Jimmy Lyons

Push Pull
Corbett vs. Dempsey CVsD CD022

Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons in Jazz history is usually viewed mostly as Cecil Taylor’s closest collaborator and confidant from the early 1960s until his own death in 1986. His association is like Paul Shaffer’s with David Letterman, or more appropriately Paul Desmond’s with Dave Brubeck. But Lyons (1931-1986), while never as absolutely free in his playing as Taylor was in his, was also a notable soloist on his own, and intermittently led his own bands. Like Desmond none of them featured a pianist.

The reissued two-CD Push Pill, previously released on hat hut, is particularly revealing because it’s one of the saxophonist’s few quintet recordings. On hand were constant associates, bassist Hayes Burnett, who also played with Archie Shepp and Sun Ra, and bassoonist Karen Borca, who moved between improved and notated music. Drummer Roger Blank, another Ra alumnus is an uncommon presence on percussion, while unique double string affiliations is the result of the cello of Munner Bernard Fennell, whose affiliations range from Doug Hammond to Jimmy Heath.

Recorded in 1978 by Borca herself at New York’s Collective for Living Cinema [!], in some ways the session resembles a 1920s Gannet or Vocalion 78. Segments of the performance are sonically muddy and a few sequences take place so far away from the mic that they resemble behind-the-curtain cues in a stage play. Luckily Lyons is front-and-centre which is what matters. Without invoking the patina of nostalgia, hearing him in this context is like finding the shellac featuring a Delta bluesman newly arrived in Memphis to face the recording horn for the first time. Although Lyons had been recording for a good 15 years before this, he seizes on the occasion with the energy of a tyro. Here the reedist Coltrane-like, spins out chorus after chorus, note after note, tone after tone, often being egged on by Hayes’ resonating pumps and Blank’s shifting pulse. Throughout intricate contrapuntal improvisation is worked out with Lyon’s tart tone melding with Borca’s sour snorts or Hayes’ deeper-toned string rubs intersecting with Fennell’s spiccato vibrations. Blank’s stinging cymbal pops adds a swing variation to the extended “Mary, Mary”, with the turnaround highlighting the eight strings moving backwards and then forwards to maintain the theme.

Borca’s playing is notable for bringing paced improvisational smarts and echoing split tones to her work and the slower-paced “Tortuga” shows off her mellow tone to its greatest advantage. But in some ways it’s like watching an elephant playing xylophone; the novelty outweighs the skills. The live situation gives all five – especially Lyons – plenty of opportunities to cram as many irregular tropes into their solos at great length. There’s a notable instance of this on “After You Left”, where at stretches the reedist’s only accompaniment is crying, guitar-like plinks from the strings. However length can also lead to excess, since the same track’s coda, packs the same tongue stabbing intensity into what can be heard as a pécis of the initial improvisation. Other tracks, such as the lively “Breakout” buoy on double counterpoint and heightened altissimo blowing, but stay appropriately disciplined via restrained drumming and an open-ended bass solo. When it comes to the title track however, like the most evenly matched bridge game, sonic overload is balanced from all sides. Strident string drones and change-running squeals from the reeds give way to back-to-basics cello-string stopping and passages where Borca’s razor-sharp tones catch up and complement Lyon’s strident output to a deflating, gratifying concordance.

Like watching a film of Abbott without Costello, Push Pull is valuable because it showcases Lyons expressing his own ideas without having to wear the roomy Cecil Taylor straightjacket. Putting aside some improvisational overkill and some less-than-pristine recording, it’s still an exciting example of the alto saxophonist’s talent.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Mary Mary 2. After You Left CD2: 1. Tortuga 2. Push Pull 3. Breakout

Personnel: Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone); Karen Borca (bassoon); Munner Bernard Fennell (cello); Hayes Burnett (bass) and Roger Blank (drums)