Brian Lynch and Hervé Sellin: Interpreting French Music in a New Way

Debussy's Music Lives On in a New Jazz Hybrid

Two weeks ago, I witnessed public acts of lovemaking.

It happened in Baltimore and it was beautiful, transcending all things physical through a new synthesis of modernist French music and jazz created by Brian Lynch (trumpet) and Herve Sellin (piano).

As I listened to this wonderful fusion of classical music and jazz, I couldn’t help but think how it represented a kind of procreation, the offspring of a passion-driven union of two great musical art forms, or “memes,” if you follow Richard Dawkins’ views about the evolution of culture. By combining musical memes from the classical and jazz worlds, the Lynch/Sellin collaboration gives new life to both, perpetuating them like children do with their parents’ genes.

In the intimate surroundings of An die Musik on August 5, Lynch and Sellin, joined by David Wong on bass and Shareef Taher on drums, gave the first public performance of compositions inspired by works of Claude Debussy, Erik Sati, Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen. The music, vibrant and at times haunting in its beauty, included jazz interpretations of Debussy’s Second Piano Etude and the third movement from the only Dutilleux piano sonata.

Lynch and Sellin spoke to the audience about their attraction to the music of modernist French composers, whose work spans the late 19th and the 20th centuries (at 95, Dutilleux is still composing). Like someone who describes what he finds attractive about a lover’s eyes, Lynch, demonstrating with his trumpet, explained to the audience how composers such as Messiaen used an “octatonic scale,” a symmetrical scale that divides the octave into equal parts, or what jazz composers refer to as the “diminished scale.” In other words, the two musical genres share something in common, and they seem to like each other − a lot. Lynch said he was “crazy” about the French modernists.

Tommy Cecil, the accomplished jazz bassist well known to Washington, D.C. jazz fans, also attended the concert. He said the octatonic scale is not unlike a blues scale, which is why it works well with jazz music, adding that the mode seems to break from the heavily chromatic sound of late German romantics (Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss) who dominated music until the time of the emergence of French Impressionism.

Of course, mixing classical music and jazz is nothing new. The successful collaboration of two other French musicians, Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal, comes to mind. By focusing on a particular subgenre of classical music – French modernism – Lynch and Sellin have produced an excellent new musical mélange.

Following the concert, Sellin suggested contemporary jazz composers would do well to follow the approach of classical composers and develop a single theme with “balance” rather than incorporate a multiplicity of musical elements. After hearing Sellin’s marvelous take on Dutilleux, I hope jazz artists listen to him.

The Lynch/Sellin project is supported by a grant from the Chamber Music America and French American Cultural Exchange, made possible by the French Embassy, Cultures France, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation, and SACEM.

Lynch said he hopes the project will continue, and that he and Sellin get to the recording studio.

Lynch won a 2007 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year for “The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Recording Project – Simpatico.”  The Hervé Sellin Tentet won The French Jazz Academy’s award for Best French Jazz Album of the Year for the 2008 release, “Marciac New York Express.”

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