The Box Set
Ayler aylcd 036-040

Charlie Rouse with Thelonious Monk, Paul Desmond with Dave Brubeck and Harry Carney with Duke Ellington are three saxophone players who signed on for such long stays with the aggregations of well-known pianists, that their individual achievements were subsumed in the composer/keyboardists’ visions.

Unfortunately, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons (1931-1986) is another example of this. Aide-de-camp to pianist Cecil Taylor from 1961 until shortly before his death from lung cancer, he like Rouse, Carney, and possibly Desmond, was so much part of the Taylor sound that he was consistently undervalued on his own. Worse, or better, depending on how the person viewed Taylor’s music, Lyons was also often described as merely a misplaced bopper whose steadying presence helped amplify some of the pianist’s more outside ideas.

In truth, Lyons also recorded on his own and played with his own groups during this period, but with much less fanfare. Plus, as this lovingly prepared five-CD set demonstrates, the saxist was, in a purely musical way, like one of those seemingly milquetoast businessmen who turn out to have a debauched secret sex life. The performances here — which range from solo to quartet dates — show that Lyons was very much his own man. Not only had he mastered many of Taylor’s individualistic free sound preoccupations, but he was also a sound tutor who helped point the way for musicians who later joined Taylor’s bands and/or established their own careers.

It goes without saying that it’s impossible — not to mention self-defeating — to try to listen to the almost 6½ hours of music here at once. Savoring one disc at a time, or skipping among the selections is a better strategy. As a guide, a 62-page booklet, chock full of biographical, discographical and recording data is included.

Tellingly, some of the most impressive sounds can be found on the first and final CDs, which are also the only two that showcase quartets — two completely different ones at that. The first — recorded at New York’s famed Studio Rivbea — features Lyons in the company of a very young trumpeter Raphe Malik — four years before he first recorded with Taylor — veteran drummer Syd Smart, who has been based in the Boston area for many years and the late Buffalo-born bassist Hayes Burnett, who also toured with Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

The last, recorded at Massachusetts’ Tufts University, a year before Lyon’s death, but when he was already ill, finds his alto tone considerably deeper, but without any loss of brightness or lack of ideas. His helpmates here are the altoist’s longtime partner, bassoonist Karen Borca; drummer Paul Murphy, who was Lyon’s drummer from 1978 until the end; and bassist William Parker, then part of Taylor’s band and since then one of the most prodigiously recorded jazzers.

In 1972, a year after he had major surgery to correct a congenital lung disorder, Lyons was at the top of his form, as her shows in a program that mixes freebop, ballads and “Jump Up”, one of his best-know compositions. That tune is given the full treatment, with each man proffering sequentially linked phrases that further amplify the diatonic figures. Although Smart’s drumming is so overbearing, with its martial bangs and cymbal smashes, that it almost buries the solid bass playing, the front line fares better. Malik proffers a brassy twist to Lyon’s bounding work, until the altoist turns from trading phrases with him to literally answering himself. “Mr. 1-2-5 Street”, on the other hand, is a straight, freeboppy blues with walking bass and the drummer bearing down on the skins. Lyons constructs his solo out of slight sound shards, while the trumpeter concentrates on burnished notes, and bent, open-horn rubato shakes.

“Gossip” finds Malik blowing out grace notes and emphasized repeated phrases on its almost Middle Eastern-sounding head in such a way that his output sounds Louis Armstrong-like brassy. Smart’s rages over the entire kit are firmly in the style of Sunny Murray, with whom Lyons would go on to record a memorable session in 1980.

Flash forward to 1985 and the Dolphyesque cast to Lyon’s playing is gone, replaced by a more compressed tone that often slides into the tenor register. With his emphasis on melody and interpolation of a quote from Don Cherry’s “Awake Nu” on “Tortuga”, another often-recorded composition, you can hear Lyon’s links to Charlie Parker, filtered through a more modern fillip. By this point, squeals and squeaks often arise spontaneously from the playing of both Lyons and Borca, but not enough to disrupt the music’s flow. Plus, with a rhythm section like Murphy and Parker present, the performance is traditional enough to offer solo room to everyone.

As it would on anything recorded with Lyons for years before this, Borca’s tangy bassoon timbres give the group a sound unlike any others. It even gives new resonance to “Wee Sneezawee”, which is tackled less successfully in a trio format on Disc 4. Here though Borca’s multi-shaded, bubbling bassoon pitches mix with Murphy’s rolling rim shots and resonating cymbals plus Parker’s unvarying pulse to properly cushion Lyon’s version of the theme and its final reprise. Bull fiddle plucks take nearly every available space on “After You Left” as well, which evolves into a duet between Parker’s string sounds and Lyon’s warm legato tone.

Murphy shines on pieces like “Shakin’ Back”, named for Lyon’s grandfather’s fried chicken restaurant. Busier than in earlier sessions, he breaks up the time with rolling asides and quick flams as Parker presses straight ahead and the alto man honks. It should be pointed out that tape hiss is most apparent during Parker’s solo, but that probably results from the engineer overloading the circuits to catch Lyons and Borca trading fours far away from the mic.

