Maria Schneider opens her pastoral world to darkening clouds

Orchestra leader Maria Schneider demonstrates the nuance in her conducting technique which employs arms, hands and body English, but no baton. All photos by Kevin Lynch

ELMHURST, IL – Something ominous trails through the wind. Most everyone attuned to electronic media can feel it by now, if not wholly understand. It hovers at a crossroads in a busy city street, but for Maria Schneider it may feel like intrusion on a desolate but beautiful country road in Minnesota, not far from her hometown.

Same difference in the larger scheme, this is a state of mind and maybe of spirit. But after this concert, one senses Schneider’s crossroads stands near humanity’s choice between Robert Frost’s road less traveled and the one we seem headed on directly, into the mysteries and maelstrom of technology.

The technology engulfs us psychically among many other ways. And this woman, who has reached an artistic pinnacle using a traditional communicative technology – composing and arranging for her jazz orchestra – feels the dichotomy intensely. Now she’s shared her angst with her public.

In a way, the occasion allows us to see anew the choice – which way to travel. Schneider showed at this live concert Saturday that she remains the mistress of hill and dale, of The Thompson Fields near where she grew up.

She’s a conjurer of atmospheres as thick as pea soup and as palpable as the mist that swept steadily across the nocturnal landscape on this climactic evening of the 51st Elmhurst College Jazz Festival.

The pivotal work of the evening, she explained, is a recent and yet unrecorded commission. She calls the composition “Data Lords,” an oddly evocative title that brings to mind alien presences, perhaps like those in the Star Wars saga. Schneider has chosen to grapple with the huge technology media giants like Google, she says, which have transformed the way we live and communicate. The title references directly the exponential rise of artificial technology which may, before long, grow so powerful as to become more intelligent than humans. She’s taken considerable control with the independent record label ArtistShare. But she’s hardly alone in fearing, but for what exactly? We can’t know for sure right now.

I’d venture that the somewhat politically conservative “big band” genre is undergoing changes, certainly forged and liberated by Sun Ra among a few others. But more recently this impressionistic field-leaper may feel the dark, restless cloud of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, a jazz orchestra which, from its name on up, seems born for the age of Trump, with persuasively dark social themes that thunder across apocalyptic aural landscapes. This year Argue even overtook Schneider in the Down Beat Jazz Critics Poll for best jazz orchestra.

The times do seem to call for music that proves or inspires intense, extended contemplation and discussion, and Schneider’s Data Lords provides an appropriate couching for such concerns, and is hardly built for easy comfort.

We know her as a sonic magician in the tradition of Gil Evans and Duke Ellington and here she lets loose some reins because her control is always measured by a desire to allow her creative musicians to fly enough free, like those she evokes in celebrated pieces like “The Monarch and the Milkweed.” Her artistic reach can encompass much of nature and humanity.

One might even imagine her with a hopeful fancy. In announcing her exquisite piece “Home,” from her 2017 Grammy Award-winning album The Thompson Fields, she sounded like she’d uttered “Hope.” The tender concerto for tenor saxophonist Rich Perry and the orchestra glowed like a melding of healing and replenishment.

Rather then a top-down leadership, Schneider demonstrates a close creative symbiosis with all of her ensemble’s members.

And yet the concert provided abundant evidence that humanity is Schneider’s greatest concern – along with the faltering milieu of Nature, as source of such spiritual succor. First, there’s the fact that she creates music for the largest-populated ensemble of America’s indigenous art form, the jazz orchestra. So it is not only the sounds and extra-musical themes, but the living beings who produce them, that she tends to.

Accordionist and pianist Gary Versace, demonstrates the deep range of sonic possibility that composer-arranger Maria Schneider explores as a matter of course.

This was as evident in the fraught commission piece as any, as she allowed a kind of freedom for her players to rise up, commingle and explore together. She employed dissonance and collective improvising, but always controlled to some degree while repeatedly exhorting the orchestra to reach for bold, courageous outer limits.

She demonstrated her great artistry as a conductor, a craft of nuance and evocative power. Even on a damp February night, she wore her virtual trademark, a sleeveless blouse which seems to serve musical purpose in that her arms, like any conductor’s, crucially convey her artistry’s particular powers. The limbs, adorned only with passion, move as meaningfully as an airborne embrace.

