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Jimmy Lyons - The Box Set

Dan Warburton, The Wire

Just as John Gilmore and Marshall Allen will forever be associated with Sun Ra, the name Jimmy Lyons is inextricably linked to the huge body of work produced by Cecil Taylor, in whose bands the alto saxophonist worked continuously from 1961 to his death aged 54 in May 1986. To quote trumpeter Raphe Malik: "Johnny Hodges or Paul Gonsalves [are] so closely identified with Ellington, they become part of the presentation of the music. Part of Cecil's presentation was Jimmy's sound."
Casting an eye over Jan Ström's exhaustive Jimmy Lyons Sessionography - available in CDROM format from Ayler as a supplement to this box set - reveals relatively few Lyons sessions outside of Taylor's units, and yet the saxophonist rehearsed and worked extensively with his own outfits from the early 1970s until his death. Even so, apart from a handful of dates for Black Saint with Andrew Cyrille, Lyons released only six albums under his own name in his lifetime: 1969's Other Afternoons (BYG Actuel), Push Pull (hatHUT 1978), Riffs (hatMUSICS 1980), Jump Up / What To Do About (hatHUT 1980), Weesneezawee (Black Saint 1983) and Give It Up (Black Saint 1985), which makes the long-awaited appearance of these five CDs of Lyons' solo and small group recordings all the more welcome.

One explanation as to why Lyons chose to release so little was his excessive self-criticism (in a 1978 Cadence interview he opined that there were "too many recordings, duplication of the same thing"); another lies in the mundane fact that his life and career remained free from the kind of tragic glamour the media often associate with jazz iconoclasts. He didn't die in mysterious circumstances (Dolphy, Ayler), didn't propose grandiose (meta)theoretical systems to underpin his work (Coleman, Braxton) and, according to Ben Young's voluminous and musicologically outstanding liner notes, was critical of "less experienced players who adopted [..] cathartic expression as a [..] substitute for bel canto tone production." Instead, his roots lay deep in the bebop tradition he grew up with in Harlem and the Bronx.

Born on December 1st 1931 (not 1933 as he often stated), by his early teens Lyons was sneaking into clubs with a painted-on moustache to catch Dizzy Gillespie's band, before studying with ex-Fletcher Henderson clarinettist Buster Bailey. Working a day job at the US Postal Service, cutting his teeth by night in jam sessions and making frequent trips down to the Village to see Charlie Parker, Lyons woodshed patiently and methodically throughout the 1950s, until a fateful encounter with Cecil Taylor sometime in mid 1960 changed his life for good. Had he had not encountered the pianist one wonders what the he might have achieved: his brother Arthur recalls a 1959 jam session when Jimmy's soloing on "Cherokee" blew Cannonball Adderley offstage and across the street, with Lou Donaldson calling after him: "You going across the street? You got the baddest one right here, blowin' your butt out!"

Disc 1 documents the New York debut of a quartet featuring trumpeter Malik, bassist Hayes Burnett and drummer Sydney Smart. Recorded at Sam and Bea Rivers' loft space in September 1972, it features five Lyons originals and, by way of encore, Monk's "Round Midnight". As a teenager, Lyons had been criticised by Monk at a jam session for "not knowing chord positions and names", but this 1972 reading of the chestnut would surely have gained the High Priest's approval.

Lyons returned to Rivbea in June 1975, without Malik but once more with Burnett on bass and Henry Letcher replacing Smart (Discs 2 & 3). Young rightly point out that Lyons' work illustrates his belief that "the subject matter of improvised solos should be directly and uniquely relevant to the song itself - the melody being developed," and, by extension, that "in the best-crafted performances, there will be no obvious seam between the composed elements [..] and those that are improvised." As Lyons puts it matter-of-factly in a brief (and hardly revelatory) 1978 interview with Taylor Storer included on Disc 4: "Improvising is about composition. I don't separate the two. I try to start out with a statement, build a sentence, build a paragraph." Such concern with compositional detail at both micro and macro level clearly originates in Taylor's work, which has always been more composed than many give him credit for (witness Alan Silva in Wire 228: "[Taylor's] Unit Structures took four months of rehearsal [..]. There's a score.").

Taylor excluded, Lyons' longest and most fruitful collaborators were bassoonist Karen Borca, his partner both on and off stage, and drummer Paul Murphy, who joined Lyons in 1978 and remained until the saxophonist's death. Disc 4 features the three of them in Geneva in May 1984. Nine months later they were joined at Tufts University in Massachusetts by bassist William Parker (Disc 5, which makes for several interesting comparisons with the preceding year's trio readings of the same material).

Disc 3 documents Lyons' solo set at New York's Soundscape in April 1981, and though some attacks are a little fluffy - he sounds to be having trouble with the reed and makes no attempt to disguise the fact, incorporating it brilliantly in "Mary Mary Intro" - it's an invaluable document of a master saxophonist in full flight. Young astutely points out that Lyons was a "quoter", freely incorporating phrases from his own and others' compositions, a practice that clearly derives from bop (one also used extensively by Eric Dolphy, another saxophonist who continued the line of research pioneered by Charlie Parker).

In terms of the sheer technical mastery required to bring off such advanced note play, the three extended 1975 Rivbea workouts rank with both Dolphy and Parker's finest recorded work. One can only wish there were more recordings of such literally breathtaking interplay between musicians - and between one man and his music - but in the light of the relative scarcity of Lyons recordings, the appearance of these five discs is one of the most important events not only of the past ten months, but arguably the past ten years.