Brian Lynch, interviewed by Ted Panken, on 23rd September 2009 at the New York Public Library.
Panken: Hello, audience. This is Ted Panken interviewing trumpeter Brian Lynch at the New York Library for the Performing Arts on September 23, 2009 about the genesis of the Spheres of Influence Suite, which he’ll be performing this evening, I believe. This is true?
Lynch: This is me. I’m Brian Lynch. Hi, everybody. Yes, that’s true, Mr. Panken. I will be performing this piece tonight.
Panken: Well, it’s just a matter of getting the correct tone, that’s all. You know what I mean?
Lynch: Right, exactly.
Lynch: We need this to sort of sound like—what’s the name of that program? You know, the short-story program on Public Radio.
Unidentified speaker: StoryCorps?
Lynch: No, the one where it’s at Symphony Space and they do all the short stories.
Panken: Do we have to be cute?
Lynch: Professional reciters have such plummy tones, you know.
Panken: We have to be cute like them, huh?
Lynch: No, they’re not cute. They’re just very—
Panken: Plummy? Okay. Plummy we shall—
Panken: Plummy we shall be.
Panken: Well, let’s start with the issue at hand, which is the Spheres of Influence Suite. Let’s break down what those spheres of influence are in you that are being referred to in this project. That’s also the cognomen of one of your bands, right? Yes, the Spheres of Influence Band.
Lynch: Cognomen. [laughs]
Panken: Yeah, right. [laughter] Being plummy, that’s all.
Panken: Yeah, something like that.
Lynch: Well, I think this is safely within my purview. [laughs]
Panken: I think so, too, sir.
Lynch: So, yes, Spheres of Influence is the name of the ensemble that’s performing this music, and it shows an utter lack of inspiration that I would name the title of the piece Spheres of Influence Suite when the ensemble’s already named that. But what can you do? But the title itself comes from a record I did, well, I guess about twelve years ago now.
Panken: It was?
Lynch: Yes, and entitled that, which was the first recording I did as a leader that seemed to put all the different parts of my music together in the same place. I had done a number of recordings before that pretty much exclusively in a kind of a straight-ahead hard-bop post-bop kind of style, which I had identified with in the jazz scene pretty much. But what was missing from it was the influence of Latin music on my own personal style of music, if you will, so with that CD I was able to get a lot of that in. So it was more diverse, and some of it had to do with being able to get different players for different tracks, to do different things like that, like some for the swing things, some for the Latin things. There’s some other genres rhythmically that are touched upon in that record.
It turned out well and it was satisfying for me to do that, and actually the record company—I suggested that title for the CD and I liked it, and so when it came time to start working on a group that would reflect the same kind of philosophy as that recording did, I thought I’d keep that name. It seems to suit things pretty well in terms of putting a handle on the concept of trying to bring together some different styles rhythmically under the same ensemble umbrella.
Panken: Now, over the past decade, you’ve evolved this approach considerably and moved into a lot of areas, particularly in incorporating Afro-Caribbean strands into your idiom. Can you talk about how the genesis of this particular project, and which, I guess, you recorded the record in 2006, so—
Lynch: 2004, actually.
Panken: 2004 you did it. Okay, sorry. What was percolating? What ideas you were working with in the ensuing years, some of the developments that led up to convening the personnel for the recording, which is a larger ensemble than you’ll be performing tonight, and how it was grounded in your experience as a working musician.
Lynch: Well, first of all, I had the opportunity to perform more than with a—I’d been messing around with putting a group together that, for lack of a better term, would be called a Latin jazz sort of thing, though I personally feel that’s a sort of restrictive sort of thing to put on anybody’s music, and in my case, restrictive because when you advertise yourself or you term yourself as a Latin jazz group, then it’s hard to go and break out and swing one, so to speak. You know, if you change out the rhythmic focus, then people—I had that experience on one gig. It’s like I brought my group to what I thought was going to be the start of a regular residency at a club here, and it’s Latin jazz night and we all start out and everything’s going great. But then the rhythm section decides to break into some straight-ahead four-four swing in the middle of the songs, and the club owner, like, said, “Wait, we got this all week. We want Latin here tonight.” So it didn’t end up to be viable, because they want to put you in a sort of instrumental dance music kind of thing, which is, to me, not really the point of doing that at all, even though it’s fine to play music that people can move to and can dance to. For me, rather, it’s incorporating different traditions into my music, and since that’s a tradition that I’ve had a lot of experience with, I think I’m able to take elements of things coming from dance music, but then use it in maybe a little bit more of an art-music sort of way, I guess, is one way of putting it.
But I managed to kind of digress a little bit, so getting back to the genesis of the group itself, is that a good place to be?
Panken: That’s not a bad place to be.
Lynch: Okay. I did have an opportunity, and this was, I think, around 1998 or so, 1998, 1999, to start a regular gig in a club here and playing—
Panken: It was on the Upper West Side.
Lynch: It was on the Upper West Side, yeah, and playing a weekly gig, you know, a little place, and out of the way, but the kind of place where it was good, the workshops of music. So at that point, I made a more serious effort to really select a group of musicians I felt comfortable playing with, and, you know, went through various people and stuff. A lot of great players were a part of it at different times coming through it, people like John Benitez, the bass player, Antonio Sanchez, the great drummer, different folks. But it kind of coalesced around a core group after a certain point, and so in that core were three of the musicians that became part of the first group, which was bass player Boris Kozlov, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and the pianist Luis Perdomo. Then came in a percussionist, who wasn’t really even on that gig so much, but started coming in when I started branching out from that gig, was Pedro Martinez. So Pedro and Boris have continued to be a real close part of the group on and off throughout the years.
Let’s see. Who else? And Dafnis, as well, though Dafnis—many of these guys have gone and are doing their own groups and stuff like that, too, so we don’t see each other on this bandstand quite as much. But there’s a certain group of players, I think, that came together in that period, and one of the places where they found some identity was playing with me on my gig. So Yosvany Terry was a part of the group back in those days, and he’s been back and forth and doing things with me ever since, and another great player who has his own group, and Miguel Zenon, who ended up doing the piece itself, the recording. I’d first met him when he came down and sat in on that gig at that place, which was called the Phoenix Room. So this gig, which was about, I think, over the space of a year, was a good opportunity to get some music together, work on my concept, and work on how to adjust it with different kinds of players.