Her personal connection to her musicians arose immediately in the opening piece, “A Potter’s Song,” an ode to Lori Frank, of whom she wrote in her Thompson Fields liner notes, as “our dear friend who played trumpet in the band since the making of our first recording in 1990. Lori was a fellow Midwesterner by birth, born in Nebraska. A person of  tremendous integrity, talent, skill, humor, warmth, and tenderness, she’s deeply missed by all who knew, played, studied, or shared a ceramic studio with her.”

Note, in the lilting staccato of her extended description of Ms. Frank, an ardor that underlies the rhythms of Schneider’s radiant lyricism.

When she’s not conducting, Schneider remains closely attuned to the playing of each soloist, here trombonist Marshall Gilkes.

It’s also evident in concert that she’s intensely involved in appreciating her band members’ playing. When they solo with only the rhythm section, she refrains from conducting but remains vibrantly attracted, like a moth to the flame. She seems also to revel in the presence of the audience, as “so many smiling faces,” which might seem innocuous or even heart-string plucking. But Schneider risks such a moment with the adroitness of her music’s redeeming powers. Even if the utterance summons sentiment, it’s the finest-honed kind, worthy of a heart’s game sturdiness.

Similarly, in an act somewhat unusual for a “star” of this magnitude playing in a formal concert hall, Schneider offered, at the end, herself to her fans, to chat and sign autographs right at the foot of the stage, where a long line of admirers quickly accumulated.

Maria Schneider expressed deep appreciation to each soloist as well as to the large audience at Saturday’s climax to the Elmhurst Jazz Festival.

If this night’s music be food for thought as well as feast, I’m thankful for the wealth and bounty Schneider has wrought over several decades, as she’s climbed to her pinnacle. One senses, however, she’s hardly finished with searching out new peaks, that hill and dale will follow her far, more likely to sunlight than not.



Reflecting on Rich Mangelsdorff and Lake Michigan waves of “raised consciousness”


Back cover of “The Collected Essays of Rich Mangelsdorff,” Dustbooks, 1977. Courtesy Harvey Taylor

“I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more…” – Herman Melville, in a letter to a friend, critic-editor Edward Duyckinck, March 3, 1849, three years before the publication of Moby-Dick.


Until I visited him in the hospital a few days ago, long-time Milwaukee arts journalist, essayist and poet Rich Mangelsdorff had faded somewhat in my memory, but not my consciousness. I think he would readily appreciate the distinction. Despite his comparative absence from the scene in recent years, part of my sense and critical understanding of the city’s cultural scene is formed by Mangelsdorff.

He wrote insightfully about the importance of “raised consciousness” in his substantial book Collected Essays of Rich Mangelsdorff published in 1977.

Mangelsdorff always cut an imposing intellectual as well as physical figure, as a tall, large-framed man with a high forehead and a fulsome black beard. He spoke deliberately and sometimes with pointed pungency. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Yet, as I describe him in my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, a high-pitched giggle incongruously emitted from his hulking frame, disarming some who might’ve been otherwise intimidated. This man’s character and personality intrigued and attracted me.

Today he remains – even lying in a hospital bed after surgery to diminish his serious bladder cancer – keenly attuned to the idea of comedy. As we talked, he brought up the  acerbic, machine-gun-mouth social-critic comic Lenny Bruce. I’d asked him about what sort of perspective might have been lost from the days when he was writing his essays in the 1970s.

“So much of it has to do with the use of computers and smartphones.” Mangelsdorff said, referencing recent research showing how excessive use of smart phones may negatively impact cognitive and literacy abilities. Ironically, Rich now struggles to speak, due to medications and cancer’s ravages, but his brain remains vise-like. “But also, years ago we had somebody like Lenny Bruce,” he says. “He wouldn’t be listened to now, but I saw him at a Milwaukee club in April of 1966 or 1967, and one woman stood up and called him an asshole. Then there was Mort Sahl, who paved the way for Lenny Bruce and others.”

These comics fearlessly spoke truth to power, as harpooners of squirming hypocrites. Bruce fought the law and the law won – the battle, but not the war.

Front and back cover of Lenny Bruce album, “What I was Arrested For,” Douglas Records,  1971.

