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Jimmy Lyons - The Box Set

Clifford Allen, AllAboutJazz

When long-term sidemen strike out on their own as leaders, the results are often rather varied, usually following the former leader's model until some sense of originality can be reached. Some, like Don Cherry, follow their muse into uncharted waters, while others, like Sunny Murray, seem to be unique amalgamations of various influences (Ayler's blues and Cecil's humor). And still others emerge with something seemingly innocuous that is impossible to pigeonhole.

Following eight years of growth under the tutelage of Cecil Taylor, altoist Jimmy Lyons struck out on his own with 1969's Other Afternoons (BYG), a piano-less quartet offering that, if not musically earth-shattering, was nevertheless defiantly personal. Until his death in 1986, Lyons remained with Cecil, while sporadically recording under his own name. With the release of five CDs worth of heretofore-unheard live recordings, Lyons' music has now received the impetus for a careful study. Now the question becomes whether or not it matters.

I have often found Lyons' music to be interesting, if difficult to bite into. The problem with it is that, despite the ebullient lyricism of his improvisations, his own sessions seemed to lack the presentational gravity that his work with Cecil always had. In other words, getting past the habit of hearing Cecil with Lyons is an almost insurmountable task. Much of this has to do with the fact that they jelled so well together as improvisers, their motifs simultaneously contrasted and paralleled. Recordings like Jump Up/What to do about… (hatHUT, 1980) or the aforementioned BYG session are valid statements lacking an engaged countering voice, though the former does present interesting compositions.
Things fared better when Lyons paired himself with bassoonist Karen Borca or trumpeter Raphe Malik on recordings like Give it Up and We Sneezawee, but not enough to set them apart from countless other freebop dates.

Spanning a period of 13 years (1972-1985), these five discs have no problem making the case for revisiting Lyons' music apart from Cecil. Firstly, without Taylor's push, Lyons is freer; it's not a matter of differentiating between chordal and non-chordal accompaniment, however, but of following one's own phrase developments, feeding oneself rather than being 'fed'. This is most apparent in the 1975 Studio Rivbea trio recordings, featuring bassist Hayes Burnett and drummer Henry Letcher (discs 2 and 3). Lyons and company romp through two free improvisations (one 40-minute, one 50-minute), but though intensely spiraling, Lyons' phrases are set up in motivic repetition and development reminiscent of - you guessed it - Cecil Taylor. Lyons growls and smears, building the intensity of "Family" to vicious Ayler-esque squawks and honks, in certain ways far from Cecil's more minimalist approach, but the blueprint is certainly there. By virtue of playing an untempered instrument, Lyons is able to get frighteningly 'out' in his extrapolations, more so than a pianist could (Cecil had to resort to vocals to get this free). So, in a sense, Lyons is able to get more mileage out of this concept, and though resulting primarily from his choice of instrument, he is therefore more successful. "Chasin' the Trane" is an obvious precursor to such lengthy forays as these; one can hear Lyons working out ideas on the stand, even exclaiming "sh*t!" when he louses up mid-phrase.

For those who want completely unadulterated Lyons, there is a 1981 solo live gig from Soundscape, in which this repetition-and-elaboration aspect is offered in its naked entirety. Without the driving pulse of bass and drums, Lyons' improvisations must find their own propulsion, and he does it by resorting to a more starkly minimalist approach. Here, the comparison with Cecil again becomes apt; solo, Lyons' phrases are more obviously repetitious, he resorts to fewer effects, and his ideas become self-contained projects. There are similarities with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell's solo alto recordings as well, for both make use of similar harsh tones and childlike nagging phrases. Yet there is a sameness that runs through these unaccompanied pieces, a constancy of tempo and texture that is often hard to escape in solo saxophone recordings. Nevertheless, as a window into the architecture of Lyons' diction, such an inclusion is absolutely indispensable.

For a compilation of ancient and probably somewhat dilapidated live tapes, the fidelity is surprisingly good. The Rivbea dates (discs 1, 2, and part of 3) are in great shape, with only Burnett's bass lacking in reproduction. The solo set, while presenting a bit of distortion, leaves no phrase unclear.

The Tufts concert is the only one in which Lyons seems undermiked (though William Parker's bass is clear enough). Generally, the sonic output in this set is considerably better than would be expected given the original media.

All in all, this is an excellent resource. One can more clearly understand the singular impact of Lyons' voice separated from his usual pianistic foil, and one can also see the importance of that foil to Lyons' development. Five different contexts give both the Lyons scholar and the curious onlooker a varied program of material to sift through, and suffice it to say, Jimmy Lyons is more firmly cemented in jazz history because of this set. Speaking as one previously less inclined towards Lyons' non-Cecil output, my own ears have been turned around on the issue of his greatness. Maybe it's time to give Other Afternoons another listen.