Panken: I’m going to break down what you said just for a minute. Dafnis Prieto, Pedro Martinez, Yosvany Terry are all from Cuba.
Panken: Miguel Zenon is from Puerto Rico.
Panken: Boris Kozlov is from Russia. Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela.
Panken: In a sense, you were convening an elite portion of a broad wave of musicians who came to New York during the nineties and brought the idioms and melodies and ideas from their cultures and wove stories together, and had a lot to do with pushing, I guess, jazz music forward over those years, as you have. You were involved in the early nineties in a group with Eddie Palmieri, who you’ve played with since the late eighties, called the Afro-Caribbean Octet, I think.
Lynch: Jazz Octet.
Panken: Jazz Octet with Donald Harrison and yourself. Conrad Herwig is also on this record that I think was seminal in that movement in the recordings they did in the early nineties. I’m wondering if you can talk about your experience with Eddie Palmieri, who you’ve described, he and Art Blakey, as your alpha and your omega, towards putting together the ideas for the Spheres of Influence concept.
Lynch: Well, yeah. I mean the experience of being with Eddie has been really seminal in the development of my concept and kind of spurring it on to really go forward with it. I mean, I think one of the things that made that so is playing with Eddie, and, you know, I think I was lucky to play with Eddie in a period where jazz and him were meeting each other in a way that it hadn’t quite before. What I mean by that is that his natural affinity towards jazz, I consider Eddie Palmieri to be really a jazz musician, I mean as much as he’s a icon of Latin music and so on and so forth, in terms of his approach to things, is of a jazz musician. The style of musician he is is much more like a jazz musician than an entertainer. He’s a artist, and like we, as jazz musicians, like to consider ourselves artists and be concerned with the music, and then also as an improviser and somebody who values the improviser’s qualities, and these things were really important in his art and for the people he needs around him to play.
So I was lucky to encounter him at a point where this was becoming more apparent and I think his music was making more sense as functioning as part of the jazz scene at that point. So he really started doing things in jazz clubs and playing with instrumental ensembles, which he hadn’t really done before on any kind of sustained basis. I would say maybe I was with him on some of his very first gigs where he was playing as a instrumental jazz ensemble, going back to playing at the Blue Note in 1988 and thereafter. Those experiences, really, playing with him in a instrumental ensemble, and I started playing with him in a salsa orchestra, but morphing into that venue was a real eye-opener because the amount of improvising freedom that I had personally playing with him and the amount of freedom in the music that was going on, that was a product of his playing and the atmosphere he creates as the musical director that he is on the piano, that it reminded me—I mean, it was like one of the most profound jazz experiences I could possibly have.
So picking up on that, I said, well, this is really the way to go. If you can get all this, then this is another reason why these things should be put together. So I think that really did do something. I’d been playing with Latin bands ever since before I came to New York and I’d always valued that music. I’d come to value that music as being intrinsic to my concept of playing jazz in terms of composing and even things about how I would play, improvising-wise. But I think it was in subtle or sort of implicit way, rather than explicitly bringing that music in, because I think you’re sort of familiar with my career and my recordings and, like, my—
Panken: Well, I am, but the—
Lynch: Well, my initial recordings as a leader were very much in the idiom of like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, post-bop or—
Panken: With whom you also played in a parallel track.
Lynch: Yeah, I played with both of those guys and that’s where I really felt comfortable in, is being part of that tradition. It’s just that at the same time I was doing that, I was also playing with Hector Lavoe and Angel Canales and Ray Barretto and people like that in the salsa orchestra idiom. There wasn’t even really that much Latin jazz going around, like coming out of the scene maybe in the early eighties. A few bands, some which I did play with when I’m thinking about it a little bit more, but my experience was experiencing it as a musician in a dance orchestra, and that’s where you get the message of it the strongest. So I guess I was kind of building up a tradition of playing that, too, at the same time. There’s people that know me from that scene who wouldn’t even know anything about my jazz playing.
So Eddie really brings these both together, and so when we get to the point in 1992 that he’s establishing an actual group in-being rather than an ad-hoc sort of situation, but a real group, which he came to call the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet or Sextet or Septet, depending on how many horns you had, then this is where I think a lot of things came together.
I agree with you. Thank you for saying that, anyhow, that I think we did do a body of work in that period that it’s very substantial and very valid. So, coming from that and learning from a master like him and playing with him and being a collaborator to a certain extent, which I think developed even further later on, all those things kind of pointed towards that my own music should really, or a big part of my music, should live in this area where Art Blakey and Eddie Palmieri are both there. Like I say, there are many more similarities than differences in what they do.
Panken: Let’s talk about those similarities. Art Blakey is an iconic figure in African American jazz and swing music, and also was a drummer who collaborated in the fifties and sixties on recording projects with Afro-Caribbean drummers as well. And there was definitely that flavor in certain things that he did, but wasn’t necessarily identified by the broader public as such. Eddie Palmieri, in the sixties, his efflorescence, it seems to me, was coinciding with the embargo of recordings from Cuba, and so people like him and other people were addressing Afro-Cuban rhythms that had been articulated in the forties on classic recordings in the forties and fifties and drawing his own conclusions from it. So I don’t mean to be the one who’s giving the technique lessons here, but can you talk about how both of those ways of thinking about rhythm developed and coalesced, I guess, during the eighties and early nineties, which is when you were starting to make an impact on the scene?
Lynch: Well, I mean, on the surface they’re very different traditions. Art Blakey has played music with Afro-Caribbean musicians, but I wouldn’t term him to be somebody who is a—you know, when we talk about somebody who’s playing music with Clave consciousness, that’s not his tradition so much.
Panken: By Clave, you mean triplet rhythms and a three-over-two—
Lynch: No, I mean music that’s organized against the principal of the isorhythmic unit called the Clave. We could get into that in detail, but I think rather than doing, is just to say that anybody who doesn’t know can investigate that. That’s in the sense that all the music is organized in a certain way and so there’s a tradition to it. So we’re talking about the specific rhythms that Art Blakey would play when we would play a quote, unquote, “Latin rhythm,” would not necessarily be the rhythms that would be typical for, like, Cuban jazz musicians playing jazz music in Clave or the way that, like, Mongo Santamaria would play with Willie Bobo on drums or something like that. You know, the patterns are different. I think the way he would play that music would be more in a sort of a Pan-African sort of sense.