A brief Lenny Bruce bit from “What I was Arrested For,”  which punctures conventions of perception based on skin color:

And here’s a more provocative and funny Bruce bit: “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” from the album Buyer Beware:

To me, Rich Mangelsdorff, even now, hooked to an oxygen respirator, is like a great, graying Buddha. Perhaps, the laughing Buddha, but also one who, back then, in his trademark black leather jacket, could as readily fall into meditative silence, sometimes stewing about injustice, corruption or unheard prophets.

As for the rise of Donald Trump, Mangelsdorff says those who voted for him and continue to support him reflect, aside from delusion, “a malignancy of spirit. People actually choose the path of division rather than the path of unity. People think that Hillary might’ve had an easier time, but I don’t know.  It’s like we’re constantly dealing with an old, drunken, ranting white man.”

As for my aforementioned Mangelsdorff “consciousness” factor: He was my counterpart as jazz critic for The Milwaukee Sentinel in the 1980s, while I was covering jazz for The Milwaukee Journal. I often had the advantage of seeing Mangelsorff’s review of what I was writing about. The morning Sentinel’s first edition circulated The Journal newsroom to the few people still at work late at night, while I wrote my review, which would run in the afternoon.

I never mimicked his insights, but they helped refract my own perspective on what I had just experienced. You can see for yourself our parallel critical commentary in the journalism anthology Milwaukee Jazz Gallery 1978-1984, published in its second edition last year, and available at Boswell Books and Woodland Pattern, as well as online.  Mangelsdorff had to shoot from the hip, with tough-minded, vivid accuracy.

I still picture him on his tight, morning newspaper deadline — a dark, furrowed brow, harrumphing softly to himself, as an insight or phrase came to mind.

But to see how he thinks about jazz, here’s an example from when he wasn’t on such a tough deadline. It’s from his book Selected Essays, and notice his unassumingly deft comparative plumbing of the creative webs that entwine jazz and poetry:

“I’d personally like to see more poets take off in that direction – not the jive it could easily degenerate into, or the slavish imitation of some favored ethnic rap, but rather, synthesis in the direction of something loosely brilliant, like Elvin Jones or Billy Higgins playing drums (and how many poets with big ears has jazz loosened up, speaking of latter-day influences?).” 1

Or check out this long, powerful riff by Mangelsdorff, which marks the dynamic immediacy of the era’s contemporary jazz and presages the ascendance and profound impact of rap and hip-hop music in 1972: 

“I’d always felt this gap between the means and language of poetry in the kind of swift, mental-energy exchanges that black people could get down on rapping in the street, that comics like Lenny Bruce communicate & that they’re spritzing back room precursors, by-passing explanational trappings, could communicate even more truly, that jazz musicians (and Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Shepp and the All-Star Blue Note lineups of Hancock, Davis, Williams, Hutcherson, Hubbard, et. al. were fueling my head like butane in those days) evidenced with grippingly articulate abandon and/or snake charming wiliness.” 2.

How many people of any stripe have seen such connections, taken these sorts of double-dip deep dives, back then?

Rich and I were mutually respectful competing journalistic colleagues, but also friends, especially as two of the closest compadres of the late but unforgettable Jim Glynn. Despite being paraplegic from a Jeep crash while serving in Europe during the Vietnam War, Glynn possessed uncanny dynamism and charisma, especially as a high-flying culture vulture, a vision of inspiration lifting his disabled body improbably along to the hippest or most important music event in town.

Mangelsdorff’s Selected Essays remain paramount in his still-underserved literary legacy. Read insightful literary criticism of the iconoclastic poet Charles Bukowski and others influenced by him, like Doug Blazek, T.L. Kryss and Bill Wantling. In another essay, he holds up to light the period’s best contemporary experimental fiction: “Its exterior is complex, even baffling, to anyone not sufficiently high to get into it. Yes, that’s what I said. Raised consciousness. That’s what she’s all about. Read people like Wildman, Chambers, Sukenick: they’re talking to a new and different fictive sensibility, even if, as was the case with Joyce and his Dublin (and Dubliners), it is one which has already generalized itself through our lives and times.” 3

Note his vernacular use of the female pronoun. Mangelsdorff sounded a unifying, if challenging, clarion for all sensate beings, right from his first-ever piece of criticism for Kaleidoscope, the pioneering alternative newspaper in Milwaukee in the 1960s:

“Serious rock (music) is a constant pushing forward of the shores of awareness, expanding the frontiers of sound and, as the liner notes to Jimi Hendrix’s album state: put(ting) the heads of…listeners into some novel positions,’ i.e. consciousness expansion…” 4

In that Kaleidoscope essay Mangelsdorff also underscores specifically the “psychedelic experience,” as an empowering medium which may yet provide incalculable potential for humanity. It’s easy to poo-poo such notions today, when we assume most of our power lies in a click under our finger, a mouse that potentially roars. That click can also sound like a solitary cricket — meandering, lost, easily manipulated. Surely we need fresh, diverse ways to tackle the intransigence of our political and social institutions. 4

Mangelsdorff’s writing still carries a load, as America grapples with marijuana legalization, with the herb’s great medical value, and reputation, anecdotally and deeply researched, for expanding consciousness, to frontiers far beyond the shores of reactionary stumbling blocks.

He long foreshadowed rock songwriters as Nobel winners, how various American artistic vernaculars generate “novel” intellectual and spiritual positions, which lead to enlightened action. Could we still imagine alt-music and culture growing against the craggy crevasses of “malignancy,” like a healing, marching cry along “the path of unity”? Might the culture yet form diverse yet converging paths, rising in rough-but-ready harmony, powered by a sum greater than their individual massed strengths?

Steve Cohen, the renowned blues-jazz harmonica-guitar virtuoso, is among many local musicians who hold this writer in high esteem. “When he was in full swing, I thought Rich was the best music critic in town,” Cohen says. “When my band Leroy Airmaster made an album, I wanted to him to do the liner notes and he did a great job. He would also visit my radio program on WMSE in the 1980s and offer his insights, which I thought were as great as any in the world.”

As Mangelsdorff sits now in his seventh floor hospital room, he can see the classic North Avenue light tower, standing over Lake Michigan’s vast horizon of darkly brooding clouds, like a sentinel. We talked for nearly two hours, so I suspect he was exhausted, although he was happy and urged me to come again.

North Avenue Water tower, Milwaukee. Courtesy

I suspect he soon fell asleep, but I’d prefer to think such a mind – long immersed in cutting-edge literature and culture – might have rechanneled its consciousness, maybe alighted upon the great rhetorical pondering of Philip K. Dick: “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” That, of course, was the original title of the Dick novel that became the pioneering noir sci-fi film Blade Runner. The novel, published in 1968, is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. Planet Earth, ravaged by nuclear global war, is invaded by android aliens who may – or may not – threaten human survival. Most animal species are endangered or extinct from extreme radiation poisoning, and owning an animal, an “electric sheep” is now a sign of status and empathy.

That attitude brings myriad intelligent species on a path closer to survival, like a new Noah’s ark at a wary dawn, where perhaps little remains of Milwaukee’s magnificent shore, but that sentinel tower on North Avenue.

Rich also would likely know that “The Sentinel” was the original name of Arthur C. Clarke’s story, upon which was born the mind-expanding film 2001: A Space Odyssey. No matter where Rich Mangelsdorff’s consciousness soon ends up, the arrow in his well-stocked quiver will aim for the stratosphere.


1, Rich Mangelsdorff, “Towards Understanding How We Sound,” from The Selected Essays of Rich Mangelsdorff, Dustbooks Press, The “American Dust” Series,” Vol. 8, 1972, 13

2. Mangelsdorff, “I Still Think About Ole Magazine,” Selected Essays, 31

3. Mangelsdorff, “Consideration of Panache Magazine,” Selected Essays, 17

4. Rich Mangelsdorff, from www.zonyx.netRich Mangelsdorff’s debut rock criticism (on Jimi Hendrix) in “Kaleidoscope” newspaper.  On this link, scroll down a ways in Mike Zettler’s lead article “The Oral Freedom League..Kaleidoscope Revisited,” for the Mangelsdorff quote.

