’s next …
PRESTON FRAZIER: Was your intent to become a band leader all along?
NICK FINZER: I’m not sure I ever had the intention specifically of being a band leader, however I’ve always tended to have that role. Ever since I was in high school I’ve had bands, and if there wasn’t a clear leader I usually ended up assuming that role myself. For me, I’ve always enjoyed composing music and to get a group to play those compositions you end up becoming a band leader! I’m also the type of person who isn’t content to wait for something to happen. I’m constantly striving to grow whether it be my musicianship, compositional skills, my band, career, etc. However, I really enjoy bringing to life the projects of other people. Working as a sideman has been a tremendous learning opportunity, whether it be with some of my peers or with musicians older than myself. A few projects that I’m regularly involved in as a sideman are Lucas Pino’s No Net Nonet — we play once a month at Smalls in New York City — and legendary tubist Bob Stewart’s working band. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project a number of times. After a busy stint as a leader and traveling a lot the past 18 months or so, I’m really looking forward to being involved in a number of new sideman projects this coming year.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Discuss your influences with regard to playing and composition?
NICK FINZER: For me, the big three trombone influences are JJ Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton — absolute masters of the instrument and this music. Aside from them, I’m very much influenced by my mentors Steve Turre and Wycliffe Gordon, and further by great trombonists who have given me moments of their time like Steve Davis, Michael Dease, James Burton, Ryan Keberle, Marshall Gilkes and Elliot Mason. There is so much great music being made by trombonists today, there’s a never ending supply of inspiration! I’ve always been listening to other instruments as well. I’ve been drawn to people over the years who continued to develop and push their personal envelope again and again like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I’ve been a big fan of people like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman, and Michael Brecker — and I continue to listen to these guys. All of these musicians were not only great players and improvisers, but also exceptional composers. I think there is a strong connection between a musicians playing and improvising alongside their compositional voice. It really defines what their musical identity is all about, even as it progresses over the years.
But for me, it always comes back to Duke Ellington. Duke’s music was really the first jazz music that I fell in love with. The way he could orchestrate his band to get so many interesting colors, alongside his amazing melodic sense and never losing that swinging feeling. Duke always wrote with his musicians in mind, not just a “saxophone” or “trumpet.” I aspire to try and write music that feature the individual band members and their unique abilities. There are also a number of other composers whose music really speaks to me. Lately, I’ve been really interested in the music of Latin American composers who are blending their rhythmic and harmonic sensibilities with that of jazz such as Miguel Zenon and Dafnis Prieto. Not to mention the great music of large ensemble composers like Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, and Maria Schneider.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us about your musical upbringing.
NICK FINZER: I was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., in western New York, about 350 miles from New York City. It’s probably most well known for being the original home of Kodak. My mother is a flautist; she played all through high school and thought about pursuing a classical performance degree but ultimately made other plans. She stopped playing for awhile when I was born, but when I started taking an interest in music, she started to play again. She’s now branched out from her classically trained roots and is playing a lot of original New Age type music out where her and my dad live in Phoenix, Arizona.
PRESTON FRAZIER: What was your first instrument? What attracted you to the trombone?
NICK FINZER: If you asked my family, they would definitely say that my first instrument was voice. I was always singing and making up songs around the house as a little kid. When I was entering elementary school, my mom convinced my dad to get a piano in the house, and I know that I would tinker around on that piano, trying to make sense of it! At the beginning of fourth grade (as is the case with many elementary school students), we had a presentation from the band teacher about all the different instruments — and by the end of that I had decided I wanted to play the drums, and my second choice was the trumpet! But as luck would have it, I was tall for my age, and my band teacher kindly suggested (well, she made me pick) the trombone. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I thought it was a cool looking instrument!
During middle school is when I really fell in love with the trombone — with the sound of the trombone. Growing up in Rochester, I always had the Eastman School of Music not too far away and, in the trombone world, Eastman is one of the most legendary schools with a very famous trombone choir — a group of all trombonists, at least 16 members but usually more like 25 or 30. When I heard the sound of that group of trombonists, I was hooked. What an amazing instrument. The more of them you get together, the better it sounds!
PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us about your formal training. How did you come to attend the Eastman School of Music? Also, discuss being a protégé of Steve Turre at Julliard.