Again, I’m already getting too technical about it. So I mean the traditions are different on the surface, the particulars of it. The sensibility, I think, is very much the same between the two of them, and that has to do with the African part of the sensibility, but I also think it has to do with the New York part of the sensibility, too, and being those are two musicians of different generations, but coexisting in the same space and time. So I mean Eddie Palmieri absolutely—you know, he was very good friends with Bobby Timmons, for instance, and was influenced by Bobby Timmons in the way he played the piano, and you can hear this even in the way he plays on his classic La Perfecta records. You can hear the jazz influence in the way he chords and in the voicings in myriad ways.
Then Art Blakey obviously is influenced—like you said, he played with musicians like [Carlos] Patato [Valdez] and Sabu [Martinez] and other Latin and African percussionists on his records, and he had a lot of that part of the sensibility, I think especially where it pertains to an Afro sort of thing. So they come together really close in that sense. So I mean, something that Eddie Palmieri could write and play could sound very much like something that Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers would play. That’s something that I think the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet kind of proved in a way that it was kind of—you know, he called it sort of like a Hispanicized Jazz Messengers in a way. And, you know, the fact that myself and Donald Harrison, who were charter members of the group, were both members of The Jazz Messengers and we both brought that sensibility in, was a big marker towards that too.
I bet Donald could explain it even better than I could. I mean he, in a way, is the bridge because he is such an important member of the Art Blakey thing and also somebody who has become so close to Eddie, too, and then his own really formidable accomplishments and position as a very important person in a tradition of Afro-New Orleanian music puts him in a certain central point. It was so easy for him to come in and play Eddie’s music, that it was natural, even though he hadn’t even really heard that much of it before he came in, but he started listening to it real quick.
Panken: Do you think, had you done this piece or had a project like this been conceptualized, let’s say, in 1996 before you did Spheres of Influence, were there musicians in New York—could something like this, which has very complex harmonies, a lot of different rhythmic patterns, advanced voicings, and so forth, were there musicians fifteen years ago, a cohort of musicians that could have played this as effectively?
Lynch: I think the musicians were there. I think mostly it was just me getting to a certain place where I could put enough of it together.
Panken: Let’s talk about how you got to that place.
Lynch: Well, through all the experiences I’ve been through, but also I think learning more about all the different parts. The more I learned about Cuban music, the more I studied some of the particular patterns. I definitely think being around a lot of the younger Cuban musicians that came to New York was something that was really good, because those are musicians who are technically equipped to play any kind of music, but also the way that the younger Cuban musicians are kind of—with them it’s like a little bit more worked out, so in a way, that makes it easier for them. I can ask somebody like Yosvany or Pedro about something that I don’t know about and they can explain it to me in a way that I can understand very easily, so then I can correlate that to listening to something. They’re all really helpful.
Also the fact that musicians like Yosvany and Dafnis are interested in very advanced music, inspired me to write some things that were a little bit more advanced than maybe I had done before, because I knew I had—yeah, I guess I knew I had musicians who could execute the stuff, and knowing those guys, I wanted to write something for them that would challenge them a little bit, because with musicians like that, you want to keep them engaged and involved. I want to keep myself engaged and involved too. I write music that I find it hard to play myself and I have to come up to it, so that’s part of my own, like, developmental process as a player, to write music that’s a challenge for me to play.
Panken: Would you analyze The Suite a little bit? It comprises on the recording at least, Spheres of Influence Suite, six compositions, and it’s a suite. Are there shared motifs in the pieces, whether rhythmic or harmonic or—talk about that a bit.
Lynch: Well, I mean, it’s a suite in the sense that a set should be a suite, or a program should have balance to it and different kind of things. When you’re playing, say, a jazz set and you play—say maybe you’ll open up with something that is swing and then you play something Latin, then you’ll play a ballad, then you’ll play a Latin tune and another kind of rhythmic thing, then you’ll end up with a fast swing piece. You get a lot of variety that way. When you’re playing all Latin music, you have to find variety not just through tempo, but through a variety of rhythms and stuff.
I think I tried to work with—well, like, through the course of this thing, I want to bring out certain different rhythmic feels and materials associated with those feels, like Rumba Guaguanco, Bomba, Danzon, Cha Cha, the Guaracha, you know, from the typical Latin rhythms that you might hear like in a regular Latin jazz thing, the things that are a little bit 6/8 you know, get the whole panoply of the rhythms that Afro-Caribbean music can offer. I didn’t get to everything, but a good cross-section, and then write music around those things.
I think given the way I write music, there’s probably going to be certain things in common with all the pieces. I have a certain kind of vocabulary that I use in terms of what I like, what kind of melodies I like to write, what kind of intervals are in those melodies, the rhythms that are involved, the chord changes and so on. You know, I like things with nice harmony and I like things that move in certain ways. I still very much still come from that hard-bop post-bop tradition in terms of what sounds good to me, so that’s always going to be a part of my music. Whether I’m working on something in that tradition or something else, it’s still going to inform that, so that’s going to be there too.
So I mean, aside from that, analysis can be applied after the fact that can make all sorts of claims, and even valid ones. So I think I could come up with an analysis of that sort, but I would have to say that the composing process itself to me is much more—well, you know, it’s more organic. You start at one place and then you find what’s missing and put it in the place where it’s needed, and then at a certain point you can see a harmonious whole.
If you write six pieces that are supposed to be connected, if you write three or four, maybe about three of them, then you see what else you need and then you get a little bit more specific in your needs for the last three pieces you write. “Well, I really need something that’s going to take it – it will take the whole thing over here,” or, “I need something that’s going to bring it back to something pretty. I need something pretty. I need something edgy. I need something that’s got an expansive feel to it. I need something that’s going to sound more folkloric. I need something that’s going to sound more—.” You know, like all those things can come up. So a lot of times when I’m working on the groundwork for something like that, I’ll just listen to a lot of different music, the things that I like, and I’ll go back to them. Those were kind of like my fundamentals in a way.
Panken: What are some of those things?