This article was originally published in shorter form at The Shepherd Express at Paying Tribute to Milwaukee’s Rich Mangelsdorff

Belated posting of my poll choices for Best Roots Albums 2017

Fort Atkinson (WI) singer-songwriter Bill Camplin (right, or wrong) at the barn where he recorded “Reunion at Ebbott’s Barn.” Photo by Lee Matz, Milwaukee Independent

Well, its roots music, so somebody could accuse me of having my head in the ground listening to this stuff, so it took me this long to post this “year end” list. No, I wasn’t down in the ostrich hole being a roots music whisperer (psst: we got kinds and sorts of  “whisperers” these days, and some even make money off the claims. not me. keep this to yourself) This list was posted in timely fashion in December on the No readers poll (I’m a ND contributor, but also a reader).

With that very whispery throat-clearing, let me get to it, before you fall asleep on the delete key, or get hypnotized

Looking over my best roots music of 2017 list, it remains quite evident how the look-to-the-past impulse still drives forward much vital music today, as evidenced most obviously by Old Crow Medicine Show‘s reworking of a Dylan masterpiece,  jazz drummer Adam Nussbaum‘s delightfully quirky, percolating and lilting instrumental extrapolations on crusty old Leadbelly songs, and at least the nominal sentiments of Chuck Prophet‘s title song about Bobby Fuller (if you haven’t seen Prophet live, he’s a high-energy, hilarious gas). And my second-favorite album by Allison Moorer and sister Shelby Lynne, was a surprising collection – almost all covers of well-aged songs by two talented songwriters, thus acknowledging various favorites that have impacted their sensibilities, as well as the psyche-shaping traumas of early childhood the sisters shared.

In terms of more urgently contemporary songwriters, Steve Earle has been among the three or four best songwriters we have for a number of years, and his new album shows he’s hardly slowing down. Indeed, he still embracing his youthful outlaw attitude, even though his graying beard may touch his toes any day now.
For 2017, just beneath the Steve Earle singer-songwriting strata were Son Volt’s Jay Farrar (who still has the most oddly affecting male voice in roots music), enchanting song whisperer Kris Delmhorst (she really is a whisperer, making an art of the low dynamic), and Charlie Parr, who’s best known as a gritty country blues interpreter but displays songwriting chops of increasingly powerful emotive impact on DogPenny and Sparrow delivers soulful songwriting and warm, softly-prickling vocal harmonizing you can take an aural shower in.

But I’ll probably go back to The Tedeschi Trucks Band‘s live set as often as any of these, because I just love their collective power, color, passion, joy and sorrow, all of which can recharge your inner batteries very quickly. How much is that ability worth? Little wonder Live from the Fox Oakland was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. This captured them at their best: flexing and stretching their artistic muscles on a stage with a crowd soaking it all up.

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Grammy-nominated live album. Courtesy 45worlds.

Finally I’d like to give some slightly extended kudos (time to hit the annoying snooze button, or scroll down to the Top Ten list, if you prefer) to a couple of Wisconsin artists who deserve more visibility than they’ve received for their recorded and live efforts this year. One is old (and almost in the way) and always low in the weeds, Mudbutt Bill Camplin. The other is a young artist, Anthony Deutsch (Father Sky) who’s just breaking through the mud like a reedy-spined wild flower that simply won’t be denied all the sunshine and earth soul he can drink in.

Camplin (pictured at top, in my favorite roots-music artist photo of the year) proves on Reunion at Ebbott’s Barn he remains among the finest roots music vocal stylists anywhere. And only because he’s stayed put – running an appealingly fishy music venue, Café Carpe, on the Rock River (hope no Asian Carp are flopping out onto the rain garden!) in a small Wisconsin town (Fort Atkinson) – keeps him from wider recognition. He still improbably possesses one of the more ardently bracing voices you will hear, with a remarkable dynamic range from mid-high baritone to brilliant falsetto. Or he may simply be possessed, by a devil whupping on an angel.

Reunion is ostensibly a do-we-still-remember-these-songs get-together of the band that recorded Camplin’s tattered album Cardboard Box many years ago. It’s among the more distinctive albums in his impressive catalog. By this early point, Camplin’s own songwriting chops had become fully realized and “Long and Desperate Day,” and “Essence of Freedom,”  remain in his playbook. Many of his songs stand up to anyone’s in quality, especially as he delivers them.  “Northern Lights” is among the lesser-known Camplin originals here, a large-hearted beauty floating on a rich band pulse and the gleaming pearls of his arching falsetto, with a lovely melody the singer squeezes out like a juicy grape bursting from its skin. Another original, the album closer “Inspiration,” has comparable power and beauty. It fairly soars, and might just boot you out of your easy chair to try for something good or great, something waiting patiently to be freed from within, or wherever.

