James Finn

Photo by Ron Swerin
Interview by Nate Dorward
June 6th 2005


Saxophonist James Finn was born in Brooklyn in 1956. Legendary saxophonist JR Monterose was a crucial early mentor; later teachers included Sir Roland Hanna, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Andrew Cyrille. But despite his background in straightahead jazz, and a grounding in many other styles (he paid his dues in countless blues and funk bands, and later studied classical and contemporary music), Finn’s central passion was for free jazz in the tradition of Coltrane’s post-1965 work. A move to upstate New York put Finn in contact with two likeminded figures, pianist John Esposito and the brilliant, ill-fated multi-instrumentalist Arthur Rhames, who became close friends and playing partners.
Finn emerged on disc unusually late, with the powerful Opening the Gates (Cadence, 2004), a trio album with Dominic Duval and Whit Dickey. It was followed in quick succession by Faith in a Seed (CIMP, 2004) and Plaza de Toros (Clean Feed, 2005), and a series of concert recordings issued on Finn’s own CDR label Gingko Leaf: The Last Matador, Into the Afterworld, Life at the Via Della Pace, Inside Eye and In Stravinsky’s House.
Our phone conversation took place on June 6th of this year, at a time when many things were happening in Finn’s life: he had just launched the Gingko Leaf label, Clean Feed had released Plaza de Toros, and in addition he and his wife, the coloratura soprano Jennifer Finn, were anticipating the birth of their first child. The interview that follows is an edited and slightly rearranged transcript of our conversation. I have placed a passage from a later email from Finn at the head of the interview as an introduction. Some other emails have also been stitched into the body of the interview. More biographical information about Finn is available in Susan Goldsmith’s excellent essay “The Musical Journey of James Finn” (http://www.jamesfinnmusic.com/PerformanceHistory/TheMusicalJourneyofJamesFinn.html). His recordings are available at www.jamesfinnmusic.com, including his latest release, the quartet album Great Spirit (Not Two).-ND


My first CD, Opening the Gates, was released in March of 2004. To the music business and CD-buying public, it was my debut. To the writers and listeners who heard it, it was “sudden and fully formed.” To me, it was a long time coming and just a drop in the bucket of what’s to come. Here is a little background: for most of my life, I’ve either been in the NYC trenches working or off the scene – traveling, teaching, engaged in spiritual retreat, or touring. In 1991, Jimmy Heath introduced me to Sonny Rollins as “one of those guys who had fallen through the cracks.” That same year Benny Golson told me that if I had a recording that I was happy with and felt represented what I wanted to do, he would hand it to a record company that he was connected with. Well, I didn’t have a recording. I didn’t even have any money.
I lived with my dreams or often wondered if they were just Quixote-like fantasies of a successful career. As each year passed, it just didn’t seem to be in the cards for me. I resigned myself to living with the cards that I was dealt with in gratitude... my life in God’s hands. In 2001, I began purchasing recording equipment with money saved from teaching and playing NYC club dates. By 2003, I had saved enough to set up a recording system in my studio apartment. I had seen so many great musicians who had passed leaving behind so few recordings... musicians like Arthur Rhames, Clyde Criner, Rob Leon, Eddie Robinson and JR Monterose in his later years are just a few. I wanted to leave this world with evidence that I really did live and that I really did have something to say, to contribute. I wanted to leave the world with something good. My first two albums, Opening the Gates and Plaza de Toros, were recorded on this equipment in 2003. Dominic Duval had Bob Rusch listen and Whit had Pedro Costa listen. Both wanted Opening the Gates. I gave it to Bob and made the second for Pedro six weeks later. A friend recently said that I reminded him of the movie Seabiscuit... that I just needed a chance to show what I could do. They finally gave me a chance.
All the Gingko Leaf recordings are of live gigs during the first part of 2005 on an alternate two-track system. You know, life certainly has its ironies. In only three weeks of having my music on the Internet, my five Gingko Leafs have surpassed the entire catalogs of six labels that wouldn’t give me the time of day two years ago. I can’t fault them, though. With hundreds of musicians constantly pursuing them, why should they take the time to listen to a recording of someone whom they had never heard of? Thanks to the Internet and the lowering cost of recording equipment, there will be many new musicians stepping onto the world stage within the next few years. Like Benny Golson once said to me, “There’s enough room on the shelf for everyone.” How prescient these words were.

You’ve said how important Bella Salerno and her book The Course of Miracles have been to you. I don’t know that book – could you say a bit about it, and about your work with her?