NICK FINZER: I started my formal training sometime in sixth grade, taking trombone lessons with an area band director, which lead me to a few other Rochester area trombone teachers and ultimately to study with one of the trombone professors at Eastman (Mark Kellogg). As I mentioned, some of my first contact with Eastman was hearing the trombone choir as a middle school student. I then joined a community big band through Eastman’s pre-college division, which was focused on the music of Duke Ellington as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Essentially Ellington” festival. This changed my direction for good. I was hooked on Ellington, and that led me towards the direction my life has taken so far. I decided to attend Eastman for my undergraduate study based on a couple of factors: scholarship, my ability to work and develop on the scene there, and just not being ready to go to New York quite yet. Being at Eastman really prepared me to be able to work in a variety of musical settings, and set the standard of musicianship and expectations very high.
While I was still in high school I had the opportunity to meet the great trombonist who was playing with the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra at the time — Wycliffe Gordon. He was passing through Rochester with his band, and I had the opportunity to hang with him between sets and ultimately to me driving down to New York City to take a few lessons with him. He later ended up writing a few commissions for me, and he’s recorded some of those pieces on a few of his records. Being at Juilliard with Steve Turre was another great learning experience for me. Steve has such acute attention to detail, to a level that I hadn’t been exposed to before. He really introduced me to what it means to really focus and practice with intensity and determination. Steve has also been extremely supportive of me and my music since I left school. He’s come out to see my band a few times, and always has words of insight to offer.
PRESTON FRAZIER: What was your first published composition? Is it on Exposition, your debut as a band leader?
NICK FINZER: The first tunes that I ever had written and played were all with the group that I led before starting school at Eastman. But the first tune that I wrote when I decided to have a band that would play my music was “Alternate Agenda” which is the opening track on Exposition.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Your 2015 release The Chase received wide acclaim. How did your approach as a composer and band leader differ from your debut?
NICK FINZER: I think that mostly, I’ve matured, and have taken a more relaxed approach to getting the music out. The whole process was much more relaxed, and I knew exactly what I needed to do to create the result I wanted. On the first album, I was focused on the details. I was focused making sure we played all the right notes, and that things were as close to perfect as we could get them. This time around I was much more about the big picture: Wanting the music to feel good, and express the emotion behind the music. The compositions on The Chase were all written with the intention of expression. Whether it be to reflect an emotion or situation, and often both. The Chase is about the act of following your dreams — the struggles, the joys, the realities and the beauty of the process, not just the results. I think you you can both hear and feel the difference — and I’m really happy with how it came across.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Talk about your arranging approach for The Chase, and the recording process.
NICK FINZER: My approach was to be a little bit more hands off, and let the musicians shape the parts and the music overall beyond my initial conception. After having a chance to continue to play the music from the first album I realized how much more life the music could embrace, when all of the musicians in the band were enabled to do what they do best. I tried to write with the specific musicians in mind, thinking about their unique sounds and strengths, and weaving that into the overall musical fabric. Using the guitar as a third voice in the front line with the trombone and saxophone has really developed in my orchestrative conception since the first album, as well. I love how the timbre of the guitar allows it to blend in a number of different ways with the other horns, depending on its range and how it’s being used. We recorded this album all in one day, at Bunker Studios in Brooklyn, N.Y. I’ve made many records there, and it’s a great space for recording jazz in New York City. There may have been a few fixes and overdubs, but for the vast majority, all of it was complete takes with no edits. The guys in the band really took care of business and made the music happen — for which I’m eternally grateful.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You are currently working on Ten Year Suite. What can you tell us about this new project?
NICK FINZER: The Ten Year Suite is a project that I originally premiered in February 2015 at the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. The piece was commissioned by a nonprofit organization that I’ve worked with for a number of years called the Institute for Creative Music. The piece is written for 10 improvising musicians, is written in seven movements, and was inspired by a number of relationships I’ve had alongside my serious study of music from 2005-2015. The life of a musician has many twists and turns, along with meeting many interesting and memorable people, which I think turned into a nicely organized suite. I’m sharing that performance from last year, movement by movement on my Facebook artist page, and also on my YouTube channel: one movement every two weeks.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell our readers about your all-time Top 5 albums.
NICK FINZER: I’m not sure of the numerical rank order of these, but they’ve all been very important to me at various points — JJ Johnson, In Person!; Chick Corea, Now He Sings Now He Sobs; Duke Ellington, Piano in the Background (along with a number of others like the Complete Newport Concert, and the New Orleans Suite); Art Blakey, Free for All; and Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life.