This band can also rumble and swing, in a bluesy groove, as in Camplin’s “Somebody’s Mood.”

Among the notable covers on Reunion are two rather mythical story-songs, “This Wheel’s on Fire” by The Band’s Rick Danko and Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” (“I don’t know what it means, but it sure the hell is evocative,” Camplin says of “Pancho.”)

By contrast, Camplin’s take on Leonard Cohen’s romantic reverie “Suzanne” seems like his own song, he brings out the rapt yearning implicit in Cohen’s poetry. It’s there in his still-radiant voice, subtle dynamics, and deftly open-spaced phrasing, as if he’s carving out his own places in the song’s memory. Here and elsewhere, longtime compatriot Jason Klagstad’s guitar remains a perfect complement, pointillistic and crystalline, with an expressive edge.

If Eric Burdon’s version of “House of the Rising Sun.”with The Animals remains a modern standard for this ancient classic, Camplin approaches it with a beneath-the-radar restraint but a proper sense of building dynamics, and takes-you-down-there storytelling.  And he’s capable of the full-throated climax that can take this as high as the rising sun.  Bob Knetzger’s dobro adds another vivid presence. “Mother tell your children, not to do what I have done.” In that moment, Camplin’s woeful narrator feels the pain of his profound mistake from his boots on up, and so do you.

Camplin’s covers amount to reinvigorated takes on familiar material that add another resonant layer to each song’s powerful vibrations down through cultural history.


The other Wisconsin artist who I felt sneaking up with the best was Father Sky, with the group’s eponymous album debut album. It’s the brainchild of young Milwaukee pianist and singer-songwriter Anthony Deutsch, a startling redolent talent. His style is is seemingly neither fish nor fowl, but it fits into roots music because he’s deeply influenced by great blues-gospel-jazz artists, especially Nina Simone. It’s fascinating to hear a white male singer whose primary influence is a black female singer, although Simone’s deep, whiskey-hued voice plausibly fits a male’s vocal range. Another connection I hear in Deutsch’s music is that of wonderful singer-songwriter pianist in the gospel and jazz idiom, Andy Bey.

(Footnotes beside titles in the list below provide links at the bottom to albums I reviewed for other publications and this blog, with the Steve Earle piece being a concert review.).


My Top Ten No Best Roots Music Albums of 2017

Steve Earle (right) performing music from his album “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw” at the Minneapolis Zoo last summer. Photo by Kevin Lynch

1. Steve Earle – So You Wanna Be an Outlaw  1

2. Allison Moorer & Shelby Lynne – Not Dark Yet  2

3. Old Crow Medicine Show – 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde  3

4. Charlie Parr – Dog  4

5. Tedeschi Trucks Band – Live from the Fox Oakland

6. Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

7. Kris Delmhorst – The Wild

8. Son Volt – Notes of Blue

9. (Tie)   Bill Camplin – Reunion at Ebbott’s Barn (see review above), and Father Sky – Father Sky, 5

!0. (Tie) Adam Nussbaum – The Leadbelly Project, and Penny and Sparrow – Wendigo



  1. Steve Earle: The Hard-Core Troubadour Carries Wounds in his Outlaw Heart


Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer venture deep into darkness past and coming


Old Crow Medicine Show proves the “Blonde” tonic still zings after 50 years


On “Dog,” bluesman Charlie Parr sees canines on a par with humans


Father Sky is soulful music to your ears and to the earth





Opening doors of modern jazz history with Milwaukee-native trumpeters Brian Lynch and Jamie Breiwick


Photo montage of recording sessions for Brian Lynch’s Grammy-nominated album “Madera Latino: A Latin Perspective on the Music of Woody Shaw.” In photo at lower right, Lynch the is trumpeter in the middle, in black hat.

Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch presents a master class and lecture, at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1583 N. Prospect Ave., 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, free admission.

Dreamland performing at Blu nightclub in Milwaukee. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick’s Dreamland, at Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St. , 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10. $10.

