Trumpeter Brian Lynch left Milwaukee over 30 years ago, but he still feels like an integral part of the jazz scene here. So it’s no surprise that he received a hero’s welcome Thursday night at his alma mater, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He deserved it.
In two generous and substantial sets, Lynch played in front of the conservatory’s “house trio,” pianist Mark Davis, bassist Jeff Hamann and drummer David Bayles (the rhythm section of the WCM’s “We Six” ensemble). He brought an accomplished tenor saxophonist with him from New York (Alex Hoffman), but there was no doubt that this was Lynch’s show.
Over the decades, Lynch’s playing has grown ever more accomplished. On the surface, he’s a traditionalist rather than an innovator—but his mastery of “post-bop” style (for lack of a better term) makes him one of the most dynamic improvisers working today. From his regular gigs with Latin greats like Eddie Palmieri, he’s inherited a savvy rhythmic sense—his solo lines, for all their shimmying complexity, are always propulsive and foursquare in the beat. And from his oft-cited mentor Phil Woods, he’s inherited a blazing and sinuous lyricism that you can hear in every line.
Thursday, he brought a book of songs from his “Unsung Heroes” project, original compositions by less-well-known trumpet players like Idris Suleiman, Joe Gordon, and Tommy Turrentine (brother of the better-known sax player, Stanley). The changes were often complicated (particularly the only clinker of the night, a slow-swing version of John Coltrane’s notoriously challenging “Giant Steps”), which for the other musicians, often kept the improvisation on the cooler, dialed-back side. But Lynch plunged right in, spinning lines that made fluid shifts between different scales and modes, occasionally propelled forward by a surprising leap into an off-the-grid punctuation. When the quintet played in the more familiar territory of Lynch’s original waltz blues, things loosened up considerably, and the band generated some considerable heat as a collective.
Hoffman was visibly (and audibly) having an off night, but he’s a solid player with a big Dexter Gordon tone and tonality—with occasional dashes of an obvious Coltrane homage. His lines were smart and inventive, but they didn’t build dramatically from chorus to chorus.
The trio members were strong partners and listeners, particularly Bayles’ sensitive interplay with soloists. Both Davis and Hamann were solid solists, but I wanted to hear more of Hamann, who has a great way of crafting a solo from motifs that build and morph and stretch across the bar lines.
Francesco Lecce-Chong hails from Colorado, not Milwaukee, but the current Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Associate Conductor will almost certainly have locals saying “I knew him when” in a few years (but not too soon--he just renewed his MSO contract). The mid-twentysomething stepped to the podium again this weekend to lead a compelling program that he obviously chose and crafted himself.
The concert paired Mozart and Richard Strauss. Speaking from the stage Friday morning, Lecce-Chong explained the choices, pointing out that Strauss’s favorite composer was Mozart rather than the Classical revolutionary Beethoven. And his bold programming—which demanded a lot of chair shuffling between the different size orchestras required—made its case beautifully.
In the first half, Lecce-Chong paired Strauss’s tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, with Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, which is sort of like following a roller coaster ride with a relaxing glass of rose. Strauss’s early tone poem is full of comic twists and delightful wit, and Lecce-Chong kept the orchestra together through shifts in both tone and rhythm. (And through its several “endings”—it has more of those than the Harry Potter finale).
Strauss’s suite from Der Rosenkavilier is as knotty and rewarding as Eulenspiegel only bigger and brasher. Things got a little muddy through some of Strauss’s most dense orchestrations, but Lecce-Chong negotiated the transitions and turns with a great dramatic sense, ushering in the thundering waltzes with a fine sense of occasion. And he handled Mozart’s orchestral music from Idomeneo with a sense of drama and scale that made it clear why it was championed by Strauss in his time.
But the most elegant music of the night was courtesy of the pairing of Lecce-Chong and violinist Augustin Hadelich, who brought a profound sense of tender elegance to Mozart’s 1775 violin concerto. Hadelich played his own cadenzas, and he and Lecce-Chong allowed for several of them throughout the piece, and his sweetness of tone and spot-on intonation made the melodies sing beautifully. In the upper registers, the notes seemed to float effortlessly from his instrument, as if they were blooming in mid air in the concert hall. For an encore, Hadelich played the well-known Paganini Caprice No. 24, and he brought more than mere virtuosity to the variations. There was sense and sensibility in the playing, an embrace of the piece’s varied emotions as well as it’s dazzling technique.
The concert will be repeated Saturday night.