Bella didn't write the book. It was written by a medium who channeled it. The Course of Miracles is an intense and beautiful book. In a nutshell, it could be called “A Course in Forgiveness.” It’s really a synthesis of Christ-consciousness with Eastern philosophies and religions, but it’s in pretty much Western terms. When I was in Woodstock, I was interested in many philosophies and religions and I had come upon that book while studying with Bella. She has a real gift for doing healing work and was important in my whole healing process.
We went up to Woodstock to see her yesterday. She was telling people about me at this picnic get-together, about how she had asked me to teach a Course in Miracles. I remember when it happened... “What? Me teach a course in miracles? I mean, I’ve read the book and I’ve studied with you, but I wouldn’t know what to do.” And she says, “Well, just do what I do.” And I said, “Well.... OK, I’ll try it.”
For the first class, I had all these things that I wanted to talk about. Should I do this or should I do that? People were coming – people who had wanted Bella to teach it again... but she didn’t want to teach it anymore. She wanted to just do healing work. So these people are all up there going, “Well, who’s this guy now? She was supposed to be the teacher and who’s this guy, he doesn’t look like a guru or some kind of highfalutin religious man.” I was going, “What the heck am I gonna do?” All of a sudden it seemed – you know, the speech that’s written and it doesn’t seem appropriate. I remembered what Bella said: just ask for help. So, what I did was – I just closed my eyes in front of all those people impatiently waiting for some words of wisdom and just emptied my mind... And then asked God for help, for guidance... and then, just listened. All of a sudden, it was almost like hearing a melody; it just came out and just kept coming. The whole class flowed in such a beautiful way. Everybody was so pleased at the end of the session. The class doubled in size the next week. People started asking me for healing work and couple counseling. I said again, “Listen, I am not qualified, I don’t know what I’m doing.” And upon their insistence, I would do the same thing. I would just get quiet and say “God, please help me, I don’t know what I’m doing.” They would be always so happy with what I came up with. When I was finished, I would go, “Well, that was like a blur, I don’t even know what happened.”
Seeing your email [proposing an interview] and then thinking about how I was a little nervous about a writer wanting to talk with me, I was thinking this is really one of my biggest lessons – learning to laugh at myself and seeing that it’s the same lesson over and over again manifesting in different ways. It’s a case of reminding myself that it’s not going to go the way I want it to go, it’s going to go God’s way. And it brings me to this whole thing with changing my direction and how I was going to approach music. I had been struggling and struggling, and this is the part of the laughing at myself – when I’m struggling with something it’s to see that once again it’s my idea of how it should go, it’s my ego wanting to assert itself and make the situation happen. And when I laugh at myself and see that I’m doing it again, at that moment I can make a change and then I can say, “OK, well then, what am I supposed to really be doing?” It became the source of my guidance for whatever I’m going to do – whether it’s starting this record company where I’m putting out concerts, whether it’s booking gigs and not dealing with trying to book gigs in clubs, whether it’s turning down all these offers to be a sideman on this record or that record – it all comes down to, well, of course it’d be advantageous to play on all these records as a sideman, I’d get more visibility... of course it would be more advantageous for me to kiss butt to get into this so-and-so club. And at some point I had to ask, “Well, what am I really supposed to be doing?” And it’s at that point I have to say, “Give me some guidance,” and then – can I listen?

When I see in a musician’s discography an obvious gap or a long quiet period, there’s so many ways of interpreting that. Sometimes it means that they find themselves unable to make their way through the rigmarole of the industry and all the PR and egos and unpleasantness. Sometimes musicians genuinely don’t think they’re ready or are doubtful about their own music. And then you have people who just don’t like being leaders, they like being sidemen. So there’s a whole range of reasons why someone might not get the exposure they deserve.

Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. “Why does a couple break up?” It’s not one reason: it’s a whole panoply of reasons. Why does one person make it? I mean, why did Arthur Rhames only make one little recording that surfaced years after he was dead?

Rhames is someone who seems to have been a major force in many people’s lives and yet the exposure on disc is so minimal. I was going to ask about how you met Rhames and what you knew about his career and why he left so little behind.

There’s nothing that’s ever as clear as me just telling you what the one answer was. It’s a whole spectrum of reasons. And it really is sad, because Arthur was someone with so much to give, so much to offer, on so many levels. I mean, this was a person who could have been great at whatever he chose to do. You meet people that knew him in high school and they say he was just a leader. Everybody loved Arthur, he was an outgoing guy, he was a terrific musician. There’s not one reason. I do know that he got kicked off of gigs because he was too intimidating a musician. I don’t think too many people knew of his homosexuality; that would really have held him back...

Even in this day and age?

Well, back then it would be in the 1980s, especially with the whole AIDS thing going around and that whole scare. It was even hard for women. There was this whole machismo in jazz where if you were homosexual you wouldn’t let anybody know about it, or else, you know, this fear of not working.... I don’t think too many people knew about that part of his personality. I do know of different stories where he lost the gig because he was getting more attention than the leader. When he went out onstage, Arthur was about 6-foot-something, a completely sculpted bodybuilder. He had an arrow cut into his head with his hair facing forward. And it was a spectacle to behold when he played. When he played his Sears and Roebuck guitar it looked like the neck was bending like when you make a pencil bend. When he played piano, he absolutely tore it up. He was a big guy who made the instrument shake. The way he played it was unbelievable. When he blew sax, he blew it like he was possessed. So when he went to play with [a well-known jazz musician] people were knocked out by him and he got all the attention. So he lost the gig.

