Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Conversation with Brian Lynch

                                                                                  © Tomoji Hirakata

by Susan Kepecs
Brian Lynch, honcho of hard bop trumpet con o sin clave, master transcender of the line that divides Latin jazz from straight ahead, comes to UW-Madison to lead a four-day workshop in the School of Music’s jazz program.  It’s a tremendous opportunity for the students, and also for the public, since we get to hear Lynch ply his chops with the UW Jazz Orchestra and the UW Honors Jazz Band at Music Hall on May 1 under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Isthmus Jazz Series.
Lynch, who grew up in Milwaukee, is a literal link between old-school training by apprenticeship and today’s academization of jazz.  While getting his BA at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s Jazz Institute in the mid-70s, he apprenticed with Brew City jazz icons like saxophonist Berkeley Fudge and guitarista Toty Ramos’ La Chazz, back when it was a Fania-style salsa band rather than the Latin jazz outfit it is now.  (FYI, Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo Gonzalez brought La Chazz, in its salsa band incarnation, to Mad City on several occasions including one at the old Bunky’s, on Park and Regent, and another, I think, at the Cardinal’s long-gone sister, Rick’s Havana Club).
In 1981 Lynch traded Milwaukee for Manhattan.  He skyrocketed as a sideman, playing straight ahead with Horace Silver (1982-85) and salsa with Fania All-Star Hector “el cantante de los cantantes” Lavoe (1983-87) – not Fania’s, or Lavoe’s, best period, but still.  Lynch’s next leap landed him long-term spots with el grán maestro Eddie Palmieri (with whom Lynch has appeared here twice in the last decade) and, from 1988-90, with hard bop maharajah Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers.  The last of Blakey’s trumpeters (he died in 1990), Lynch followed in the enormous footsteps of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and Terrance Blanchard. 
Also in the late mid-80s, Lynch emerged as a leader in his own right.  Today he has 18 albums out under his own name, with two more in the mill.  His work’s rich with the fabled history of the idioms he plies.  He lays funky, Lee Morgan-like riffs over the slightly deconstructed bugalú “Dance The Way U Want To” on ConClave Vol. 2 (with his Spheres of Influence ensemble, Criss Cross 2010).  The haunting, melodic lines he puts out in his tribute to Freddie Hubbard’s smoky ballad “Eclipse” (Tribute to the Trumpet Masters, Sharp Nine 2000) are a smidge smoother than the original, but hark back beautifully to the best times of bop.  Lynch’s salsa chops sizzle on “Guajira Dubois,” off The Brian Lynch / Eddie Palmieri Project / Simpático (ArtistShare 2006), for which the two leaders won the Best Latin Jazz Grammy in 2007.   
A performance and recording career like Lynch’s would’ve been plenty before the 1970s, when institutions of higher learning, including UW-Madison, started adding jazz musicians to their faculties.  But now that so many of the best players also teach, the Brew City-raised trompetista gains economic security and the opportunity to pass along the torch as associate professor of jazz trumpet at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.  You can’t duplicate the urgency and grit of old-school jazz, with its strong sabor of seamy nighttime streets, in the academy – and too many young players with fancy jazz educations have come through here lately playing dull bossa-pop with a global tinge or cerebral chess-game improvisations that just don’t swing.  But musician / profs like Lynch help save the music from this watered-down fate.

I spoke with Lynch on the phone last week. about his own history, the music today, and the realities of the accelerating academization of jazz.  Here’s what he had to say:

CulturalOyster: Growing up in Milwaukee with a name like Lynch, how did you come to play with La Chazz?

Lynch: By aspiring to play with musicians like Berkeley Fudge and Manty Ellis [both, I believe, were Wisconsin Conservatory faculty at the time], and by being attuned to the authentic jazz community.  Latin music was never too far from the foreground when you’re listening to jazz and involved in it.  In the era I grew up in so much of the music had Latin influence, whether it was Horace Silver or McCoy Tyner or even the fusion bands.  It wasn’t hard to make the move once I was exposed to salsa, to be really intrigued with it and feel really comfortable with it being an integral part of my musical consciousness.  A lot of the guys in La Chazz were jazz players – I knew Toty Ramos as a fine jazz guitarist before I knew he played Latin music. 

CulturalOyster: Tell me about some of the big influences on your career after that.

Lynch:  Obviously, working with Palmieri and Blakey – those were dream-come-true kinds of situations. Freddie Hubbard was one of my idols – I followed him around like a puppy dog.  One of the high points of my life was when he welcomed me as a Jazz Messenger.  Of course playing with Horace Silver was my first big small group jazz gig.  Working with Hector Lavoe for five years gave me my salsa button, as Eddie [Palmieri] would say.  The AfroCuban tradition and bebop / hardbop are my touchstones, but I’ve played a really wide swath, from bebop to punk.  I worked with Lila Downs [on her 2008 Manhattan Records release Ojo de Culebra, as well as on Simpático] and Prince [on his 1996 three-CD Emancipation album].  I played and recorded with one of my closest friends from Milwaukee, James Chance or James White, as he’s variously called, who became a controversial figure in punk funk or no wave in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.  I still like to keep up with what’s going on, I look for adventurous music. If you’re a serious musician you’re always developing, no matter what era you come from. 

