Jimmy Lyons – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note (5 CDs) [TrackList follows] – Black Saint/Soul Note Records/Cam Jazz BXS 1028, CD 1: 42:58, CD 2: 44:26, CD 3: 48:37, CD 4: 45:30, CD 5: 59:59 [11/26/14] [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
(CD 1: Wee Sneezwee, 1984. Jimmy Lyons Quintet: Lyons – alto saxophone; Raphé Malik – trumpet; Karen Borca – bassoon; William Parker – bass; Paul Murphy – drums)
(CD 2: Give It Up, 1985. Jimmy Lyons Quintet: Lyons; Enrico Rava – trumpet, flugelhorn; Borca; Jay Oliver – bass; Murphy)
(CD 3: Burnt Offering, 1991. Lyons; Andrew Cyrille – percussion)
(CD 4: Nuba, 1979. Lyons; Cyrille – drums, percussion, agogô bells; tambourine; slide whistle; bird whistle; triangle; ginger cymbals; towels; castanets; claves; cowbells; African castanets; brushes; sansa; vibra-slap; maracas; chain and lock; Jeanne Lee – voice, poetry)
(CD 5: Something in Return, 1988. Lyons; Cyrille – percussion)
Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons is probably best known for his association with pianist Cecil Taylor. Lyons was a regular presence, for the most part, in Taylor’s ensembles from 1960 until Lyons’ untimely 1986 death. Lyons also led his own groups, performed numerous live shows which used various configurations, and taught in assorted jazz education settings. Some lump Lyons into different musical factions, including the so-called new jazz, the modern creative movement, free jazz and avant-garde music. But Lyons was more than whatever clique he may have been sorted into. If one can ignore the facile connotations of what he played, if one digs deeper, there is a sense of labor, texture, context and emotional arcs (running from triumphant to abrasive) which pervades his work. All of that physical and personal terrain is surveyed on a recent, 5-CD package, The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note, which comprises studio and concert material issued from 1979 to 1991 by the Italian independent label imprint. The compendium, typical of related Black Note collections, is not arranged chronologically. The first two CDs (Wee Sneezwee, 1984; and Give It Up, 1985) are credited to the Jimmy Lyons Quintet. The other three CDs (Burnt Offering, 1991; Nuba, 1979; and Something in Return, 1988) feature Lyons with longtime friend, drummer and percussionist Andrew Cyrille (who was also involved with Taylor’s band). Nuba adds vocalist and poet Jeanne Lee.
Like many saxophonists, Lyons was influenced by Charlie Parker. But Lyons took what he learned and progressed into his own creative realms. He never forgot about bebop, but what Lyons did with intonation, inflection, fingering, and the full use of his chosen instrument reflected where he wanted his music to go. That is expressed throughout 1984’s Wee Sneezwee, which gathers Cecil Taylor alum: Lyons; the late trumpeter Raphé Malik (who passed away in 2006); bassoonist Karen Borca (Lyons wife); bassist William Parker; and drummer Paul Murphy, the only member of this quintet who did not spend time with Taylor. Nothing Lyons recorded could be considered mainstream jazz, but over the 42 minutes, Lyons moves as close to a conventional nature as any Lyons record gets. Lyons is the leader, but there is a lot of room and space for the others. Malik shifts from unison lines with Lyons to impactful solo statements and is intense on the opening title track, matching Lyons’ enlivened chords and lines.
During the course of the program, Borca’s bassoon provides a deeper resonance which complements Parker’s bass, and often is the musical adhesive which grounds the five lengthy Lyons compositions. She’s particularly noteworthy during the comparatively clement “Remembrance.” Lyons advances quickness to “Gossip,” which emulates the rapid pace of a metropolitan cityscape. One can almost perceive the urban cacophony of construction projects, honking taxicabs, streaming pedestrians, and the rush of subways and elevators. The equally hastened, nearly 12-minute closer, “Driads,” is an exemplar of group interplay, where everyone coalesces into a frenetic submission to Lyons’ uncompromising music. Lyons launches notes into the stratosphere; Parker supplies incandescent bass notes; Malik appears like a man possessed when he solos; and Murphy and Borca also impart veering velocity. Stanley Crouch’s scholarly liner notes are reprinted on the back of the CD’s paper sleeve, but readers will need a magnifying glass and a strong light to peruse them.