Don’t show up the leader, in other words.

I mean Arthur could show up anybody...! I just wish we had that one duet recorded. We had that moment. Whew! It could never be duplicated. It was a mindblower. I mean, talking about playing till you were almost hallucinating...

This is the July the 4th gig you did? [featuring a 45-minute “Star Spangled Banner”]

Yeah, we were playing on a rooftop of a building. It attracted so many people it was unbelievable. We just kept going.... Yeah, I wish that one was recorded. But that’s kind of what it was like with Arthur, you know. For the record, I didn’t study with Arthur directly. John Esposito was his pianist. John studied with Arthur and John showed me some things that Arthur showed him... as far as playing tunes through key cycles, things like that. That was a big part of my practicing for years, working out standards and tunes through different key cycles. Reharmonizations, and reharmonizing with different key cycles also. My wife and I went through New Paltz yesterday on our way to see Bella, and went by this one diner there. I had a flash of when we were sitting there – me, Esposito and Arthur – having dinner at this diner, and remembering Arthur ordering four or five desserts. Arthur did nothing in moderation.
I knew, based on what Arthur went through, and JR Monterose, and – I had no illusions about what it was going to be for me. That’s also one of the reasons why I got the recording studio thing together, because I didn’t want to be like Arthur – when I’m dead having left nothing or little recorded. At least I could document some things before I leave the planet. My feeling was, even though JR had many more recordings than Arthur, he was still under-recorded.

And he’s still really underrated. You talk to musicians and critics in the know and they’re usually keen on Monterose’s work, but most people... he didn’t ever luck out, you could say.

Well, again, it comes down to, what are the reasons why – he lost his cabaret card due to a heroin bust and had to leave New York back in the 1950s. That got him off the scene. He never really wanted to go back to New York. So he lived in Albany, he lived in Utica, he bounced back and forth. He lived in Europe for, I think, 15 years. Just a simple little life – smoking his joint in the morning, getting his coffee, getting his Italian lunch, playing a little bit in the house, teaching a few students, going to the OTB, and then having one little gig a week in some local café. He did that for probably most of his life after he left the scene in New York. He would never really go back down there. I remember he picked out a saxophone for me on his way out of the country in 1979 – I drove him down, he picked the horn out for me, and then I brought him to the airport and he left. I remember how awful he felt about being in New York again.

Too many memories of bad stuff.

Yeah, too many bad memories. Too much struggling with the heroin and all of that stuff... and then also the heartbreak of – you know, being in the thick of the scene. I mean, how hard it was for a white musician back then trying to play with cats he was playing with. He was one of the few white cats that was accepted by cats like Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, Tommy Flanagan, all of those guys. I’m sure there was a lot of heartbreak there for him.
So these are two among other musicians that I had been influenced by. I have no illusions of grandeur with the whole career thing. The studio was really just an attempt of, you know, being able to leave a painting behind that’s saying “FINN WAS HERE.” You know, “He really did live, he really did play the saxophone and he left a mark” – leaving this life with something good to contribute. I think that’s what we all try to do. We come here and we try to leave our fellow man with something good.

I was wondering if you could say a little about another teacher of yours, Roland Hanna. Everyone respects Hanna but I’m not sure how many people recognize how great he was.

Yeah. It’s because he said no to a lot of stuff. Like he said no to the New York clubs – he referred to them as “toilets”. When we were playing, he didn’t want to play in any of the clubs. I was frustrated because, “Jeez, I need some people to hear me, and here I am playing with Roland and he won’t play in any clubs.” But Roland was the kind of guy that you’d say, “I wish this guy was my uncle.” He was such a warm beautiful kind person, and very loving towards his students, and very generous with what he would share – and very direct. He didn’t make everybody feel like they were the greatest: if something wasn’t happening, he’d say it. I had many great moments with the guy. He taught a course on the Firebird Suite by Stravinsky, where we analyzed it in-depth. It was an invaluable experience and really has had a major influence on my music. I had another course where it was just me and Roland, playing duets. And every week, twice a week, we got together and just played tunes. He encouraged me to write. I was writing one or more compositions every day while I was at Queens College and he’d play them all, and talk about it and talk about what would be a better way to present the piano voicing with this melody for him. Roland was just a beautiful cat. We did a concert up in Woodstock and he announced, “We’re going to play the music of James Finn today” – and he’s the leader! He was that kind of a person. He was the reluctant leader. He really liked the sideman role. He said, “No one’s interested in my compositions” – that’s why he wanted to play mine.

