James Finn Trio: Faith in a Seed

Evaluating free jazz is an even more uncertain, more subjective endeavor than most art criticism. My thesis, notwithstanding, is that Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre’s Paths to Glory is a strikingly successful example of the free-jazz genre and James Finn’s Faith in a Seed is not.

The latter features tenor saxophonist Finn, bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Warren Smith. On eight tracks (minimal, transitory “seeds”), Finn walks out on a tightrope, cuts the rope and tries to conjure himself aloft in free air, alone except for the buffeting gusts of energy blown upward by Duval and Smith. To sustain interest for an hour in this format could not be more creatively challenging, and Finn never sells his mission short. He is a passionate, tireless improviser who fearlessly pursues every imaginative option that presents itself. But he often sounds like a man pounding on a door that won’t open. His endless croaking bursts rarely accumulate into anything compelling or attractive. Exacerbation is not the same as power.

Paths to Glory is, moment-by-moment, impossible to anticipate and alive with revelations, bafflements, breakthroughs and exhilarations. The two defining voices in McIntyre’s quartet are the leader’s tenor saxophone (with the undeniable summons of its human cry) and the fluid tuba of Jesse Dulman (whose guttural blasts of counterpoint open new possibilities of group form and texture). Dulman’s solos are also fascinating in their liberated, lumbering grace. Drummer Ravish Momin contributed the album’s centerpiece, “Suite for My Mother.” It surges and falls and flows over 19 minutes and gives all four players (including bassist Adam Lane) deeply personal moments within a vast freely discovered collective design.

These direct-to-two-track digital recordings achieve lifelike sonic renderings of musicians in a tangible acoustic space. Because engineer Marc D. Rusch uses no compression, the average output level is abnormally low, and the dynamic range is close to that of live music. Be careful where you set the gain on your amplifier.