Reading the books to which Brian Lynch links his compositions is not a prerequisite for appreciating the music on his exquisite, first-ever big-band album The Omni-American Book Club (Hollistic MusicWorks). From joyous Latin-jazz jams to African-drum-fueled workouts to salutes to straight-ahead-jazz heroes Blue Mitchell and Woody Shaw, the program abounds with the aural and visceral pleasures of a roaring 19-piece ensemble stocked with top-shelf musicians and thrilling soloists. But if you come away from the experience with a suggested reading list, or even a few concepts that make you think about jazz and Western culture in a new way, that would please the trumpeter and educator, who teaches at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. Lynch explains the literary connections to each track in a detailed booklet accompanying the album.
A voracious reader from childhood, Lynch, 63, contextualizes the music on The Omni-American Book Club with concepts he gleaned from the works of favorite authors such as Albert Murray, Amiri Baraka, W.E.B. DuBois and Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s no accident that African-American thinkers feature prominently on his syllabus; his interest in their writing was sparked by a desire to find out more about the culture that created the music he loves.
Lynch, who is white, first read Murray’s then-new The Omni-Americans when he was 14 or 15, and it opened up critical avenues of thought. When album producer Khabir Sehgal mentioned the book in conversation, Lynch revisited the work, bringing the perspective of a seasoned jazz artist who had worked with the likes of Art Blakey and Horace Silver. “Re-reading it in later years, I realized something about the overall sensibility of it,” he says by phone on a weekday morning in mid-September. “I didn’t understand everything Murray had to say [as a teenager] until I learned much more about African-American culture and the music itself, because I was fairly embryonic in my understanding of either at that point.”
Lynch’s understanding of African-American culture and music expanded exponentially as the budding musician made the rounds of the jazz clubs in his hometown, Milwaukee. Several of the artists on the scene were transplants from Indianapolis, including vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery and organist Melvin Rhyne, with both of whom he apprenticed. The experience taught him to think on his feet. “Just the way these musicians played and how they made music, it was never about putting things down on paper,” he notes. “It was just like, ‘Learn this.’ And then we’d learn it, and we’d play it again, and you’d have to be ready for it to be different the next time.”
The trumpeter’s formal studies continued at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, one of the first college conservatory programs to offer a jazz degree. With a mainly African-American faculty, the program emphasized a cultural approach to the music — that is, to truly know and understand jazz, students needed to know and understand black culture and attitudes. Lynch was aided in his pursuit of this knowledge by the head of the jazz program, Tony King, whose office was stuffed with books that provided insight and perspective.
At the same time, the trumpeter was feeding his appetite for Latin music, eventually recognizing its connection to straight-ahead jazz. “I don’t think I knew it right off the bat,” he says, “but [Latin] sounds and rhythms were in the music [I listened to] when I was growing up. Whether it was McCoy Tyner or Horace Silver, those rhythms were there. But a little later, when I started getting aware of ‘real’ Latin music and salsa, it was like discovering another continent on the map of music, one that’s connected to the continent you’re on. It’s all Afro-diaspora music.” Lynch eventually landed a spot with Eddie Palmieri’s band, recording nine albums with the maestro.
Quite naturally, Afro-Caribbean rhythms percolate throughout The Omni-American Book Club, starting with the rousing opener, “Crucible for Crisis.” Flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, with whose band Lynch has worked in Cuba, takes a dazzling solo rooted in Afro-Cuban tradition, while Cuban-born drummer and Frost School faculty mate Dafnis Prieto creates an exciting tension on the bottom end. Lynch’s own burnished solo rides a bed of percussion provided by Murph Aucamp’s hand drums. Lynch dedicates the song to DuBois and African-American historian David Levering Lewis, cross-referencing their influences in its title. “Levering Lewis’ book God’s Crucible is about Islam and the making of Europe in response to the Islamic conquest of a good deal of it,” he explains. “And of course, The Crisis is the name of the NAACP’s periodical that was founded by W.E.B. DuBois.”
Lynch recruited saxophonist Jim Snidero, a longtime friend and collaborator, on “Tribute to Blue (Mitchell),” which salutes the late trumpeter who had preceded Lynch in Horace Silver’s band. A silky, bluesy piece that makes great use of a sparkling ensemble filled with South Florida jazz elite, it’s enlivened by emotionally rich solos from Snidero and Lynch. Aptly, Lynch’s literary links here are Isabel Wilkerson, whose The Warmth of Other Suns details the history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the first half of the 20th century, and Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man left an indelible mark on Lynch. Certainly, Mitchell qualifies as a Southerner who migrated North to make his own mark. “He’s from Miami,” Lynch relates. “He used to play right up the street from me at the Sir John Lounge.” Of course, this was long before Lynch had moved to Miami in 2011.
The bumptious “Woody Shaw,” dedicated to another important trumpet voice silenced too young from illness, provides a showcase for some up-and-coming South Florida talents, including trumpeter Jean Caze, saxophonist David Leon and drummer Kyle Swan, a current Frost student. Lynch connects the piece to literary lions Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and A.P. Spellman, whose writings heavily influenced his thinking about jazz and race.
“I’ve always been a book person,” Lynch says. “In this phase of my life, I’m faking it as an academic. But I think that the amount of time that I put into my own auto-didacticism in reading, along with having a little bit of education, has really helped put me in good stead. I definitely see my role as a musical artist to be caught up with things that have to do with society and culture. That comes from the relationship between the music I was drawn to and the books I was reading. I think very much so, that’s the theme of this project.”