When trumpeter Brian Lynch was 32, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the famed group that helped launch the careers of dozens of jazz greats. Now three decades into a celebrated career, Lynch is passing on that tradition of mentorship to new generations of musicians.
On Friday, October 31st, 2014, Lynch comes to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of his newest record Questioned Answer, a collaboration with up-and-coming pianist Emmet Cohen. We caught up with Brian by phone to talk about the two-way street of working with younger players and the importance of passing on musical traditions to future generations.
The Jazz Gallery: How did you and Emmet first meet?
Brian Lynch: I originally met Emmet when I was playing a jazz cruise in 2011. Emmet was playing there with a trio of students from the University of Miami. I got to hear him play, and played with him in on board jam sessions, and I was very much impressed with his playing. Later that same year, after an interesting chain of events, I was asked to join the faculty of the University of Miami as the jazz trumpet professor.
When I started teaching, Emmet was finishing his last year there, so he started to take lessons with me, which were primarily based on playing duo together. The more we played, the more things I liked about his playing and his musical concepts. All of that time playing together, especially in the duo format, was the genesis for this record, Questioned Answer. It’s kind of like the final school project. But in the time since Emmet graduated, he’s become ubiquitous on the New York scene, playing everywhere around town—he’s very much left the student role behind!
TJG: What specifically do you like about Emmet’s playing?
BL: I like how he’s grounded in traditional playing, swing playing, straight-ahead playing, whatever you like to call it. He’s really immersed himself in that tradition, even before coming to college. Like he would go to Cecil’s [a jazz club, now closed, in West Orange, NJ, near where Emmet grew up] and play with all the guys there, and had Billy Hart as a neighbor. He’s got all of those qualities that I certainly like, in terms of being able to swing and knowing a lot about the music.
But at the same time, he’s younger, he’s got a more contemporary outlook, he’s got his own personality. For Emmet, knowing a lot about the music doesn’t restrict him, as it can sometimes with certain people. The music can overwhelm you, and then you’re goal is to sound just like so-and-so. That was a big thing with some players of my own generation—there were people that wanted to be a Freddie Hubbard clone, or a Woody Shaw clone. But in the way I wanted to go out and find my own voice, I see a kindred spirit in Emmet. I think the way we play together, coming from our respective generations, provides a really nice meeting point for our different perspectives.
There’s always a freshness of playing with somebody younger, because there are always new things that you get from them. But at the same time, Emmet understands what I do, so he can give me what I need in terms of harmony and so on. The stimulus is very well balanced.
TJG: Speaking of this idea of mentoring and tradition, you’ve had the opportunity to work with some jazz legends over the course of your career, like Art Blakey and Horace Silver and Eddie Palmieri. What did working with them teach you about how to be a good mentor?
You’re always working with older musicians when you’re coming up, and they’re measuring you. I think about my experience back when I was in my early to mid twenties, and it was never as much about what was said to me directly. It was more about being up there on the bandstand and knowing the music and being very observant of what everyone else did. Even with my earlier teachers, it was less about how to play a ii-V-I and more about communicating qualities of the music—like whether something was hip or not. It’s about getting a sense of taste.
What I’m trying to say is being a good mentor is being good at knowing when to say something and when not to say something. Mentors need to be open, and I think one thing good mentors do is learn a lot from their students. I think being open to learning from those younger than you, and making it a two-way street, is really important. The fact that generations exist simultaneously—we’re not cells that just pass on our DNA and die—means that experienced players like me have to keep growing, too.
TJG: I think this idea of mentorship is reflected on the record in that there’s a strong contrast between your compositions and Emmet’s compositions.
BL: From my perspective, playing Emmet’s music is fun because it lets me do something different that I wouldn’t normally do. I think that the reality for myself as a composer is that there are certain kinds of music that I gravitate toward. But that’s still only part of what I like to hear and play. Playing Emmet’s music is not uncomfortable for me, but it’s nice playing something where the language has a bit of a different flavor, like something an younger player like Ambrose Akinmusire would write. And the other way around—I think my tunes work very well with the way that Emmet plays.
And the point in the middle is that Billy Hart makes it all go—someone from another generation embracing all of this different music. He was my idol when I was Emmet’s age, and he played on the first small group record date that I was on (On Time by Jim Snidero back in 1984). There’s an incredible openness and knowledge that Jabali has—he’s always able to make everything sound new and grounded at the same time. So he’s definitely the model for how Emmet and I work together.
TJG: Billy has that ability to work with very different players on the same album and make them sound good together, like Steve Coleman and Branford Marsalis.
BL: Yeah. Sometimes I feel that differences between players of different aesthetics are as much a projection of something foreign put on them by the listener, or the aficionado, or the critic, or whatever. Like I feel it’s more about what happens when you get on a bandstand with someone—you can either play with them or you can’t. It just requires a degree of openness to know what works when playing with someone on a bandstand.
Like one thing a lot of people don’t know about me was that until I was about 18, I was a total free jazz fanatic, and I’ve played a fair bit of it over the years. So when something like that comes along that I have to play, there is something there that I can relate to. I think you have to be aware of all of the music out there, and try to understand its rules, even if they’re things you don’t use in your music. Even within certain defined styles, like free jazz or hard bop or salsa, there are all of these variations among players, and being able to adjust joyfully in the spirit of reaching out and making music is really important.
TJG: In addition to playing each other’s originals on the record, you and Emmet play a few standards in a duo format. Now that we’re pretty far removed from the original context in which these tunes originated, how do you approach playing them? Why do you think it’s important to keep playing this repertoire?
BL: I think one thing that needs to be considered in this whole debate about standards—whether they’re relevant or whether we should play them and teach them—is that they’re optimal structures to improvise on. They’re tunes that are known by the greatest number of improvising musicians, and players can relate to them no matter where they’re coming from. Today, you open the paper and see Lady Gaga’s standards album with Tony Bennett at the top of the charts, or Annie Lennox singing those tunes. For singers, I think they go back to these materials because the words and the sentiments expressed are still relevant.
For instrumentalists, these songs present structures that show how different musicians can play together. It’s a genre in itself—it’s like playing the blues, and I don’t hear anyone saying that we have to get rid of the blues! That’s a fundamental structure for playing improvised music in a group, and it’s also a fundamental emotional structure. Both the blues and standards allow you to make music with other people with a minimal amount of preparation.
These structures are so understood that it’s possible to alter them on the fly. Like on the record, Emmet and I can add a few bars to a phrase, or change the harmony in some way, and still know where we are. I also think people are drawn to certain tunes because they have hip changes, which just means that there’s a structure that is stimulating and presents certain challenges. So many players are able to take on the tune and do completely different things with it.
Basically, if you want to be spontaneous, then you can get a lot of spontaneity out of playing these structures.
Brian Lynch and Emmet Cohen celebrate the release of “Questioned Answer” this Friday, October 31st, 2014 at The Jazz Gallery. The performance will feature Lynch on trumpet, Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass, and Mark Whitfield, Jr. on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., and tickets are $22.00 ($12.00 for Members). Purchase tickets here.