CulturalOyster: In the bio on your website you say that jazz today draws on a wider variety of musical styles or genres than it used to.  But your tribute albums [Tribute to the Trumpet Masters and three Unsung Heroes volumes, Holistic Music Works 2008-2009] prove that for you, jazz history runs deep – and also, it seems to me that most of what you do, despite the “spheres of influence” concept, sounds happily old-school.  What am I missing?

Lynch: Yeah, if old-school means connected with tradition, I do old-school in the sense of being a hardbop alumnus of Horace Silver and Art Blakey, or in the sense of swingin’ Latin jazz.  My music is comprehensible – I don’t like head-scratching music.  I like do to music that has a strong narrative sense, that tells a story.  Perhaps it’s because my own personal sense of adventure is more nuanced than the novelty some people like to hear.  The thing I want from all the music I aspire to is the ability to be spontaneous.  My metaphor for improvisation is that it’s sort of like you’re bobsledding downhill, through terrain.  When we improvise we’re negotiating musical terrain, making a pathway in it.  You can go through that terrain or fly over it or drop bombs on it.  But I feel like some music today doesn’t negotiate it.  Bebop is the consummate technique of having an intimate relation with the musical terrain of time and space, the ability to control it moment by moment but not planning it out in advance. That intimate relationship with what you’re playing that the bebop masters had – great great rumberos have it too.  When you listen to the Muñequitos de Matanzas, when you see what the quinto [the little, high-pitched drum] player does – that’s what a great bebop trumpet player does, it’s what Miles [Davis] did.
CulturalOyster: You teach in an enormous academic music program – what do you think about the ever-expanding academization of jazz?

Lynch: It’s interesting that jazz is in the academy.  Academia itself is becoming more and more inclusive.  I think schools should reflect everything in American life, and the idea of jazz studies at least partially comes from the cultural studies programs of the ‘70s – many jazz programs came out of the black studies departments then, or linked to them.  Madison’s an example of that, with Richard Davis [who was hired by the School of Music in 1977] and his relationship with Afro-American Studies. 
            But it’s a complex and fascinating subject.  Probably what you’re questioning is whether being in the academy is helping or not helping the music.  I’d say it’s what you make of it.  There are more and more practitioners of the music with genuine credentials in the schools now.  In my modest way I’m part of that.  Teaching is transmitting what I’ve lived – my journey as a trumpet player and a person expressing himself through the music.  And for someone still actively involved in the search, being in an academic setting has great value – as a teaching artist I’m actively fostering my own musicianship and still trying to progress.  Being in the institution is like being in research, I’m expected to do research when I’m out traveling the world – it’s work to share with my colleagues and my students, and it’s an adaptable paradigm that hopefully works very well. 
I’m very involved in recreating for my students some aspects of things that have been lost.  The culture has changed, we’re not in 1960 any more. So we have to consider the conditions that created the music, whether it was jazz, Cuban, or rock n’ roll. Those situations are gone and we don’t want to go back to 1945 – I wouldn’t want this generation to go through what musicians dealt with then [poverty, the ghetto, violence, hard drugs] – so we have to come up with alternatives.  For me, teaching music is partly about talking about the things that interest you. I look at the social elements, the culture and the life under which the music flourished – the music itself encompasses all that, if you read enough into it.  You’re right – I’m oriented toward having a historical base under what I do.  I’d have been a historian, if not a musician.  It’s important to understand not just the notes but where the notes came from. 
The music conservatory in the ‘70s had a very loose atmosphere compared to what goes on today.  But I think young musicians are looking for the same things I was – you know what’s happening and you seek it out.  I looked for the music I wanted, in the places I knew it was.  I don’t have a PhD, but I’m supervising five doctoral candidates. I feel like I have to be a Zen master – give ‘em the questions they have to ponder.  They’re all different as players.  Some come in with a lot of experience – I’ve got a piano player who’s out working with Arturo Sandoval right now.  Others are really good, but they haven’t done anything.  They have some interesting topics for their dissertations, but the dissertation’s not enough.  You gotta go out and make a record and make it good enough to get played on the radio and make yourself a little name, or else you go right from school into teaching.  There’s too much competition for that – too many guys like me looking for those jobs.  You gotta bring the street back into it. 
What’s the street?  It’s just a community of practice; it’s not about what you do on the street, it’s about the abilities you get from that way of getting to the music. 
So in the academy it’s about what happens on the bandstand – you have to bring the bandstand back into the classroom.  I get an ensemble of kids to play my music.  I help them work on it, but they’re in my band and I expect them to make me sound good – I don’t want to suffer, so they must play well. 

CulturalOyster: You’re doing a short residency here on campus, and then performing with the UW Jazz Orchestra and the UW Honors Jazz Band at the end.  So as I understand it it’s just you, no sidemen on this trip.  Can you really get a group of students ready to perform with you in four days?

Lynch: I believe I’ll have some help.  I’ve sent my music out in advance – I’m sure they’re rehearsing.  I know Johannes [Wallman, director of the UW-Madison School of Music Jazz Studies program] – I know he’s a very estimable educator and a fine musician and he’ll be taking care of business.  And four days is beautiful, you can get a lot out of that experience.  It’ll give everyone the stimulus to play their best, not just for me but for themselves.  It’s always the art of the possible, for all of us. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun, and I’ve heard good things about the program and how it’s expanding.  I’m looking forward to it.  

No comments: