|One Final Note Review James Finn breaks onto the scene with an astonishing debut album, entirely recorded at his home studio with co-conspirators Dominic Duval and Whit Dickey. Opening the Gates, completely improvised according to the liner notes, is a fiery session, alternating between Albert Ayler and late-period Coltrane as touch points, but with a unique sound all Finn's own.
"Stone Birds' Northward Helix" begins the disc with a brief statement that could be straight out of Coltrane's catalog. One expects to hear Rashied Ali start up underneath, as if it's some lost take from Interstellar Space. Bassist Dominic Duval makes his presence quickly known, however, and one realizes that there is a fresh voice at the helm. Finn's playing is strong, and he makes his mark early on, worrying over a variety of themes, picking apart and reassembling them in any manner of order. His clean, short runs and full exploration of the tenor's entire range are admirable on the opening track, as is the space he gives to his partners. Duval, in particular, rises to the invitation, playing extremely rapid pizzicato and arco counterpoint—his touring and playing with Cecil Taylor have clearly paid dividends. Dickey is the most musical he's ever been, supporting with an incessant hi hat and cymbal work reminiscent of another Taylor associate—Sunny Murray.
Track two, the title track, nods in another direction, vintage Ayler, with a tone slightly less acerbic while maintaining the sheer force of Ayler's greatest work. Finn begins solo, with a heavy use of vibrato, easing in and out of notes without hitting them dead-on. It's a short statement, but a kind of invocation for what is to follow. Dickey comes in strong, heavy on the toms but without overplaying, as he is sometimes wont to do. His quick triplet figures among toms and bass drum are notable throughout, rooting Finn's high-flying lines.
"Starlight Extensions" begins with a Dickey solo, somewhat heavy-handed, but setting up Finn's entrance well enough. Again, Coltrane is not far from mind, with Finn's movements into false registers particularly Trane-like. Duval is a master in this setting, running across his bass, prodding and responding in kind. Dickey provides compelling support, finessing things along during a Duval solo with a faux Afro-Cuban beat (with interesting use of hi hat on the off-beat) that turns, ever so-briefly with Finn's reentrance, into a Tony Williams high-speed swing.
"Falling Blossoms Rising Moon" is a dirge-like piece entirely of the trio's own making. It's the shortest piece on the CD, with Duval on bow and Dickey on mallets. "Spinning Pyramids Propelled", is up next, beginning with a Duval solo of essentially a walking-line interrupted by quick runs and discarded notes. Finn hits again, with the same immediacy he brings to the other pieces but with slightly diminished returns beginning to set in as the modus operandi is now firmly set. In truth, it's hard to tell between this piece and some of its predecessors.
"Truth Exiled into Paradise" provides a welcome change with a more lyrical side of the trio. It's the airiest of all the pieces on the disc, and a welcome respite with fine statements by all. The remaining two tracks round out a powerful debut, with particularly haunting playing from the entire trio on the finale, "Prayer for the Dead". If anything, Finn is the sore thumb on this last track, as Dickey and Duval set up a barely audible background. Finn's playing, however, is so forceful, so sure-footed and infectious that it is hard to fault him for his exuberance. Indeed, he is a powerful player, by the sound of this debut coming to the music almost fully formed. Opening the Gates is a highly impressive beginning, and Finn well deserves any hype that will most assuredly come his way.