A Box Worth Opening
JIMMY LYONS : The Box Set (Ayler Records. Aylcd 036-040)
The boxed set seems to be an increasingly popular way of presenting the work of major jazz artists, often combining already available material with archive or unreleased cuts. Coltrane, Miles, Mingus and Ornette, to name but a few, have various boxes on the market at the moment. But, for me the most essential has to be this one which sheds light on a performer who more often than not was seen as a member of Cecil Taylor's outfits rather than an artist pursuing his own musical visions.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to hear and review the promotional compilation abstracted from these 5 cds. This was something of a revelation for me since I've always enjoyed Lyons' playing, but again only really alongside Taylor. It brought home to me how important he could be in his own right, as a leader, soloist and composer. Anyway it was more than enough to whet my appetite and make me want to hear the whole box set.

These recordings weren't all made for general release and so there are some flaws, occasionally the tape runs out leaving an incomplete take and the usual gremlins that can surface in live performance put in the odd appearance. They are minor considerations in over 6 hours of music and don't impede the overall listening experience.

In 1972, when the first of these cds was recorded the New York loft scene was home to many avant garde jazz gigs and Sam and Bea Rivers' loft was one of the most important venues. This performance was the New York debut of a Lyons-led group and shows a band that radiated a tremendous amount of energy. Lyons own solos are carefully constructed but full of the intensity that characterises much of his work. He doesn't play torrentially, in the bebop mode that was one of his early influences, but in a measured, thoughtful vein that seems to be holding something back. The fire is there but it is controlled. When he plays on the only standard present here, ´Round Midnight', his voice is searching, attempting to extract something beyond the composition's essential melancholy.

Back in the same location in 1975, this time with his trio, he is heard drawing even more on his own resources, having no Malik to share the front voice with. This is a challenge which such a disciplined player clearly relished. The first of two long compositions, ´Family' finds him issuing a constant flow of ideas, sometimes in those characteristically terse, short phrases but also linking his lines in longer improvised stretches. He changes tone, from rounded clarity to harsher squalls and high overtones, always extracting maximum variety from his composition. In some ways he recalls aspects of Dolphy's stylish explorations, which is pleasing. This tide of invention is also matched by drummer Henry Letcher's mastery of tones and shading, knowing when to build the groundswell under Lyons and when to ease off. Both bassist, Hayes Burnett and drummer Letcher take centre stage for short solos and it takes some of the frontline responsibility from the alto but really this is Lyons' tour de force.

The Rivbea Studio session continues into the third cd then the action shifts to April 1981. By now those tremendous loft sessions were history. Whilst they could perhaps never be entirely replaced, the Manhattan performance space Soundscape seems an ideal setting for the solo Lyons. There are only two known solo performances in his career and the work here makes me wish there had been more. The sound quality is excellent and showcases the purity of his sound allowing space for the incessant flow of inventions to be appreciated.

Of the six solo pieces here its is virtually impossible to choose a favourite since, apart from applause, they are almost seamless and united in their endlessly questing exploratory mode. A title like ´Repertoire Riffin' may not sound exciting but the range of expression and tone that is channelled into these 14-plus minutes is a constant source of inspiration. I like the way he never resorts to the tedious repetition of a riff or unfocussed sound and fury as some soloists do when they start to run out of steam. Lyons just doesn't run out of anything; stamina, breath, control, ideas, you name it. Even on ´Improv Scream & Clutter II' where he includes some overblowing or ´screaming' it is used sparingly and in an integrated way.

His unaccompanied playing, whilst coming from a different angle, made me feel the way Evan Parker can do when in full, sustained flight. Lyons pauses for breath where Parker frequently doesn't seem to but the assured forward momentum is present in both men's work. When this cd ended I simply put it back on.

But, if the solo work is stunning his recording with another of his trios, this time featuring Paul Murphy on drums and Karen Borca on bassoon, is simply another kind of highlight. Recorded in Switzerland in May 1984, the energy levels suggest a trio at the peak of its powers with both Borca and Lyons intertwining voices, never getting in each other's way but often counterpointing perfectly. Some of the most astonishing moments happen when the bassoonist is centre stage with Murphy building strong but unobtrusive layers of rhythm for her to use as a springboard for dazzling improvisation.

Most of the compositions here are Lyons' but Borca contributes ´Good News Blues' a piece that features her particularly intense and muscular solo. At times Lyons seems a little off-mike which slightly unbalances the piece. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate device to allow the bassoon more space or whether it was one of the ´live' recording gremlins. It hardly matters because when he is soloing his playing is trenchant and clearly focussed.

The final cd, recorded almost a year later at Tufts University, brings titanic bass player William Parker to the group. The trio seemed to function just fine without a bass but this shows how Parker's playing could bring further depth and drive to the line-up, as on the opening track, ´Wee Sneezawee', which also featured as a trio recording. Parker is restless and propulsive, seemingly pushing drummer Murphy to greater rhythmic intensity. Lyons and Borca too appear to be striving to explore the composition further. Similarly on ´After You Left' Parker is the driving force behind, or alongside, both alto and bassoon adding his own dark and muscular rhythms to their constant streams of invention. I have to say that this unusual pairing is a continuing high point throughout the cd and sustains breathtaking levels of improvisation, never resorting to filling in with cliché. As if.

I could go on further but I think I've said more than enough. Don't take my word for it, this is an unmissable document of a truly outstanding jazz man in fine company and, for my money, the ´box of the year'.

© 2003Paul Donnelly