He was one of those people for whom playing is a kind of listening.

Well, probably the two greatest accompanists that ever lived, in jazz, were Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna. When you were playing with Roland it was like, “Oh my God, this guy is really listening.” What a feeling that is! Roland was so much fun. He was very interested in what I was doing. I brought him a book, The Music of Life, by Hazrat Inayat Khan. He was very interested in that stuff. He was a great musician, he was a true scholar, and what a feel!

I should ask about Jimmy Heath and Andrew Cyrille, who you studied under.

Jimmy – what a beautiful warm generous person! It was like having a direct line – being in the lineage straight from Dizzy Gillespie. And here’s a guy who was buddies with Benny Golson and Trane. Through Jimmy I met Benny. Just a great support. We played a lot together while I was there at Queens College. Jimmy has some really nice arranging ideas, especially for arranging horns... and his way with people... and his way with teaching and... that’s probably what I learned more from Jimmy – how he talked to people and how he treated people. When you study with these masters, you absorb so much that is beyond words. Jimmy’s sound and the way he plays is his personality – warm and kind and mellifluous.
Andrew Cyrille – that was interesting. I had designed a course for my bachelor’s degree through Empire State College – the art of the drum-saxophone duet. One of the people I chose to work with was Andrew Cyrille, down at the Context Music Studio. I’d pay forty bucks or whatever it was and we’d play for an hour. It was pretty much straight-ahead playing, but he did bring up his view of a harmolodic approach. So we worked on that, which is pretty much David S. Ware’s approach to playing the saxophone, as well as many other people's. Andrew was very encouraging. He offered to be a sideman on one of my recordings if I ever wanted to do something. I just couldn’t get the money together. Like Roland, I felt like the guy was inside my head when I was playing. Andrew Cyrille’s a beautiful cat. He’s a real gentleman, like Roland. They’re like royalty, they command a presence and people who are in that presence feel that. They bring out the best in people.
Roland, Jimmy, and Andrew Cyrille, and JR, Arthur and some of the other people that I had the benefit of knowing – Eddie Robinson, a lot of people that never became famous – they all had a thread of commonality in that they were/are genuine, good people. They did not parade their status or their ego or their accomplishment around – you felt you were with family. And that is probably in a nutshell the biggest lesson I learned from all of them. I hope that I carry the torch passed onto me... that I continue to be kind to musicians and genuine and authentic.

Could you tell me a bit about your recent emergence on disc? How did Opening the Gates come about?

I had been having different straight-ahead cats coming over and playing, and it was just so frustrating, because so many of the drummers were making me do all the work – to come up with all the creative ideas. They just wanted to either play off of what I was doing or just keep a nice beat. I was so frustrated with that. I had missed playing with Marvin Bugalu Smith – actually that’s where the two-drummer thing came about... because I used to play with Marvin and Buster in their father’s basement in Englewood. That was a gas. I would go down with my tenor and play things like “Transition” – they loved playing Trane tunes, especially Marvin. So, I’d play all these later spiritual Trane tunes with them. I had missed playing with Bugalu, and so I’m playing with these cats, and I’m going [sigh...], just so frustrated. Roy Campbell introduced me to Whit Dickey, who lived around the block. Whit would come over to play. Whit wanted to play straight-ahead with me, cause Whit was starting to feel like he needed to go back and learn how to play straight-ahead and needed to learn how to compose. He wanted to become a more rounded musician. And so, we were doing that stuff and it was cool... but it wasn’t really for me.
One day, I said, “Let me just try something here.” And I did basically what I used to do before the Course of Miracles, before I’d have to teach or do a healing session. I just got quiet, took a little break, and asked for some guidance. Listened. And then we played... “Wow, that was incredible.” We played a few more times and he said, “We should get somebody else involved in this”, and I said, “Well, who would do it?” And he said, “Get Dominic!” And I said, “Dominic? I know Dominic.” I used to play with him, about eight years ago. We did a few gigs together. So, I called Dominic and he came over the next day. He was happy to hear from me, he didn’t know I was still in New York. He came over, and the first track on Opening the Gates was the first thing we played. They’re looking around for guidance from me and I said “No, we’re just going to play.” I got quiet and then I just lowered my horn... and the whole session flowed from there. We recorded about 20, 25 minutes, and Dominic said “That was incredible. You've got to send that to Bob Rusch.” And Whit said “You've got to send that to Pedro Costa.” They gave me a few other names to send it to. Everybody wanted it. Everybody wanted those 25 minutes. Dominic thought it’d be best to go with CIMP because they had more legs, more distribution. So I said, “listen Pedro, I’m really sorry, I’m going to go with CIMP”, and he was bummed. I said “Listen, I’m going to make a CD just for you.”
A few weeks later, I heard Warren playing on a Rob Brown disc, Round the Bend. I really liked what he was doing for the most part. I said, “You know, I could do something with this guy.” So I called up Warren and I sent him Opening the Gates and some other things, and he said “Yeah, I’ll come over”, and so that was the Plaza de Toros session – the first time I met Warren.

