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Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense: Moving Still

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Jonathan Finlayson’s strong affection for chess is built into his music. Sicilian Defense, his band’s name, is an oft-used opening move, and-as was so on the band’s 2013 debut, Moment and the Message-his song titles often allude to the game. So it’s naturally tempting to try to compare his approach to music-making to the studious, laser-focused ways of a grandmaster: How does Finlayson strategize? Does he consider possible moves and attempt to look far ahead, to envision where he might end up? Does he psych out the other players?

If he does any of that he’s coy about it, that’s for sure. The music on Moving Still is never predictable, but it isn’t random or overly cerebral, either. Even at its freest, the last third of “Flank and Center,” when the entire quintet-trumpeter Finlayson, drummer Craig Weinrib, bassist John Hébert, guitarist Miles Okazaki (the only holdover from the first incarnation) and pianist Matt Mitchell-is off and running, there’s both a sense of control and the delicious notion that it could all fall apart with the next move. “Between Moves” is contemplative, but there is none of that sense of interminability that might make a lesser chess player overthink and lose the center.

The greatest difference, though, is that these five musicians are not in competition. “All of the Pieces,” the 11-minute opener, and the largely open-ended closer, “Folk Song,” are designed to showcase individual temperament and ingenuity, even as the players coalesce so willingly and instinctively. Finlayson, who composed the six pieces, trusts his collaborators implicitly and everyone’s game is stronger for it. Checkmate.

Originally Published