Lyons, Murphy and Borca recording as a trio the year before, try to reach these heights, but lacking a chordal instrument of any type puts all the pressure on Murphy, especially as each of the horn players lays out for a time during the other’s solo. Using the solid, piquant textures of the bassoon to create presto portamento tones, Borca manages to expand her timbre without busting it and showcases some freak register slurs on an another version of “Shakin’ Back”. Yet with only an occasional trill from Lyons, the drummer can be only so inventive with his rolls, bounces and paradiddles.

What does come out, however, especially when the three move through Lyons’ standards like “Wee Sneezawee”, is the alto man insuring that the lyric and harmonic parts of the tune aren’t neglected. As tones move among the three, the bassoon’s rumbling, growling buzzsaw tone provides the pedal point riffs and the alto wide siren slurs. On his own without Taylor, Lyons, the melody man, appears to be playing more outside than with his longtime keyboard associate.

Maddeningly, six solo outings, recorded at New York’s Soundscape confirm and deny this observation. Building some of the reed showcases out of saxophone finger exercises and other parts of his practice regime, Lyons screams and overblows at times, but with definite purposes in mind. On “Clutter”, the longest tune of the set, he seems to be trying out various pitches and timbres for size. He speeds up and slows down the instant composition, double tongues, reed bites and overblows certain sections. At the same time among the honking harshness he manages to quote from both Monk’s boppish “Bemsha Spring” and the ballad “It Might As Well Be Spring”.

Moving from Spring to Autumn and back a few years, Lyon’s trio session at Studio Rivbea from 1975 is unfortunately the weakest link here. Playing at much greater length than elsewhere — “Family” clocks in at almost 41½ minutes and “Heritage I” at slightly less than 37½, for instance — Lyons appears to be in a Sonny Rollins mould circa “East Broadway Rundown”. Problem is that Burnett’s rubbery and thumpy bass lacks the staying power that someone like Parker — or one of Rollins’ bassists like Henry Grimes or Jimmy Garrison — could bring to a trio display. When he bangs his fist against the wood of his axe on “Family”, for instance, he sounds more frustrated than rhythmic. Bowing widely and abstractly and splitting his tones into atom-like phrases at the end somehow compensates for earlier hesitation.

Drummer Henry Letcher, who after his 18 month tenure with Lyons went on to play with the Merrymakers calypso band and manage a West Indian radio station, is also no Murphy or Smart. Concentrating for the most part on hard triples from his snare and repeated rolls, his ornamentation soon fades into constant identical whacks that are intense, yet rarely advance the composition. Playing at his most minimal here, Lyons offers up almost split-second phrases, which are no sooner sheared from the reed than replaced by others. At points he introduces glossolalia, a very unusual move for the restrained urban player that he was. With a diminuendo of mouse-like squeaking trills dribbling out to finish the piece, it appears to end with allusions to “Reveille”.

Besides all this music, a short, recorded interview with Lyons from 1978 is included. It’s most noteworthy because Lyons, who was mostly self-taught after learning the horn’s rudiments from former Fletcher Henderson band clarinetist Buster Bailey, reveals that following a jam session meeting, Count Basie reed soloist Rudy Rutherford also gave him some formal pointers.

This box set of live dates doubles the number of CDs currently available under Lyons’ name. Unlike some players, associates report that he was so fastidious that he wouldn’t record until he thought that he was truly ready. Everything was done on his terms or not at all, which means that many memorable improvisations have been lost forever. Thus this live set will be welcomed by anyone interested in the man and the currents of music flowing in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps Letcher can have the last word when discussing Lyons and the time within which he played. “A lot of other musicians got lost in revolutionary thought as opposed to music,” he notes. “But Jimmy was totally about music.”

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD 1: 1. Jump Up 2. Gossip 3. Ballad One 4. Mr. 1-2-5 Street 5. Jump Up #2 6. Round Midnight CD 2: 1. Family 2. Heritage I CD 3: 1. Heritage I 2. Clutter 3. Mary Mary Intro 4. Never 5. Configuration C 5. Repertoire Riffin’ 6. Improv Scream & Clutter II CD 4: 1. Wee Sneezawee 2. After You Left 3. Theme 4. Shakin’ Back 5. Good News Blues 6. WKCR Interview CD 5: 1. Wee Sneezawee 2. After You Left 3. Tortuga 4. Gossip 5. Shakin’ Back 6. Driads 7. Jump Up

Personnel: Raphe Malik (trumpet [CD 1]); Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone); Karen Borca (bassoon [CD 4 and 5]); William Parker [CD 5], Hayes Burnett [CD 1, 2 and 3] (bass); Syd Smart [CD 1] Henry Letcher [CD 2]; Paul Murphy, [CD 4 and 5](drums)