Really, so it was just – get there and play?

Yeah. The main guidance I gave them was that I was looking for it to have Spanish overtones or undertones. For most of the CD, I had a little theme or something I wanted as a starting point. There’s two things that are almost completely free – “The Phantom Bull of Seville,” “The Eyes of Angelina,” I think “El Tercio de Varas,” I have to check on that one. There was nothing written out, nothing rehearsed. For one melody I said, “Make sure you go to the IV, I’ll cue you, and then come out of it when it sounds like it’s supposed to come out.” That was the title track, “Plaza de Toros”. Yeah, I gave them a little guidance with the intro piece. I said, “OK you’re gonna start off, I’m gonna play the line with just Warren, and then Warren, you can do some fills, I’ll play the line again, and then Dominic, you’re gonna come in and then we’re gonna just go.” Everything was first take, there was no two takes.
It’s a very interesting recording, the way it came together, first time playing together... and the things that happen in the first time, where cats are feeling each other out. When you have a cat like Warren Smith... it’s very easy to tune into a musician like that, and vice versa. He tuned into me very easily, because I’m clear about what I play – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to follow the lines.

That’s in many way what struck me most, even listening to Opening the Gates – how direct it is and how logically it’s put together.

Well, thanks! I think they call it lyricism – it comes from years of playing in blues bands and playing straight-ahead stuff and playing a billion melodies, playing a lot of classical music; it comes from having played music – all good music is lyrical, and American jazz has a sense of the blues, a sense of saying something. That’s probably what you’re hearing. Even Plaza de Toros... I really look at that as a blues record, because it’s getting involved in the inner world of what goes on between the matador and the bull. The same way a blues singer will sing about the condition of pain and suffering. I think that’s what makes Plaza de Toros accessible; it has a sense of coherency because of having a lyrical approach from beginning to end – the whole album is saying a story. As Faith in a Seed – as really all the albums. I mean, if you read most of the titles they read as a poem or they read as a story. And that’s what I’m engaged in once I get out of the way and I say, “OK, please give me guidance” – it comes out as a story.
You know, I’ll listen back sometimes – even Faith in a Seed... I wasn’t feeling well for that day, and it’s “Where did I get the energy?” Even some of these things on Gingko Leaf, it’s like, “Where did I get the energy to play that?” It comes out so effortlessly because I’m not struggling with it. I try to be out of the way as much as possible. That may be also one of the reasons why – you know you were saying, “Why does it take certain cats so long?” Well, I didn’t really want to be in New York playing as a leader the same old mumbo jumbo that everybody else is doing; I wanted to have something that was, “Well, what is my statement? When I leave this earth, what did I say? What did I contribute?”

In other words not just rehashing or being a stylist in a previous style, but actually adding something to it.

Yeah... not just a very impressive proficient student – that’s basically the aesthetic these days. And for me it was, "Well, this doesn’t interest me." In fact, it was when I said that I am no longer a “student”... I’m always learning, but I’m no longer a student. That is all a part of my stepping up to the plate, so to speak, and putting myself out there. I’m not going to put myself out there unless I feel like I have something to say.

The three CDs Plaza de Toros, The Last Matador and Into the Afterworld form a narrative of sorts around a bullfighter, his relationship to the bull, his eventual death and afterlife. Is bullfighting an interest that pre-existed the recordings – have you gone to bullfights, for instance?

For the record, I’ve never attended a bullfight and don’t have much interest in them. For Plaza de Toros, I had prewritten most of the themes before the session and directed Dominic and Warren that I wanted a feeling of “Old Spain” throughout the recording. They had no idea of the bullfight. I had thought of this idea months before while living in Spanish Harlem. The bullfight is one of the most intense archetypal confrontations in our history. Is it not? I couldn’t have planned on it fitting more perfectly into the stages of the bullfight. Like the album Faith in a Seed, Plaza de Toros is a musical allegory filled with many metaphors. Could the charging toro symbolize our inner struggles or demons... or, is it the elusive ego of the matador that keeps us from the clarity to live a life of peace and joy? Another viewpoint could be the matador comes to realize while trying to out maneuver this clever toro, that this bullfight was more than just “man conquering beast”. As they each try to anticipate and outwit the other, it is revealed to him that their consciousnesses are in some way entwined. If you use your imagination, you can hear that at times the horn or the bass is the matador and at other times the horn or the bass is the toro. Is this crafty animal his match, his equal? In the finale, the Matador is hailed as the hero, but he realizes, however, that it was the relentless and crafty “Toro Bravo” who in facing death so courageously became the true hero. Like a good poem, there are many metaphors and perspectives that can lead to many interesting interpretations.

