Finesse
Release Date: February 9, 2024
Label: Cellar

Finesse is Rotondi’s ninth album and it comprises of an orchestra of virtuosi conducted and arranged by Jakob Helling, all of whom are steeped in the historically and musically rich tradition of Austria, where Rotondi currently resides and teaches. The manifold brilliance of this cast does not stop there, however, as Rotondi also called on his peers, the legendary trombonist Steve Davis, saxophonist Dick Oatts and pianist Danny Grisset from his prolific decades in New York. With robust arrangements, luscious orchestrations, and tantalizingly crafted solos, Finesse is poised to be Rotondi’s most profound and indelible mark on the world of jazz and creative music to-date.

Rotondi as a composer and trumpeter has made himself masterful at creating pieces and soundscapes that model and emulate the sonic worlds of the masters and provide the foundation for improvisers to embrace the bountiful tradition of jazz past and present. One of the great traditions within jazz that has both championed composition and provided a beauteous frame for the masterwork that is an improviser’s spontaneous creation is the idea of “jazz with strings”. For Rotondi, who has regularly listened to and been inspired by the iconic Clifford Brown With Strings album since he was a teenager, the appeal of doing a large ensemble album featuring orchestra has been magnetic, and in 2021, he finally stoked the idea that had been patiently smoldering at the back of his mind for so many years. After curating an exhibition of his compositions that he envisioned with orchestra and big band, Rotondi reached out to Jakob Helling, a conductor, arranger, and fellow trumpeter within Austria, who was pivotal in transforming this project from a vision into a recording. “After talking about the idea originally with the composer/arranger, Jakob Helling, [he] actually was in touch with some key musicians in Vienna, who were able to provide information about all the rest of these musicians,” Rotondi says. “Clearly, on every level, without Jakob involved, this project never would’ve happened.”

The album’s title, Finesse, is an encapsulation of the spirit which this project required and with which Rotondi approached the entire process. “I’m a musician who is known for recording straight ahead projects with smaller groups, in less strictly organized style,” Rotondi says. “This record, to me, represents attention to every detail, thus the name Finesse.”

Compositionally, Finesse marks a change for Rotondi. Where previously, each album he recorded as a leader had featured at least a couple standards, this album features entirely original compositions by Rotondi, arranged for big band and orchestra by Helling. Rotondi notes that a typical hallmark of his original music is that it is geared at avoiding unnecessary complexity and providing a strong cornerstone for improvisation to occur. With these focal points, Helling was able to flesh out a brilliant framework that stays true to Rotondi’s identity but creates a verdant musical landscape of rich undertones in which an improviser may craft their artistry unhindered and marvelously supported. This is powerfully epitomized by the album’s ballads, “Falset”, “Dark Blue”, and “Interlude”. The track “Falset”, which features Dick Oatts on soprano saxophone, was composed by Rotondi after a tour enabled a visit to a small town in northeastern Spain after which the track was named. The idyllic scene proved a muse to Rotondi and inspired the variegated sounds and scenes of the piece. “Dark Blue” was originally recorded with a small ensemble in 2016 and, in an almost synesthetic manner, sound-paints a melody that depicts sonically the way the title’s phrase feels. “Interlude” was composed after Rotondi’s brother, Frank Rotondi, contacted him regarding a potential opportunity to compose a show for a ballet company in Dallas, Texas. While the project itself never came to fruition, the experience and ideas that flowed from Rotondi’s time meditating upon and brainstorming for this medium led him to begin writing “Interlude,” which ultimately became the lone completed aspect of this experience. While not a ballad, the composition “Miller time” must also be noted for both the tongue-in-cheek title, and the staggering featured contributions by Steve Davis.

The personnel on Finesse is made largely of orchestral and big band musicians from within Austria. In particular, Rotondi enlisted the prowess of the Notes and Tones Jazz Orchestra, a big band based in Vienna co-led by drummer Mario Gonzi and trumpeter Daniel Nösig. The orchestra was pieced together through the tightly interwoven network of musicians in Vienna, and quickly Rotondi’s dream team grew from just him and Helling to include a 16-piece big band, 20-piece orchestra, and the album’s two featured guest artists. “Everyone playing on this album is a virtuoso,” Rotondi states, factually. “The freelance musical community in Vienna is at an extremely high level, so I knew before we even started that this musical group would be absolutely impeccable.” 

This album marks an acknowledgement of the highest, most celebrated points of the jazz tradition and history and uses this jubilant vehicle of combined orchestra and big band to raise the bar and set the stage for the familiar to be utilized in new, endlessly inventive ways. With Finesse, Rotondi showcases the sheer creative force that comes with clear vision and a decisive ability to collaborate with a strong shared goal. Indeed, as the title clearly states, Finesse is a work of adroit aptitude and endlessly subtle brilliance that could only be pulled off by one who possesses the album’s namesake quality in such potency as Rotondi.

JEREMY SMITH
LAST ROW MUSIC
"This album marks an acknowledgment of the highest, most celebrated points of the jazz tradition and history and uses this jubilant vehicle of combined orchestra and big band to raise the bar and set the stage for the familiar to be utilized in new, endlessly inventive ways" Check out the full interview here.

THIERRY DE CLEMENSAT
PARIS MOVE
"Here is an album of orchestral jazz that will inevitably make you think of film music, as it was still being made in the 80s." Check out the full interview here.

MORGAN ENOS
LONDON JAZZ NEWS
Check out this insightful interview here.

GARY FUKUSHIMA
DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE
"Finesse... reflects Rotondi’s three decades of experience in straight-ahead big bands, finally getting a large-group vehicle of his own to test drive for the first time" Check out the full review here.

JEFF KROW
AUDIOPHILE AUDITION
"Rotondi’s burnished trumpet brings a warmth and steady hand throughout." Check out the full review here.

BARRY FOX
JAZZ VIEW
"The 7-minute opener, Ruth, starts cute and light, and builds from there with the brass and flutes. " Check out the full review here.

JACK BOWERS
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Finesse is superior in every respect, thanks to Rotondi's exceptional talents and those of his Austrian comrades in arms." Check out the full review here.

MATT MICUCCI
JAZZIZ
Check out this feature on the editor's playlist here.

 

GEORGE W. HARRIS
JAZZ WEEKLY 
"What sets this apart from the usual “horn and strings” album is that almost all of the composition are Rotondi’s own, making the music an introduction in more ways than one. " Check out the full review here.