Music » Giant Steps

Nashville jazz drummer Marcus Finnie flexes his versatility on new disc; Gary Giddins' film criticism remains a delight



Marcus Finnie has a track record of playing gospel music that dates back to his days as a child percussionist, when he would accompany his mother at Memphis' famed Olivet Baptist Church. Today, the Nashville drummer's array of credits ranges from tours with Larry Carlton and Kirk Whalum to stints with Donna Summer and Billy Preston.

Finnie can execute anything required on drums with ease, flamboyance and taste. The years he spent backing singers taught him the value of shading and accents behind bombastic vocalists. Yet he's equally skilled at supplying and maintaining primary beats for funk/R&B, while delivering the multiple textures, contrasting rhythms and intersecting phrases demanded of rhythm sections in mainstream jazz.

Given that diversified background, it's no surprise Finnie's among a growing number of modern musicians whose idea of jazz is fluid, unconcerned with rigid notions about authenticity and categorization. As if to earn its title, his debut CD Boundless has large ensemble pieces and sparse combo numbers, blends acoustic and electric instrumentation, incorporates funk, pop, rock, and R&B elements into a jazz base, and repeatedly displays Finnie's fluency in every situation.

"I was trying to give the listener the choice to choose what they liked instead of pointing them in any one direction," Finnie says, outlining why Boundless covers so much thematic territory. "I wanted to do a record with music that I enjoyed playing and that was good music, period. I didn't care to perform a specific genre. [The album] can be placed in the contemporary jazz section, but then again I wanted to give the listener a variety of things and let them decide what they like rather than push one thing on them."

Finnie's in line with current performers like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding who know and respect the entire spectrum of jazz. They dazzle whether doing a Charles Mingus classic (as he did last year in a special band at the Frist performing Mingus compositions) or backing longtime friends and mentors (as he does with Whalum on Boundless' sizzling cut "Fish & Spaghetti").

Finnie previewed selections from the disc last fall at the Nashville Jazz Workshop as part of their Contemporary Jazz Masters series. His companions for the session of originals cut at Platinum Labs studio include saxophonist Mark Douthit and keyboardist Demarco Johnson, among many other outstanding Music City and area jazz musicians.

While Whalum's the first name he mentions when questioned about influences, Finnie's quick to cite both drummers and others as key factors in his drumming style.

"Certainly Kirk Whalum, but also Steve Gadd, Herbie Hancock, Larry Carlton, Roy Haynes, Vinnie Colaiuta, Earth, Wind & Fire, Marcus Miller and too many others to mention," Finnie says. Hancock and Miller are also on the list of musicians that he'd like to work with in the future, along with Kenny Garrett, Anthony Jackson, Greg Phillinganes and Stevie Wonder.

Though a recent local residency ended when the club changed owners, Finnie, who polished his skills at MTSU, remains upbeat about jazz opportunities in Music City. "I think it [jazz in Nashville] is growing," the veteran drummer says. "There are many great musicians in Nashville. I'm just trying to get the music out to the people."

Boundless is available on various online sites, including CD Baby and Amazon.

Critical switch

Since the early '70s Gary Giddins has been among the world's finest jazz critics. His "Weather Bird" Village Voice column was essential reading for nearly three decades, and Giddins' comprehensive biographies on Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, as well as exhaustive jazz anthologies and histories, have earned him numerous awards.

But jazz, or for that matter music in general, isn't Giddins' only area of expertise. He's also written extensively on film, and his new collection Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema (W.W. Norton) provides the same thorough engagement with an array of genres that's been his trademark with jazz volumes. But rather than exploring cinema through the lenses of the multiplexes, Warning Shadows illuminates the proliferation of DVD special series, collections and reissues.

Besides tough, but always fair, analyses of great actors and major directors, Giddins spotlights the impact of DVDs in the film universe. Their bonus footage, fresh interviews, restored prints and other perks not only offer fresh insight into classic films, they often cause revisions of thought regarding a film's direction and importance.

Whether they're westerns, cartoons, romance, noir, foreign or domestic works, Gary Giddins has not only seen the main subjects of his essays but tons of related works, and he brilliantly puts them all into perspective. Warning Shadows isn't just for people who love film, but those who care about cultural history.

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