Photo: Lawrence Acland

It’s Finger-lickin’ good

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By Guy Leshinski

40 Fingers enjoy playing at the Annex Theatre. It’s a block away from Honest Ed’s at Bathurst and Bloor, right beside the Bathurst Street Theatre. The two are so close that during last Friday’s performance by the avant-garde jazz troupe, one of the pieces was interrupted by a throat-tearing scream from next-door — part of the abridged Shakespeare production, no doubt. In this dusty old hall with the fence-post balcony, amid a lingering scent of sawdust and antiquity, the Toronto saxophone quartet celebrated the release of their latest CD, Live Fingers. It was recorded in the very same room seven months earlier (in July, 1997) during two performances described as “feverish” and “absurdly complex” by the local press.

Both are appropriate descriptions of 40 Fingers’ music; a weird, esoteric mix of compositions and improvisations that at times sounds more like the chatter of Charlie Brown’s teacher than “music” as defined by conventional standards. The group, however, doesn’t claim to be conventional.

“There’re lots of things happening — some unusual or experimental,” says founding member Nic Gotham. Gotham, who plays alto sax, acknowledges the difficulty of listening to material that stretches the boundaries of musicality: “We expect people might become frustrated at a certain point. They then either will leave or eventually start to listen again, and the second time they listen, they’ll notice the small changes; the finer alterations.”

And there are many small changes to notice with Gotham and friends (Peter Lutek on tenor sax, David Mott on baritone sax and Dan Friedman filling in for regular Chiyoko Szlavnics on soprano sax).

Melodic fragments come and go; themes weave in and out of cohesion; textures, tones and tempos are adopted and abandoned with equal impetuousness. With technique that pushed the instrument to its dynamic limits — including speaking through the mouthpiece and tapping the keys as percussion — each piece seems to dance lightly along the hairline that separates ingenuity from pretension.

And this is what makes the music so compelling. It’s … interesting! Much of it has been meticulously crafted to sounds “incorrect” or spontaneous, though ironically it’s the truly spontaneous numbers like the largely improvised “Orange” that sounds the most pre-arranged as the musicians develop a dialogue between each other’s instruments.

This band of classical-jazz is an acquired taste to be sure, but should meet a more receptive audience among those already accustomed to the surreal interplay of rhythm and melody in much of today’s electronica. Gotham himself describes some of the 40 Fingers repertoire as “ambient,” borrowing as much from Brian Eno as from the minimalist compositions of John Cage.

And if it sometimes tests the threshold of listenability, it also challenges the intellect — and sometimes even the spirit — far more than standard FM radio fare. Such high regard (or disregard, depending on your politics) for its audience makes Live Fingers a uniquely satisfying album — as demanding of the listener as of the performer.

40 Fingers begin a national tour in March called “Fingers and Film,” where they will provide musical accompaniment to films from Germany and Canada. Ticket for the Toronto show on March 4 are available at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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