Lynch: Like, I’ll listen to some Arsenio Rodriguez or Chappottin, or I’ll listen to some, like, Las Münequitos de Matanzas or Yoruba Andabo. I’ll listen to my friends play. I’ll listen to Yosvany Terry or Dafnis Prieto. I’ll listen to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Freddie Hubbard. I’ll listen to some more Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. I’ll listen to some hip-hop, maybe. I’ll listen to some classical music, very much so. I’ll listen to Bartok’s Fifth String Quartet or I’ll listen to—I like a lot of the composers that have exploited intervalic concepts in a certain way, like Bartok and Lutoslawski, even someone like Elliott Carter, certainly the soundscapes of Mahler. You know, things like that, a lot of different things. I’ll listen to some Bach. I’ll listen to some pop music of a certain sort.
Panken: This is an oral history, so I guess I should take you back a little bit. You’re from Milwaukee.
Lynch: I am.
Panken: Born in 1956.
Lynch: That’s right.
Panken: I don’t remember the date.
Lynch: September 12.
Panken: Thank you. Happy birthday.
Lynch: Thank you.
Panken: I had forgotten. I’ll state a couple of factoids and you can just keep saying yes. Started playing trumpet at nine?
Lynch: I guess so, yeah. Fifth grade, yeah.
Panken: Then in the school band and the Elks Club.
Lynch: Good for you.
Panken: Well, we’ve been through some of these things before.
Lynch: School band, the Elks Concert and Marching Band, which I ended up sort of liking a lot, but hated so much that I quit playing trumpet for about two years. Then I restarted again when I was about fourteen, and that’s about the time I started getting really involved, listening to jazz and getting involved with it.
Panken: You said you played in rock bands with horns, and then by fifteen you were really committed to jazz. At around fifteen, by dint of being in a city like Milwaukee, which was a mid-size city with a critical mass of people and some good musicians, you, like a lot of musicians maybe born up to about 1965 or so, had an opportunity to really develop your ideas on a professional level quite young, so that you went to Conservatory and, like a lot of musicians, had a formal education, you also had what might be called a street education as well—
Lynch: I learned my music in the street. Yes, I did.
Panken: —as it were, or at least on the bandstands.
Lynch: I mean, a very large component of it was on the street. Yeah, I went to music school and I was very lucky (that) in (my) hometown was a modestly sized conservatory.
Panken: That was (the)Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.
Lynch: Yeah, that actually had a jazz degree program at that time, one of the first in the country. So I did have the advantage of what we used to call “fomal”(formal) training.
Panken: Thank you.
Lynch: And with a very strong thing about going, and just going and sitting in with the cats and learning music in the clubs, playing all sorts of different things, but going for the jazz and getting to a point where by the time I was eighteen or nineteen years old, I was actually making my living playing mostly jazz gigs in a town like that, which tells you about the cost of living back in those days, for one thing.
Panken: Well, I want to continue, but I’ll also note that your parallel tracking between jazz and Afro-Latin feels began in Milwaukee as well. There was a Latin bandleader named Tony Ramos, I think.
Panken: Toty Ramos.
Lynch: Yeah, I think this is really when I’m around like—this is like 1979 or something.
Panken: Oh, so you weren’t a teenager then.
Lynch: I was like twenty-two, twenty-three by that time. And well, even before that, if you’re listening to Horace Silver and if you’re listening to McCoy Tyner in that period, you’re listening to a lot of, like, Afro-Latin-sounding jazz and you’re used to the idea of a conga player being in the band, so to speak, and all that kind of stuff. Of course, that was the era of the—I think one of the first times I went and heard a jazz group in a local tavern, it was one of those kind of groups where they had a percussionist with the table, remember? With the rug on the table, and they had the Vibraslaps and the Flexitones. It was like a Airto Moreira-type multi-percussionist, not a guy that so much who could, like, set up a tumbao or anything like that, but somebody who was making sounds and stuff like that. I grew up in a pretty crazy era for jazz.
Panken: Let’s talk about that era a bit and how it inflected what you think. I mean, I recall you telling me people would think of you as someone who was a bebopper, but you used to like to fondly recall, if I’m accurate, your Miles Davis phase, where you had a whole jazz-rock type of thing.
Lynch: I had a wah-wah pedal.
Panken: Red leather boots, the whole—
Lynch: —and a pickup. Well, yeah, the sartorial [unclear].
Panken: The sartorial thing, yeah.
Lynch: But also I was a tremendous avant-garde free-jazz sort of fan with an extensive collection of Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra Records and the whole thing, and I even played in a band – I had a band with one of my closest buddies, at that point was a gentleman named James Siegfried, who moved to New York and gained a certain fame and notoriety as James Chance, also known as James White of Contortions and James White and the Blacks fame, a guy who incorporated free jazz, saxophone playing, a style of singing somewhere between Little Willie John, James Brown, and, oh, I don’t know, he’ll kill me if I make any more comparisons, but very much like, for lack of a better term, punk rock sort of vibe. He’s a great guy, very fine musician, and we used to have this avant-garde jazz group together. He became quite a thing out here in New York and he’s still around. I actually still gig with him sometimes. I try to keep up those old relationships.
So, a lot of diverse stuff going on. Like, I was pretty far out there, but I also liked the Blue Note stuff and things like Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. But I think when I really started hearing Charlie Parker and other stuff too, I know that the Cedar Walton Live at Boomers record with Clifford Jordan made, like, a super tremendous impression on me and sort of got me into that place where I wanted to go that way.
Panken: With Sam Jones and Louis Hayes?
Lynch: Yes, Louis Hayes. And that’s the idiom that the real cats were playing in Milwaukee. Some of the great breaks I had was to be able to play with people like Buddy Montgomery, Wes’ brother, and Melvin Rhyne at a very early age.
Panken: The organist, right?
Lynch: And also some great players in Milwaukee was a guitarist who’s still there. These two gentlemen are still there, a guitarist named Manty Ellis and a saxophone player with, I think, one of the great names, Berkeley Fudge. He was (and is) a very fine tenor and alto sax player. Those guys are both still in Milwaukee, and they were my teachers in school and I used to play in their bands. Like I said, that’s that part where just being on the bandstand and getting it together.
Panken: And there was a fairly talented peer group as well, of people committed to jazz.
