Red Snapper
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1167

Of paramount historical, rather than musical, interest RED SNAPPER is a CD of never-commercially-available short improvisations by combinations of musicians under the leadership of veteran drummer Paul Murphy.

Washington, D.C-based Murphy’s highest profile came during the 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s when he anchored different bands led by alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. Lyons is all over these 19 tracks, professionally recorded at Columbia Records’ former studio in 1982. Also present is trumpeter Dewey Johnson, who played on John Coltrane’s ASCENSION and Paul Bley’s BARRAGE in the mid-1960s. Additional sounds come from pianist/vocalist Mary Anne Driscoll, as well as bassoonist Karen Borca, Lyons’ wife, who made up a trio with Lyons and Murphy at that time.

Lyons rarely recordedoutside his regular gig as Cecil Taylor’s right hand man. So it’s particularly gratifying to hear his characteristic elastic tone all over these tracks. Murphy, who literally dropped out of jazz for almost two years following Lyons’ death in 1986, was obviously simpatico, and you can hear that give and take in their duets.Tragically, Johnson seems to be someone never forgiven by the neo-cons for the excesses of the New Thing. Reduced to working full-time as a maintenance employee at a large factory by the 1990s, he was recently reported to be homeless, living somewhere in New York City.

Playing in trio formation with Murphy and Driscoll, as he does on “The Scenery 1” and “The Scenery 2”, his brassy cadences and braying chromatic choruses retain the 1960s resonance. Slurring out extended sets of triplets in the trumpet’s higher registers may fit tongue-in-groove with the pianist’s modal sheets of sound and the drummer’s rolling and roistering, but they wouldn’t have got him a gig in the neo-cons heyday of the 1980s and 1990s.

Murphy, who returned to jazz in the 1990s and has since worked with bassist William Parker and pianist Larry Willis among others, also plays spectacularly at points. On “Steppin’ Out 3”, for instance, his double time flams, bounces and overall groove helps Lyons focus his virtuosity. Here the reedist produces a line made up of skyward screams that gradually settle into a theme reminiscent both of the Woody Woodpecker theme and “Jump Up”, his most famous composition.

On “Steppin’ Up”, Lyons sounds out spiky note extensions with sideslipping slurs and altissimo slides. Not only does he use echo, but at times his tones also seem to be answering themselves. “Steppin’ Out 1”, on the other hand, finds him at his most harmonic, or at least as tonal as one can be while speedily triple tonguing irregular vibrations and trills. With Murphy’s rolls in the background, the woodpecker intonation vies with memories of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. On “Duo 2”, again with the drummer, somehow Lyons manages to produce reedy notes that sound as if they come from an accordion.

That said, it still should be pointed out that much of this disc is reminiscent of an extended rehearsal tape. With 19 selections ranging in length from barely more than one minute to almost 5½ —and four of those are a Murphy drum solo — concepts are too often truncated. Everyone involved has good ideas — and expresses them. But few are allowed to develop much past theme statements or solo virtuosity. Lyons and Johnson never play on the same track, for instance. Sure you can admire Borca’s flutter tonguing her double reed and making it jump through aural hoops at warp speed, or Murphy’s rim shots and bomb dropping, but on a more formal date these would add up to more than isolated virtuosity. Driscoll also sings “Innocent Incidents”, a Murphy-penned ballad of lost romance. Let’s just say her voice is better than the lyrics deserve.

RED SNAPPER is aimed at completists who can’t get enough of Lyons — or Johnson — or the New Thing in Jazz that was being dismissed as old hat by 1982. Others will have to decide whether exceptional playing and good sentiments can overcome abbreviated running times and severed connections.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Sailing Out 2. Setting Out 3. The Scenery 1 4. Wild Reed 5. Steppin’ Out 1 6. The Scenery 2 7. Reeding Room 8. Steppin’ Out 2 9. The Scenery 3 10. Steppin’ Out 3 11. Steppin’ Up 12. Mellow 1 13. Mellow 2 14. Innocent Incidents* 15. Duo 1 16. Duo 2 17. Duo 3 18. Red Snapper part 1 19. Red Snapper part 2

Personnel: Dewey Johnson (trumpet); Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone); Karen Borca (bassoon); Mary Anne Driscoll (piano, vocal*); Paul Murphy (drums)