Saturday, July 12, 2014

Jazz Up Your Openings

This week we have been mostly listening to Jonathan Finlayson and Sicilian Defense on their recent album Moment and the Message...

by Pi Recordings
...well, a couple of weeks ago the background tracks for an exceedingly agréable fortnight's holiday in Brittany.

On the middle Sunday the local community centre hosted an amateur art show - on the door was a notice from a Monsieur Vigouroux inviting anyone interested to contact him to form a chess club to be called, delightfully, La Diagonale Bigoudienne (the Pays Bigouden is how that western part of Brittany is known). I emailed him tout de suite to express solidarity, but think that my meaning may have been lost in the merde of my demented French. No answer did there come, not rien. But I mentioned the blog (or tried to), so perhaps M. Vigouroux will look in - and if he ever reads this post : Bonjour Johannes! C'était vraiment moi, and bonne chance with the new club.  

And after that petit detour, back to contemporary jazz by the chess-playing trumpeter Jonathan Finalyson and his combo Sicilian Defense. You can sample all tracks here, and listen in full to track 3, Ruy Lopezhere.

Generally the music is rather post-modern, as we say these days. Stylistically magpie, it is complex, switch-backing fare; fine if you like a mental work-out as your music, but not if you prefer the lyrical linearity of the classics: Miles for example. It is more Kasparov than Capablanca. Except, that is, for Ruy Lopez, which has an straightforward serpentine flow appropriate to the boa-constrictor opening.

As for chess: Jonathan Finlayson takes it seriously, judging from these extracts from a helpful article in October last year in Jazz Times by David R. Adler, as does another band member Miles Okazaki (guitar):
'Okazaki, a colleague...who shares Finlayson’s passion for chess, remarks, “Jonathan’s chess game has the same balance as his musical personality, in my opinion. When I play him I think everything is going well until I realize he has a subtle strategy that is ultimately crushing. When I hear playbacks from recordings and gigs with him, it’s kind of similar—things he did in the moment went through under the radar, but upon closer listening you realize he made some very slick moves.” '
  Which is okay, but as regards the chess-effect this is better:
'For all its heated competitive lore, Okazaki describes chess as “a creative construction between two people,” and that ethos prevails in Finlayson’s band without doubt. But there’s also a whiff of battle: “It’s going to be a fight if you see [the Sicilian Defense] played,” Finlayson remarks. “I like that, because as black you are at a disadvantage when you play the game. You’re a tempo behind white, so you’re defending. The Sicilian is almost like, ‘I’m fighting right out the block. Instead of passively waiting to equalize, I’m fighting right now.’ I really like that attitude.” '
So, he definitely seems to know about chess-as-played some way beyond chess as jaded metaphor. Moreover, according to another review:
'Ruy Lopez is a musical transcription of the first eight moves of the popular chess opening.' 
Which suggests that opening theory-wise Jonathan F. is an e4 man; though music theory-wise I'm now way out of my book. I think I'm right in saying that Shostakovitch and Bach wrote pieces based on the initials of their names. But jazzing up your openings? Does Ruy Lopez go down the main line, follow the files, and play out: e, e, f, c, b, a, a, f ? Could anyone with a better ear than mine kindly elucidate (a good transcription exercise for someone learning the piano).

You can see Jonathan Finlayson in a short duo with saxophonist Steve Coleman here:

 Strictly speaking Moment and the Message isn't a cover version - but it's close.