I assume that people like Coltrane and Ayler and Sanders must have been a big inspiration. But looking at your CV it’s great old hard boppers – Monterose, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson and so forth. Did you know early on that you were going to be doing free jazz, or was it more a gradual shift?

The answer comes from many angles. I had studied art history intensively for years, and of course in school we studied literature and the history of literature. In my discovery of jazz, I discovered this album – late Trane. It immediately moved me. At that time, about 1977-78, I was listening to Charlie Parker Live at Birdland, and I was listening to John Coltrane’s Expressions. I’d just started studying with JR. JR said something to me: “Freedom is a privilege that comes with responsibility.” And he insisted that I was able to play straight-ahead – he thought that I should know how to play bebop and all of the music before I started doing that other stuff. So I got involved in doing that.
I actually had the choice of studying with either JR or Nick [Brignola], they were doing a “Bebop Battle.” JR had a completely unique approach and style. He pushed away the microphone – this is a big auditorium – because JR liked to play acoustically. That got me into playing acoustically, studying with JR and learning about blowing without a microphone. All those Gingko Leaf recordings, I’m playing the concert without a microphone. JR played with such a personal style and with so much heart and soul. Especially the thing that knocked me out was when he played a ballad. As far as I’m concerned, Dexter Gordon, Trane, and JR Monterose are my favorite ballad players on the tenor saxophone. He is right in there, if not the best one, because JR could tell a story, especially in his last few years of life. I remember just crying like a baby in that last concert... listening to him play, knowing him so well, and hearing how he was playing, trying not to let anybody see I was bawling.
So it was basically a lifelong thing, of being the good student and struggling to learn how to play... yet always having that sound of the Holy Ghost in my ear.

Once you really hear that it permanently stays in your ear.

Does it fit over “Joy Spring”? It’s tough, to play it over “Joy Spring” or “All the Things You Are”. I mean, I would play this way with drummers over at their home or at my home – I had drums for years. I would play some free sessions with people later on, but it was never on gigs, it was informal stuff.
I get a kick out of writers: “Finn is heavily influenced by Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp.” You’re going to be surprised, but I had never heard an Albert Ayler record until I had already recorded my first three things. I was playing Faith in a Seed for my repairman friend, and some guy walked in and goes, “Is that an Albert Ayler record?” And I said, “Huh, Albert Ayler. Wow, maybe I should go check him out...” So I went to my friend Tubman at Tower Records and Tubman said, “Here, check these out. This is Spiritual Unity and Prophecy”, and he gave me a handful of Albert Ayler things.

Did you ever listen to European players like Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann?

No – there are only a few European players that I've had a chance to hear. I did hear Peter Brötzmann at the Cooler years ago and at the Vision Fest more recently. I feel that Barry Guy is one of the most lyrical of that whole European crowd that I’ve heard, and seems to be the most musically accomplished. I love his energy too. He’s someone I’m really looking forward to getting together with someday. We have written each other about getting together to play a duet.

Your discs on Gingko Leaf have mostly used a bassless, two-drummer rhythm section. How did you come to work in this kind of format?

That two-drum thing was an accident, the first one. I had booked a duet, because The Tribes is such a small room – it’s basically this cat’s converted apartment – and I had planned to just do a duet with Warren. Klaus was in town. He carried my drumset down from my house to do the gig and so we had two drums. That’s how The Last Matador came about.
Klaus asked me could we do another one. I was into it, trying to see where it could go. So, we did Into the Afterworld. After that I said, "You know, I really like this, it feels good again." It used to feel good playing with the Smith brothers. I guess they did a lot of two-drums things with Sun Ra’s band.

What are your next projects? Is the two-drummer thing still your main focus?

Where I would like to go with the two-drum thing is an expanded percussion ensemble. Warren – he is a percussion source. He has all the gongs, he’s one of my favorite vibes and marimba players, and so I like the idea of expanding it, with Newman Baker and Warren and maybe even another percussionist. With or without a bass, I’m not sure. I also have designs for writing something for my wife and it may have strings, piano – again I’d like Warren to be a part of this project in some capacity. As far as I’m concerned, any ensemble I put together should have Warren in it. He reminds me of Roland Hanna. He’s the kind of musician that will fit into any situation and contribute something that’s positive music. He will never take away from it, he will always add. And Warren plays the music, and there are so few cats now that can do that. He’s a master percussionist.
I like the idea of this percussion ensemble and then expanding it. I’m going to try Dominic with it, but I really hear someone more like Barry Guy with it. And then possibly some other things. I was even thinking of a synthesizer player who had more of a percussive approach. But I don’t know if that’s really going to work. I’m looking for somebody that’s going to paint a little bit here or there, in a very sparse way – I don’t think I’m going to really find it, and I have mixed feelings about incorporating electricity. I had an experiment years ago where I wrote for an electric band, and the overtones just are not there with the electricity.