A man who sort of lived in his own world, Thelonious Monk was always so much his own man artistically that he was sometimes aptly characterized as “The Loneliest Monk.” But it turns out that the bebop pioneer, who really forged a zig-zag, one-of-a-kind road before dying in 1982, simply will not be forgotten, for the array of ingenious and appealing qualities in his music.

So here we are in 2018, and The New York City Jazz Record, a publication based in America’s jazz capital but with a national scope and reach, improbably chose the late Thelonious Monk as one of five 2017 “Musicians of the Year” in its January issue, along with four very living musicians.

Among the apparent reasons for Monk’s reincarnation is the first-time issue of Monk’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, music recorded for but never used in Roger Vadim’s daring film of the same name. The record proved to be vintage Monk bouncing and burning in his prime, and was chosen for my Culture Currents blog’s Historic Jazz Recording of the Year, and by the NYC Jazz Record as one of its “Unearthed Gems ” of 2017. The Danilo Perez Panamonk, a Monk tribute band led by Perez, the celebrated pianist, delivered one of NYC Jazz Record’s “concerts of the year.”

Perhaps most notably among the back-from-the-dead Monk factors was trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, arguable the most critically-acclaimed jazz musician of the last several years, releasing a new album drawing raves: Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, one of the NYC Jazz Record’s “albums of the year.” The album also prompted a long essay on Smith in the Feb. 8th issue of The New York Review of Books, a rare distinction for a jazz recording.  Smith’s trumpeting finds a deep and expansive connection with the uncannily artful use of space (as in silence between notes) and seemingly disjunct rhythm in Monk tunes, an aesthetic that Smith has cultivated on his own terms for years.

Thelonious Monk, UPI-Photo Courtesy of the heirs of W. Eugene Smith and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

All of this Monk creative energy spins across the nation and spirals down into Milwaukee for a notable Monk event this weekend. Like the Pulitzer Prize Finalist and MacArthur “genius” Award-winning Smith, Jamie Breiwick is a gifted trumpeter who loves to use his horn and brains to cut through the complexities, felicities and revelations of Monk’s music. His Monk repertory band Dreamland will perform Saturday at 9 p.m. at Company Brewing.

The Dreamland band includes Jamie Breiwick, trumpet; Jonathan Greenstein, tenor saxophone; Mark Davis, piano; Clay Schaub, bass; and Devin Drobka, drums. Through several personnel incarnations the band’s piano and drums chairs – crucial to executing Monk – have remained constantly Davis and Drobka. The multifaceted Breiwick has been honing and fleshing out this pet project for several years and this highly accomplished band is preparing for a live recording, reportedly at Company Brewing’s neighbor venue, The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, this spring.

Jamie Breiwick, founder and leader of the Thelonious Monk repertory band Dreamland. 

Breiwick is actually a Racine native and resident, but does the majority of his performing in Milwaukee and is co-founder and principal manager of Milwaukee Jazz Vision, a website that promotes local jazz and archives the music’s history in this city. Among his other adventures and exploits have included spear-heading the all-original-music concept of The Lesser Lakes Trio and playing trumpeter Don Cherry’s role in an Ornette Coleman re-enactment tribute band at Company Brewing a few years ago. He also played several gigs in New York and Chicago recently with acclaimed drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson.

Yet for Breiwick, also a Grammy-winning music educator, Monk is as musically fecund and enlightening as any modern music.

Truth be told, reinterpreting and reimagining Monk’s music in recording and tribute band projects has occurred consistently ever since his passing, thus honoring him probably more than any other jazz composer over that 35-year period. Nevertheless, Breiwick and his Dreamland band (named for an intriguingly obscure Monk composition) has carved its own distinctive niche in Monkism with a rich perspective on this perpetually engrossing and delightful music. We’re about a year beyond the 35th anniversary year of Monk’s death – he passed on February 17, 1982. So mounting a Dreamland gig one week before his death’s exact anniversary day feels very apt for making a big Monk statement, with Dreamland’s Saturday date, and later the impending live recording.

Breiwick has strove to explain why Monk has so captivated his musical imagination and why listeners have so much to gain and enjoy. In his own blog, Breiwick wrote: “I remember trying to play ‘Think of One,’ having never played it before – maybe, having never even heard it before. I remember having the feeling that the composition led me into different melodic and rhythmic directions. Directions I might not have otherwise chosen. I also remember feeling like whatever I decided to play, would fit – free, loose, fast, slow, spacious, angular.