Lynch: I think my closest musical associate during that time and into the New York years was a pianist, David Hazeltine, but also people like the bassist Jeff Chambers, the drummer Mark Johnson, and his brother Billy ; Carl Allen, the drummer, and his brother Eddie Allen, the bassist Gerald Cannon, and a number of other wonderful players were all part of our peer group. So there was a lot of good stuff going on there.
Panken: Now, you came to New York fairly late.
Lynch: Yeah, I was, like, twenty-five when I came.
Panken: I mean not that that’s so late, but the context I’m putting this in is that you arrived here in 1981, and around 1980, ’79, ’80, ’81, a slew of musicians who were with a similar orientation to you, but most of them a little younger than you, were coming to New York.
Lynch: Around the same age, maybe a little younger.
Panken: Well, you’re about four years older. Most of them were born in 1960, ’61, ’62, I mean if you look it up. But in any event—
Lynch: Well, you’re talking about Wynton [Marsalis] and Terence [Blanchard] and some of those guys.
Panken: Well, that’s where I was moving to. I was moving to that kind of cohort of people who also played with The Jazz Messengers and went through some other experiences. So let’s talk about the series of events that brought you to New York and what New York was like when you got here.
Lynch: I first visited New York in ’75 when I was like—
Lynch: Yeah. And then that’s when I went to Boomer’s [phonetic]. Like, I went around to all the places. I was even able to sit in with George Coleman, had Woody Shaw looking at me from two feet away.
Panken: Would you describe that story? You’ve told that to me once. I think it’s a great story.
Lynch: Well, I went into Boomer’s—
Panken: Boomer’s was a club on Bleecker Street, with the soul food thing and a spinet piano that people—
Lynch: The epitome of the seventies, I think, like [unclear]. So I go around those clubs, like there in The Tin Palace and so on, and caught a little bit of that, you know, and I loved it. You know, New York was falling apart in that period, but even right then I knew I wanted to be there. It’s just like getting it together to get to where I could go there because I knew I had a lot to learn. But even then, you know, I remember George Coleman was playing and Woody Shaw was playing with him, and they were just playing up a storm. But I had a lot of brashness back there, so I went up to George Coleman and said, “Man, can I sit in? I’ve played with Buddy Montgomery,” and all this. It would be interesting if he—I don’t think he would remember this, but I don’t know if it was disbelief or what. Anyhow, but he actually let me come up and play one, and I played one and I was pretty nervous. I had my eyes closed when I was playing. I opened my eyes and Woody Shaw was standing about, like, a foot and a half in front of me. And the thing is, like—
Panken: With his arms folded.
Lynch: —with his arm folded, just looking at me, like, “What is this?” But also that he was extremely nearsighted, so he couldn’t really see that well. So probably he had just to get up that close just to see what was going on. But yeah, I don’t know. I had a lot of confidence in those days. I didn’t play that well, but I had a lot of confidence. It just seemed like it was normal to go in those kind of situations and stuff.
Panken: Well, maybe because you had been in Milwaukee and done those sorts of situations.
Lynch: I think so. I think so.
Panken: If you had been from New York, you wouldn’t have dared to do something like that.
Lynch: Well, you know, I mean it would have been a different thing. Yeah, I think that we had a lot of stuff going on in Milwaukee. Also, we were together. You know what I mean? There wasn’t any division between us. I mean not really. Anybody who could play well wanted to hang out with each other. So that was something that was hard to get used to in New York, like when I moved to New York, that there were a lot of different scenes, and some people from one scene didn’t necessarily play that much with somebody from another scene and so on and so forth. But also I think one thing about me was it seemed like I was good at negotiating those places and going from place to place, like playing with the Latin cats and then going and playing a bebop gig, or then going and playing in a big band or something like that. So I was able to make those different scenes, even making a avant-garde kind of thing.
Panken: Now, if I’m not mistaken, you came here, you took a tangent and moved west to San Diego for a year or so.
Lynch: I stayed in San Diego about a year.
Panken: And played a good bit with the master alto saxophonist, Charles McPherson—
Lynch: That’s right. That’s right.
Panken: —which must have done wonders for your bebop playing.
Lynch: Well, it was a great apprenticeship with him, and like, also, I mean, really my teacher because I’d hang out with him so much and he’d show me many things. Yeah, I got to play, like, a lot of three-night-a-week gigs with him for months on end. I hit San Diego in some kind of period. You know, my parents live out there, so I have occasion to go back there and keep tabs on the scene, as I do with Milwaukee still, and those places have got their ups and downs. So I hit it in a kind of an “up,” where there was a lot of jazz going on. So I was really blessed to avail myself of that opportunity to learn.
Charles McPherson is one of the masters of the music, and then his strong orientation towards the music, and not just the music, but the pedagogical methods of Barry Harris, he’s the one that turned me in the direction even more of Barry, which I also knew about before I met him because in one of my visits to New York in the seventies, I had been to his workshop and checked that out. So I went to him. He turned me on—Charles, that is, turned me on to his compatriot, front-line Mingus’ band, Lonnie Hillyer, who I got with and learned from when I got to New York. So I considered that kind of orientation to that kind of pure bebop of Barry Harris and his school as being a very strong part of who I am, and certainly a big part of who I am as a teacher of the music.
Panken: So you pulled the trigger, so to speak—
Lynch: I finally made it.
Panken: —and you come to New York. It’s ’81 and—
Lynch: There’s not a lot of work.
Panken: You move into a building with quite a history in terms of the artistic life of New York City.
Lynch: I guess so, yeah. Yeah, the—
Panken: Didn’t William Burroughs lived in—
Lynch: William Burroughs lives—well, I’m still in the place. I found a place and I’ve had this apartment for, like, twenty-seven years, I think. I mean I’ve stretched out a little bit since then, but I still retain this place. That’s the nature of rent stabilization in New York, you know. It was an apartment that I moved into that a fellow musician had been in, and then he had built the studio in there, which made it very easy for me to be viable. You know, the hardest thing for a trumpet player is to find a place to practice, and so I got sick of, like, sneaking in the practice rooms at NYU. I don’t have to do that anymore because I teach there, but at that time I was sneaking in the practice rooms and practicing on the dock, like at Jane Street and stuff, which, back in those days, was a whole ‘nother story.
Panken: That looked a lot different then, didn’t it?
