Nick FinzerLegacy: a Centennial Celebration of J.J. Johnson Outside In Music

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Trombonist Nick Finzer celebrates jazz legend J.J. Johnson’s centennial with Legacy featuring Johnson’s long standing band members Renee Rosnes, Rufus Reid and Lewis Nash

Outside in Music is thrilled to announce the release of Legacy, a joyous centennial celebration of the legendary J.J. Johnson by admired trombonist, composer, educator and label founder Nick Finzer. Known as one of jazz’s most profound luminaries, J.J. Johnson is considered one of the most influential and pioneering trombonists in jazz history. Legacy assembles Johnson’s original band members including pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Lewis Nash , and was recorded at the iconic Rudy Van Gelder studios in Englewood, NJ, where Johnson himself recorded many of his classic albums. Featuring a host of arrangements of Johnson’s compositions, pieces from his regular songbook, and Finzer’s own originals that exemplify Johnson’s distinctive style, Legacy is not merely a tribute album, but stands as a testament to the ever-present and transformative influence Johnson still has today.

Finzer’s affinity and connection with Johnson runs deep, beginning over twenty years ago when the Rochester-born musician first picked up the trombone. With 2024 marking Johnson’s centennial, Finzer has taken up the mantle not only of highlighting the mastery and lasting impact of Johnson’s playing, but his substantial impact as a prolific arranger, educator, and pioneer within the genre of jazz trombone. Finzer summarizes the importance of Johnson succinctly: “ Sometimes it is the nature of our industry to overlook the trombone, but as my mentor, Steve Turre has said many times, ‘J.J. Johnson did for the trombone what Charlie Parker did for the saxophone.’ He was a true innovator of his time, and his innovations have lasted throughout his lifetime and beyond.”

One of the ways Finzer sought to honor and vitalize the Legacy project was to work with greats who had themselves been staple members of Johnson’s bands. “When I first conceived of wanting to celebrate this milestone of jazz history, I wanted to involve as many alumni of J.J. Johnson’s bands as I could,” Finzer says. “This led me to calling Renee Rosnes, Rufus Reid and Lewis Nash, all of whom were active members of J.J.’s recording and touring groups in the 1980s and 1990s.”

The collaboration between the group on Legacy was profound and relatively unique, as it is multi-generational. Finzer points out the honor and magnitude of such an opportunity to work with living legends who themselves worked with a substantial forerunner who came before them. “It was a new experience for me to develop relationships with jazz legends like these and to work with them on music that holds such a special place in their past,” Finzer says. “It’s amazing being able to experience the level of musicianship of musicians who have played with your heroes, who not only give you respect, but who are dedicated to bringing your musical vision to life, without sacrificing the deep understanding and commitment to the legacy of this music.” With Finzer’s leadership and expertise, coupled with the rhythm trio’s depth of knowledge and experience with Johnson, they brought to life with utmost authenticity the music that makes up his legacy, and the music that pays respect to Johnson’s work.

Legacy features a host of compositions by Johnson, originals by Finzer in the style of Johnson, and a composition by Rosnes that J.J. readily adopted as a staple part of his songbook during his lifetime. Of Johnson’s work, Finzer found that the ballads are some of the most profound musical experiences on the album. In particular, Johnson’s beloved piece “Lament” is highlighted. Finzer’s arrangement preserves the beauty of the original melody, but frames it with new presentations of the main theme and adding interludes to emphasize the emotion of the ballad. “Malaga Moon” is an original by Rosnes that she wrote for Johnson during her time in his band that became a cornerstone of his repertoire during his life. It was first recorded by Johnson with a studio orchestra, and so the band on Legacy adapted the energy and spirit of that recording for quartet. “Johnson’s sound from that recording has been permanently imprinted in my brain,” Finzer says. “It’s a beautiful composition and a wonderful tribute to J.J.’s musicianship. It was very special to be able to play it with the composer, on a project for the person who she wrote it for.”

The impact and influence of Johnson’s original band members on this album and on Finzer’s creative process is profound, and enabled Legacy to be steeped in nothing short of the legacy the album’s title seeks to evoke. Of the band, Finzer has nothing but praise to give. “Lewis Nash might be the most swinging drummer on the face of the planet, everything that he does brings the perfect balance of energy, swing, and taste!” Finzer says. “It has been an amazing opportunity to be able to work with him and learn from him about J.J. and his legacy as a musician and bandleader.” Finzer acknowledges the generous donation of time and skill of pianist Renee Rosnes in particular, as she has been earning accolades for her own band, Artemis. “Rosnes is extremely melodically inventive, and an amazing accompanist when she isn’t soloing, ” Finzer boasts. “I can see why J.J. was so fond of having her in the band!” Rufus Reid has been on countless records, many of which were highly influential favorites of Finzer’s as he was a developing musician. “I heard Reid on so many records growing up; it was really amazing to have that sound in the room,” says Finzer. “Having the sound that he brings to J.J.‘s rhythm section on some of his later recordings, and to be playing with it live was just incredible.”

With Legacy , Nick Finzer has successfully demonstrated his depth of understanding of and respect for the tradition and history of jazz and its masters. By encapsulating J.J. Johnson’s spirit through monuments to both his compositional mark and testaments to his influence over the continuation of jazz composers and performers, Legacy shows that what has passed in jazz past will remain present and powerful into the future.

Legacy: a Centennial Celebration of J.J. Johnson releases on Outside in Music on April 5th, 2024