“It intrigued me, and the adventure began. It led me to explore other artists who found inspiration in Monk’s compositions such as: Steve Lacy, Barry Harris, Don Cherry, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Bud Powell, Jason Moran, Sonny Rollins, Ethan Iversen (of The Bad Plus, who has written about Monk in depth) among others. One of the things I started to do was analyze how others approached improvising over those difficult harmonies and forms.” Here’s the blog link, filled also with many fine reader responses to Breiwick’s rhetorical question: Why Thelonious Monk?

What’s remarkable though is, no matter how difficult and recondite Monk’s music can be for musicians to play, almost invariably it has its own peculiar drama and suspense, rhythmic buoyancy and melodic charm. Most of his beautiful ballads (“Round Midnight,” “Ruby My Dear,” etc.) are appropriately reflective and romantic, but almost all of his medium-tempo music brims with wit and humorous surprises. You may find yourself laughing at it, or with it. If you haven’t tried Monk, you may be surprised how much you like him. You might even find yourself, later on, drifting into a dreamland inhabited by the mysterious Monk and is uncanny ways.


Brian Lynch is a classic story of local boy made good and, singer Al Jarreau aside, he’s succeeded perhaps more than any Milwaukee jazz musician of the modern jazz era, and since. In fact, this year, Lynch – after a long, auspicious journey as a post-bop pied piper – seems to have reached the jazz mountaintop.

His compelling and often dazzling two-CD set Madera Latino: A Latin Jazz Perspective on the Music of Woody Shaw pulled off a musically ambitious concept with stunning authority that garnered him widespread praise, including being selected as Album of the Year and Lynch chosen as Trumpeter of the Year in the Jazz Journalists Association poll (arguably the most definitive jazz poll – of committed critics who pay for membership). Among other critical responses were glowing reviews in DownBeat (four stars), Jazz Times and on Amazon. The music interprets, in crackling Latin grooves, a variety of Woody Shaw compositions and a few strong Lynch originals.

Madera Latino (a nifty wordplay, “Latin wood”) employs ensembles ranging from nonets to sextets, and Lynch dared have trumpeters carry the front-line load with nary a saxophonist. The notables include trumpeters Dave Douglas, Shawn Jones and Michael Rodriguez and fellow Milwaukee-native trumpeter Philip Dizack, and powerful rhythm sections, including drummer Obed Calvaire from the SFJAZZ Ensemble. Percussionists Pedro Martinez and Little Johnny Rivero, with bassist Luques Curtis, played with Lynch on Simpatico, his 2006 album with Eddie Palmieri which snagged the co-leaders a Grammy award for Best Latin Jazz Album. And this year Madera Latino was nominated for a Grammy in the same category.

Wednesday Lynch returns to his hometown, which he does at least once annually, for a master class and lecture at his alma mater, The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He’ll also exercise his versatility by performing this weekend with the Bill Bonifas Electric Band and the Milwaukee Ballet Thursday through Sunday, in a program of local choreographers and musicians titled “Made in MKE” at The Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall.

But the jazz master class with students and lecture at the Conservatory is a free event and a great way to get an up-close feel for the way Lynch thinks, plays and educates. He’s a professor of music at the University of Miami and, aside from his extraordinary album, Lynch asserted himself as arguably the leading authority on Woody Shaw’s music (with a Latin slant) in his remarkably in-depth and insightful “Brass School” article – including 12 (count ’em) illustrated musical examples of Lynch’s Madera Latino arrangements – in DownBeat magazine in April 2016.

Lynch’s lecture Wednesday is titled “Improvisation Concepts: Line, Shape, and Rhythm.” He explains in an e-mail: “I’m going to attempt to convey these general concepts as they pertain to the traditional jazz solo, and also demonstrate how mindfulness can be used to reinforce or play with the typical narratives of an improvised solo structure in chorus or open form. I hope to give the listener insight into how the jazz improviser constructs his or her solo statement, and food for thought on improvisational strategies for the musician.”

Given the deliverer, this talk may provide food for thought for anyone who values this nation’s original American art form, and the ways it has helped, and may yet still, enrich the American experiment.