Lynch: Yeah, it all looked a lot different. But yeah, so I moved in this building, this little loft that Spalding Gray had once lived in, in my apartment, and Burroughs had lived in the building at one time. It was very interesting. We see mail addressed to him still come through. Good artistic tradition there. So I was lucky. I had a place to live. It wasn’t too expensive.
Panken: So there wasn’t much work, but describe what the scene was like in the early eighties and how you started to navigate your way through it.
Lynch: I was a working trumpet player. I mean I still consider myself just a meat-and-potatoes working trumpet player, and which is good because I know I can still, if everything else falls through the floor, I can still go out and play a wedding or something, you know. But there was a lot more work back then playing in salsa. There were a lot more salsa bands back then, so I had had experience playing with bands in Milwaukee.
Well, the first thing that happened is that Claudio Roditi, the great Brazilian trumpet player, had befriended me on my visits to New York. So when I came to New York, he got me into playing a little bit on the Brazilian scene, and so I actually played in a band with him. It was a nine-piece band with two trumpets, called Amazon, so he got me into that band. So, another great mentor of mine, one of the greatest players. I think one of the most underrated trumpet players around.
So some of the musicians in that band were playing with a salsa group, orchestra led by a gentleman named Angel Canales. So I got a call one day to make a rehearsal for that band and then I came over and made that, and I still didn’t really, really know about what I was doing, but I had played with enough bands that I could go pretty good on my reflexes. So they dug me. They accepted me into that band. That band worked a lot, and between that, I had this hip jazz gig, which kind of jam session oriented between, like, two and five nights a week at this place called the Star Café, which was a place where many musicians came around. I was playing with Junior Cook over there and the drummer Harold White. We had the gig. David Hazeltine was on that gig and a lot of people would—you’d turn around and Woody Shaw would be playing, or Charles Davis, the baritone player, or Billy Higgins would be playing the drums. Everybody would go through that place, so that was great to be a part of that, and then to be playing with a really fine salsa orchestra.
Then I started getting—one thing that I had is that, you know, it might be harder to break in today because there’s so many more good players today than there were then. At least in my opinion there is. I mean I think it was just starting to come back in a sense that everybody can play great and read great now and play all these different kinds of music, but it wasn’t, to me, as prevalent, at least it didn’t seem to be as prevalent when I came to town because it seems like when people found out that I could read good and I could play a solo and I could play different styles of music, a lot of calls started coming, I mean, for different things. A lot of these things didn’t necessarily pay a lot of money, but I was getting a lot of experience and getting my name around and stuff.
I recorded with this guy, Bill Kirchner, who’s a great arranger, and joined his band, nine-piece band. The trombone player in that band, Doug Purviance, was a band mate of Tom Harrell’s in the Mel Lewis Orchestra. Tom heard me play on this record, and then Tom recommended me to Horace Silver through that. Then I got a call to go out and audition for Horace’s band and then I made the audition, so that’s when I started working with Horace.
Panken: So that was your first gig with an internationally recognized jazz musician, more or less in a [unclear]?
Lynch: Well, right around the same time, I had also joined Toshiko Akiyoshi and his big band, so those things were happening at the same time. I had also recorded with George Russell’s band before that a little bit, so things were coming in.
Panken: But Horace Silver was a huge influence on the way you think about writing, I know.
Lynch: Oh, yeah. It had been even—
Panken: And on your first recording as a leader for Criss Cross, for example, you have an arrangement that I think still stands up of his tune, “The Outlaw,” which I haven’t heard matched by anyone other than Horace, myself, even though I’ve heard a few efforts. Perhaps we could take the next segment of this conversation and talk about really these three major jazz apprenticeship gigs that you did, four, if you like—
Panken: —Horace Silver, Toshiko Akiyoshi, then Art Blakey, and then more recently and still ongoing, Phil Woods.
Lynch: Right. Well, to pick up where you left off, I mean Horace had been an influence on me way before I ever met him or anything. I think I learned how to write music, I mean, like, write jazz tunes from taking Horace Silver tunes off of records and probably, like, Wayne Shorter tunes off of Jazz Messengers records, stuff like that. Especially with Horace’s thing, then you get a whole idea about how to make something work, where to put the bass lines in, where to put the little details, the harmony for the two-horn front-line and all that kind of stuff. So he was a tremendous influence. And like I say, I think listening to Horace’s stuff is something that gets you steered toward the Latin direction, too, especially since so much of his music had Latin beats to it in the mid-1970s when I used to go hear him live so many times and stuff like that.
So, yeah, that was my first really getting out there, playing in a small group, touring all over the country, and then going to Europe and Japan, and kind of making a little splash on the jazz scene with that band, and some enduring relationships. My relationship with Ralph Moore, the tenor player who was my front-line partner in that band, became a very enduring one. Also at the same time, with Toshiko I got a very strong relationship with an alto player with Jim Snidero, who we played on a lot of each other’s records and stuff all through the eighties and into the early nineties. So those were good days.
Big band experience is really important to have, and not everybody has that opportunity anymore. So to be in a band that was still going out and touring, I mean kids now don’t know about having to, like, double up in a room and pay for that room, and getting on the bus and stuff like that. Most of them don’t, thank God for them, but it’s still good to pay those dues.
Panken: You joined Art Blakey at the end of ’88, was it?
Lynch: Yeah, so I was pretty old when I joined Art Blakey’s band because I was already in my thirties.
Panken: You were thirty-two, I guess.
Lynch: I was a much more experienced musician, I think, in a lot of senses than the usual person—the profile of somebody who would have joined that band would be somebody in their early twenties who was very talented but didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of experience. But there were a couple other people in that band who were more veterans. Like, I think Frank Lacy was certainly one, and the trombonist, and Essiet Essiet, who’s pretty much my exact contemporary, was also in that band.
Panken: Now, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers had been a consistent entity, I guess, really since about when, 1957 or so.
Panken: And took its total identity when Benny Golson was in the band in 1958 in a rather consistent way. He’d had some lean times in the seventies, but then started to gain broader popularity again in the kind of reflorescence of jazz that happened in the later seventies in certain ways, and then brought in a lot of the people associated with the so-called Young Lions movement. So your immediate predecessors in the trumpet share were Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard. Who am I missing?
Lynch: Phillip Harper was in there before me.