A lot of musicians in the 1990s turned to a kind of polystylism, particularly the New York downtown scene, whereas with your music I can sense the different styles you’ve played in the background but I don’t expect you to burst out into “All the Things You Are”. Aside from the free stuff, are there other styles of music that you perform publicly nowadays?

As far as I’m concerned, what I’m doing now is what I’m interested in. I mean, you name the style, especially in jazz, I’ve played it and played it to death. I’ve played in more funk bands than most cats will ever play in their life. The last session we did, Mike Thompson went into a little funk groove in the middle of one thing – I just went with it. I didn’t tell him he “couldn’t play funk”; he felt the need to play it at that moment. And we all just went with it. It wasn’t written into the music or directed. My feeling is – it’s to really allow myself to be vulnerable, and not hide behind this groove or a style. You know, the styles have been done. Can somebody come out and just play a melody straight from their heart? Can they play a pulse that they’re feeling is going to move them right now? I feel like there’s no other leaders out there that will entrust somebody to just play their soul song. And that’s what I do for my guys. I say, “Listen, when you show up you play this as if it’s your gig.” I told Warren, “Play it as if you’re the leader of the band.” And I want everybody to feel that way. I always tell a drummer, “Listen, first rule of thumb is, you can never overplay with me.” So many drummers are constantly being told, especially by the old cats, “you’re overplaying, this is my band.” But with me, I like guys to feel like they can express themselves. I don’t tell Dominic, “Listen, Dominic, you’re playing too much”; I say, “Dominic, just go. But you know, make sure you’re listening.” That’s about it.
As far as composition goes, it’s just from having been methodical in my approach to study and practice, and the years I spent composing music, writing out stuff for people to play. Eventually from playing hundreds and hundreds of tunes and every style of music you get a sense of composition, you get a sense of form. And so all of that stuff, all the bebop and all the reggae bands and the funk bands and the R&B bands and the classical music I’ve played – it’s all in there, and it’s all a part of who I am. And it’s me allowing myself to just trust and let go and just play and not give that kind of direction. I think that’s part of why the music sounds the way it does. It has an immediacy to it because it these guys aren’t playing through the filtered glasses of a style.

Your website mentions that you’d developed your own twelve-tone approach, and also that you were doing stuff with mathematical proportions. How’s that work in your music?

Well, most of that stuff is really for the woodshed. In the practice room I’m a scientist: I explore, I’m experimenting, I’m putting together things. That system that I’ve been working on for years and years, it’s really an exploration. It’s had quite an impact on my music because it’s coming from such a centered place. That’s one of the reasons why, when you hear stuff that’s without chords – which is a lot of the stuff – it has so much structure and foundation. It’s not me just blowing this note to that note, but it all comes from years and years of exploring and pushing outward – the same way a scientist would. It came about in many interesting ways. It first showed itself when I was playing “Giant Steps” through the keys. That was the beginning of the whole system. The beginnings of it were when I was on a Lakota vision quest. Things started coming together for me with that. Then there were many other things that happened around this whole phenomenon of playing this music out in the woods, day after day.

So you were playing outside?

I can’t tell you how many years outside...!

Sort of like Sonny Rollins on the bridge.

Sonny doesn’t even come close to how much time I’ve played outside! One place I lived was on a farm with 200 acres. I had a little tent – it was like I was in Africa. I played outside every day. When I lived in the Village in an apartment on 6th Street between 1st and 2nd I wasn’t allowed to play my horn in the place. So every day I blew in Tompkins Park. In Woodstock, I played more outside than inside... always in the woods. When I first really started getting into it after high school, I had a job as a produce clerk. After work, at ten o’clock at night, there was this big barren parking lot – I played there till two in the morning with the soprano sax, every day after work. It’s endless how much time I've put outside. I love playing outside.

That’s fascinating, because you get such a big sound, and you were saying you actually prefer not working with a mike.

Oh, yeah, I mean it’s so fascinating to me, the production of the sound. It’s all about me vibrating like a vessel, becoming a vessel for God. It’s allowing myself to be the reed. Allowing the horn to just freely vibrate and to project the sound out. I used to have my students look out at a star and visualize that their sound was hitting that star and coming back, or visualize a vista point, or for me it would be maybe visualize blowing to God, or blowing thousands of years into the future or the past. It would never be just the room, it would always be to something much further.
That was one of the first things with JR. He talked about how it’s not how big your sound is, it’s the projection of your sound. He’d have one of those wooden boxes with the tuning fork on them that they had years ago, and if you hit the tuning fork and it resonates the sound comes out of the box – it’s like an amplifier. And he put the tuning fork in the back room closet. We’d stand at the other end of the house and be playing and see if each of us could ring the box that was buried in the closet.

Like the proverbial opera singer breaking a wine glass.