Panken: Phillip Harper, all of whom would fit your definition for the time that you entered the band as not being particularly experienced, although extremely talented, talented players. Can you talk about your path into The Messengers?
Lynch: Well, you know, I always wanted to do that, and I think the first time I sat in with Art was back when Wynton was first in the band. I mean, I’ve been listening to that band ever since I was a kid—I’m talking about live—so I heard all the different ages of it. It’s like you’re a jazz trumpet player. There’s Horace’s band. There’s Art Blakey’s band. It’s like, you know, you try to get in one of those bands. I mean, Horace seemed to be a little bit more approachable maybe because he seemed like there were more players coming out of the sort of big band tradition or something like that that were playing his gig, but I wanted to play with Art, really. That was a real goal.
The trail had maybe gotten a little cold. Like, by the time I tell you I got in the band, I mean, I had been around for a while and I had done a lot of stuff. I was pretty—I was established to a certain point where maybe I didn’t really need to go and do that gig, but I needed to spiritually for myself and I really needed to make that connection. And when there’s a will, there’s a way.
Panken: Well, I recall that he used to play a lot at Sweet Basil, the club on 88 Seventh Avenue South, now known as Sweet Rhythm.
Lynch: If I might interrupt, he also used to go and hear Eddie Palmieri play and I was already playing with Eddie at that point. And he would go and go to the Gate and hang out.
Panken: The Village Gate, you’re talking about.
Lynch: Yeah. And I think even a couple of times he gave me a ride uptown after the gig in his car and stuff, so he knew who I was and everything. But it’s like penetrating through the circle from—usually in a band like that, it’s like somebody decides they want to go. Then you get one of your buddies to come on up. Or Art wants somebody to go and then, in that case, it can be a much more complicated situation, and so—
Panken: When you say he wants somebody to go, you mean he wants somebody to leave the band.
Lynch: He wants to make a change is the way we—is the phrase. I think an old-school jazz musician would say, “It’s time to make a change.” So if you hear about that on the grapevine, then you come on down to the club and see if you can play some. And it’s a funny thing that, you know, well, you do that whether the grapevine’s out or not. People are always trying to sit in on Art’s gig. But if a guy’s position is secure, usually those inquiries are rebuffed one way or another, but if a position is not secure, then you may not be welcomed by the other musicians, but Art will get you in. And that was my experience, because guys were telling me, “You know, I heard he wants to make a change.”
So I said, “Let me get down there and give this one more try,” because I tried to do that before back earlier, but I didn’t get anywhere because it was just too much dues to try to break through the barrier, like, to get on the bandstand. But at this point, like, again, Art had seen me around. Maybe he was even listening a little bit and—
Panken: As I remember it, there was a real sort of trial-by-fire audition where there were—
Lynch: Oh, it’s always like that.
Panken: —there were a lot of people on the bandstand.
Lynch: Well, what happened was I came down there and sat in a couple times. And then I saw him in Bradley’s [Jazz Club] and he took me aside and said, “I’m getting the big band together.” So getting the big band together, that’s a code for, like, I want to hear a bunch of new musicians. So I did a gig with him, you know, and it was Sweet Basil, Christmastime, and there was, like, seven horn players on the stand. That’s his big band. The only problem with the big band is, like, there’s only three parts being played, so I mean it’s not like there’s big band charts out there, man. It’s everyone still playing the same tune.
Panken: It was a very survive Darwinian situation up there. I remember this.
Lynch: Well, and listen, I have to tell you, I knew all that music. It’s like it was never any—see, even reliving this, I start kind of—
Panken: Palpitating. [laughs]
Lynch: I kind of start snapping back into a sort of a little bit more of a—I’m not like a sort of a bravura that does not necessarily something that I—you know what I mean—the way that I usually—
Panken: Present yourself.
Lynch: —present myself. But maybe what comes through is the pride I have in being able to do that gig and how blessed I am that I was able to do it and how much I got from doing it.
Panken: What did you get from doing it?
Lynch: Well, I mean, I’m a Messenger, you know. I’m part of that tradition.
Panken: What does that mean in the jazz lexicon, to be a Messenger?
Lynch: It’s like being a Mason. No, just kidding. It’s part of being—it’s a fraternity. It’s a fraternity that’s—it’s an oral tradition in both senses of the word and, you know, both senses of the sound, aural. I can talk to Curtis Fuller or I can talk to Benny Golson, or I could talk to Freddie Hubbard before he passed away, or I could talk to Wynton or Donald Harrison or whoever, Gary Bartz, guys from all the different eras, and we’ve had the same experiences. You know what I mean? It’s like even like the repository of the tradition, the lore, you know. Everybody has the lore. You know, like, I was at the end, so I got all the lore. I mean all the stories, all the anecdotes, all the—like I said, really the tradition of the band.
Panken: It’s a picaresque tradition, to say the least.
Lynch: Yeah, but also some very strong truths and some very, very, very deep spiritual and practical truths that are embedded in all this, as you say, picaresque locutions.
Panken: Now, it’s interesting because Eddie Palmieri has a somewhat analogous position in his world—
Lynch: The great bandleaders do.
Panken: —as well, because he seems to embody within his sound the traditions of Afro-Cuban music in its, what you could call in retrospect, its real classic period, and assimilated and found his own truths within that, and his own conclusions, and has inspired himself a great number of next-generation musicians in various directions. So it’s interesting that you were positioned so deeply within these, again, kind of parallel, very deep rivers of the music that started to coalesce in certain ways during the 1990s and in this decade.
Lynch: Well, again, it may be a New York thing, you know, I mean—
Panken: Let’s talk about that.
Lynch: I mean, like I say, I think of them both as New York—New York being maybe a code for a certain kind of, like—New York as being the world, sort of, or a world, or a way of thinking or just a way of life or something like that. I mean Eddie Palmieri’s a product of the New York experience, and Art Blakey is too. I mean he was New York, man. You know that.
Panken: Certain level, sure.
Lynch: Something left New York when he passed away, I mean in terms of jazz. He was like the king, you know. He was the king of New York, and Eddie is the king of New York too.
Panken: There are a lot of worlds in New York.
Lynch: Yeah, but I mean in the sense of like the inner—Eddie talks about the international bandstand, you know, and definitely when you talk about Art Blakey, you’re talking about a master of the international bandstand. But it’s like New York is where everybody that functions on that international bandstand, in a certain way comes from with their New York thing, you know. I don’t know. It sounds a little loopy and vague talking about it, but—
Panken: That’s all right.
Lynch: There’s a real—it’s a sensibility, you know, but this is the kind of sensibility that Eddie Palmieri brings to Afro-Caribbean music, is the New York sensibility, which is also a jazz sensibility he brings to that music. So I mean, you know, I encourage everybody to go listen to his music, no matter what it is, as jazz music. I have very little distinction to most (means between) Afro-Caribbean or Afro-Cuban music and jazz. I just think it’s jazz that has different parameters. I mean it’s African rhythm, European melody, or whatever you want to call it. African sensibility, improvisation is really important, handling a rhythm, the sense of swing, which could be expressed in different senses, whether it’s the North American “ting-ting-a-ding” or the lockdown sound of the mambo. All the sensibility in those categories are all the same.
Panken: Now, also parallel tracking, most of your time with Eddie Palmieri has been your participation in the Phil Woods Quintet, which is a very different entity than being with Art Blakey. In a sense, to me it almost denotes ending the apprenticeship and moving towards coequal status with old masters type of thing for me. I don’t know how you see it, but if you could just address the impact of your participation in that group.
Lynch: Well, he’s a master, Phil Woods is, and to be a part of his group is—it’s not an apprenticeship situation. It’s like becoming the second violin in the Juilliard String Quartet or something like that. It’s that sort of role as a collaborator in a great chamber jazz group, which has existed and functioned with very few personnel changes for a really long period of time, more than thirty years now. I’ve been in it for seventeen of those years, so it’s a great and is a great ongoing experience to be associated with Phil. Again, I’ve been lucky to get these guys, these greats like Eddie and Phil, involved with some of my own recording things, and their generosity in being a part of that has been something that’s been very validating for me.
Panken: In particular, one of your recording things, as you call it, which won a Grammy.
Lynch: Yeah, the record called Simpatico, which Eddie did with me and I put out as the Brian Lynch Eddie Palmieri Project. And Phil is on that record too. And a lot of the musicians that are a part of the Spheres of Influence Band and many of the musicians that are on the original recording of the Spheres of Influence Suite are part of that record, too, like Dafnis Prieto and Boris Kozlov and Pedro Martinez and so on.
I love the idea of getting all the people from all the different corners that I function in in the same place at the same time, so to have Phil Woods and Eddie Palmieri play together. I wish I could have had Eddie Palmieri and Art Blakey play together. I wasn’t where I am now back then, but I was trying to make that happen. I would have loved to have heard Art Blakey with Eddie Palmieri and Giovanni Hidalgo and me and David Sanchez, who I was trying to get into Art Blakey’s band when Art died and stuff. I would have loved to heard everybody, all those guys playing together.
Panken: What would have happened? Well, as you mentioned, you garnered a lot of your education as an instrumentalist on the street, but now a good chunk of your activity is involved in education and has been for a number of years, and you went back to school and got a degree.
Lynch: I went back and got a master’s degree.
Panken: A master’s degree. Did that have an effect on the production of the Spheres of Influence Suite?
Lynch: Well, since I was studying composition when I went back to school, I mean, I think it did to a certain degree. There were some things that I wanted to learn more about when I went back to school and I got a little taste of that and it helped me with big—you know, kind of widening my scope in terms of how I write and stuff. So yeah, it was a good—it did inform that writing.
Panken: You’ve also, in recent years, done some pop production. Particularly you’ve worked with Lila Downs, some Japanese artists. You’ve expanded—
Lynch: Yeah, I helped produce Lila’s last record and did most of the arranging work for it, and I produced some dance music and helped arrange some dance music in pop artists in Japan and different things like that. I work a lot with this guy named Andres Levin. He’s associated with a group called Yerba Buena and does a lot of film work and stuff now, you know, so I help him out with his things a lot. I do a lot of session work of that nature too.
The experiences that I’ve had make me, I think, kind of versatile and able to write and play in a lot of different idioms, but I always want to put a kind of personal stamp on it, that there’s a certain part of it is—I just don’t want to recreate a style. I want to play me and have my experiences inform that. I think that’s something I would always—that would be the goal in my writing or playing or band leading or whatever is to take all those experiences and to express me through that. It’s a ongoing thing, recognizing what my core values are, building on those values, always dealing with fundamentals and reevaluating them all the time in my playing, in my writing, in my listening.
And you know, you can’t have any of that without the listening part of it. Learning how to listen better to music is always an ongoing process, I think, and should be for any musical artist or aficionado of music. And all those things, you know, trying to find even more experiences and bring more music in, learning from the young, learning from people, being able to be flexible enough to accept the innovations of those younger than yourself, and to integrate it into your own music gracefully, that’s something that I think is very intriguing and challenging to do too.
Panken: How many different bands are you working with now?
Lynch: Well, so Spheres of Influence is one. I have a group project called Unsung Heroes that is a little bit more bebop or straight-ahead sort of thing, but it’s dealing with the music of a lot of the trumpet players that I love that are a little bit more under the radar, people like Tommy Turrentine and Louis Smith and Idrees Sulieman, lot of stuff like that. And that’s a sextet with Vincent Herring as kind of the guest soloist on alto and some younger musicians that are very talented. My next record will be that music coming out, you know, I mean larger versions of the Spheres of Influence group when I can have the time to convene the larger version or the money to convene the large version, [unclear] that. And that’s enough right now.
But I think on the horizon is maybe—I was doing some big band stuff for a while and got to a certain place with that. I’d like to reconvene that and get that music recorded, and hoping to be my next grant project is to collaborate with Spheres of Influence and a group called the Sweet Plantain String Quartet that is a string quartet of players that are comfortable with both the Euro tradition and other kinds of music. I’m in the beginning phases of writing a work for the combined groups, which is going to be based on the Mayan calendar and the rapidly approaching end of days in 2012. So I better start getting to work on that thing, inspired by Daniel Pinchbeck’s books, actually. Not by that movie. But I’m hopefully going to be able to get some support to get that thing happening in the next year.
Panken: I think we’ve done it.
Lynch: I think we have too. What do you think?
[End of interview]