Exactly. And it’s so interesting being hooked up with Jennifer now. We are in two different worlds working on the same exact thing. The way she’s working on effortlessly producing a sound that’s projecting and resonating throughout her whole body. And that’s exactly what I’ve been working at for years. You hear these guys out there with no sound. And JR used to tell me sound was everything. He said it’s just sound, that’s the first thing that people hear. It’s who you are. So it’s projecting and resonating with the sound; toning, you know – people tone for healing.

One of the things that immediately struck me about your recordings is the way you use the “false” register on the saxophone: you often reach really high up there, and have a lot of precision in that zone. If it’s not too technical to ask, how do you approach using that area of the saxophone?

I call this range the fourth and fifth octaves. So much of what we can achieve depends on what we call it and how we perceive it. When I first started playing, I thought this range to be impossible. Over the years, because of the need to carry my solos over deafening r’n’b bands, I gradually extended the range of the horn for myself. The third and fourth octaves of the tenor saxophone are sometimes the only notes that can be heard over cranked guitars and bashing drums, especially if I didn’t have a monitor speaker. Out of necessity, I developed fingerings for these notes and can play scales and melodies in the fourth and fifth octaves. The only other sax player that I’ve met that plays in this range as fluently as me is Lenny Pickett. Selmer had invited Lenny and myself to the midtown Marriott in 2001 to try their new prototypes. It was just Lenny and myself in a small conference room blowing. At the time, he was even more fluent in this range than myself. It inspired me to go home and shed until I acquired total fluency. I think what distinguishes me now from Lenny, in this range, is that I also use alternate fingerings and multiphonics in the third, fourth and fifth octaves.

Were what people nowadays call “world musics” a big influence on you?

Well, I taught world music at Orange Community College... African music, Middle-Eastern Music, Turkish music, you name it, it was all part of the course. And that’s a big essence of what my music is. This whole thing with my system that I came up with, it goes back to prehistoric times. What I’m trying to do is prehistoric. I wouldn’t call it modern music. To me it’s something that goes way way back. And I learned this from all those cultures. It’s the same way that all the spiritual teachings are the same. All religions are saying the same message: love and forgiveness. When you hear something that resonates for you in my music, that’s something that’s primordial.

You’ve learned a lot from the great jazz masters, who came out of a time when jazz was more culturally central than it is now. Does the small audience for the kind of music you choose to play bother you? You’ve had the experience of playing more popular kinds of music for much larger crowds...

You know, none of that stuff interests me or concerns me. I was the last person to see Arthur on his deathbed, and it was a sight that would make any grown man cry. It was horrible how he suffered at the end with the AIDS. The day before the last time I saw him, he said to me, “You know what, Jim, this would all be insignificant if I could just get out there and play, even if there was only one person in the room who I could reach. It would all have been worth it – all of my practicing, all of my journey, all of my suffering would have been worth it. I had always wanted to be a star and always wanted to be adored by everyone. And now, I realize that it was really just a matter of reaching one other person.”
When somebody in that situation tells you that... when you see them looking like that on their deathbed... it stuck with me. If I show up to a room and there’s three people in the audience, hey, it’s like playing at Shea Stadium. If I sell five CDs and one of those people calls me back and says, “that’s powerful stuff, it left an impression on me”, then hey, that’s my payment. I don’t need to have 20 thousand, 20 million, if I have just one – I’m thinking of Arthur with that, and it really brought me to earth. For me, the thing that thrills me the most is the process, of being an artist, of being a human being. The process of learning my lessons, of learning to love deeper, learning to forgive myself and others. That’s the thing, it’s not the career or the gigs or all of that stuff, it’s something that’s much more powerful. And that’s where I get the enjoyment and the satisfaction. All that other stuff is out of my hands, I can’t struggle with any of that stuff.
Not everybody’s going to like what I do. That’s a given. I can’t be concerned about that – the old expression is, “It’s none of my business what people think of me.” Well, it’s none of my business if they like or dislike me really, for me it’s to just be in my process and be true to my process. If somebody along the way loves my home cooking... well, great! I’ll keep making meals for them. Or, if they love that flower that I grew... and they want to walk by and take a whiff of it on their way to work – hey!
When you lose everything a few times, you start realizing, you know, my internal condition is much more important than the external. The external world is not going to validate how I feel about myself. And I think that’s where most artists get bent out of shape. They’re looking for the accolades. They’re looking for the sales – the festivals. It has nothing to do with how I feel about myself. I’m a very fortunate man – I have a loving wife who’s going to have a child. I have a full studio with a waiting list of musicians who want to study with me. My life is completely blessed. At this point, it’s really just about living a life of gratitude, and keeping things in focus on what’s important and what’s not.


Colour photos courtesy of Laurence Donohue-Greene. See other interviews of related interest: Burton Greene, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, Sunny Murray