1985’s Give It Up (44 minutes, four Lyons originals) has a convergence of spontaneity and an approach similar to Wee Sneezwee. The quintet array is the same, although guest trumpeter Enrico Rava takes the place of Malik and bassist Jay Oliver (who has worked with Peter Brötzmann) substitutes for William Parker. The lead-in title track is replete with polyphonic currents, dizzying solos from Rava and Lyons, and a mostly combustible temperament highlighted by Oliver’s bombastic bass and Murphy’s deft handling of cymbals and sticks. Lyons’ sometimes screechy timbre recalls Ornette Coleman, although Lyons’ vision diverges from Coleman’s harmolodics concept. The 11-minute “Methods” has arresting layers, where the supportive and front parts intertwine in both restless and controlled manners. Rava’s melodic command lends a sense of subtler sovereignty than Malik; and near the conclusion, a drums/bass duet section brings a brief respite to the otherwise stormy enterprise. The CD’s centerpiece is the 19-minute, multi-tiered “Never.” There is much to hear and repeat listening will help to appreciate the activity. Rava and Lyons at times go horn-to-horn, while at other times Rava heightens what Lyons does. The deceptively tangled collection of chords, notes, riffs and refrains may seem haphazard, but there is a structure which can be discerned, although not easily. The fivesome finish with the restrained and lyrical “Ballada,” the nearest item to traditionalism found on this boxed set. The solemn arco bass, low-ebbing bassoon and Murphy’s burnished brushes furnish a more or less melancholy atmosphere. Art Lange’s reproduced liner notes from the initial LP sleeve are worth reading, but again, a magnifying glass is mandatory.
The other three CDs have a pared-down alignment focusing on the close communication between Lyons and Cyrille. Burnt Offering was taped May 15, 1982 at the IMPROVCO concert in Allentown, PA. The duo performs in-the-moment on three extended, exploratory pieces. Throughout the 48 minutes, Lyons blows nimble, sometimes slashing notes, knotty phrases, and now and then steps out to yield space for Cyrille’s percussive lashes. The 15-minute starter, “Popp-A,” is brash and budges with staccato bursts of sax and drums. The nearly 10-minute “Exotique” has an Asiatic percussive trait, while Lyons’ themes are relatively more harmonious than the rest of the set list. The concert’s apex is the almost 24-minute title track where Lyons and Cyrille prod each other, commingle percussive elements, and Lyons intermittently slips in refrains which mirror conventional jazz choruses, while accommodating an articulate inventiveness. Despite the new remastering, Lyons’ sax remains slightly lower in volume than Cyrille’s drumming, but not enough to distract.
The hour-long Something in Return is also a live Cyrille/Lyons collaboration, taped February 13, 1981 at the Soundscape event in New York City, but not released until two years after Lyons passed on. The twosome begins with a wholly reworked version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” a challenging exercise in extemporization, imagination and instrumental expertise. Cyrille’s rolling percussion is heavy, heady and holistic and benefits from close microphone placement. Every brushstroke or cymbal touch has gravitas. Lyons does not abandon Ellington’s conspicuous chorus, but gives it a fresh twist or two. The approximately 15-minute title track and the five-minute “J.L.” are both impromptu conceptions which display Cyrille and Lyons’ intimate dialogues. Lyons emphasizes a high-pitched quality on “Something in Return,” while Cyrille concentrates on a resounding, lower percussive foundation. When Cyrille takes the spotlight, he proves why he is regarded by many as one of the premier jazz drummers. The two final numbers are also noticeable. “Nuba” commences with a disciplined, honed drum solo. Eventually, Lyons strides in with vivid, ululating lines atop Cyrille’s exotically-tinged percussion. The two artists end with the not-quite-16-minute “Fragments I,” which has a multidimensional mannerism which echoes Cecil Taylor’s stop-start style. Cyrille maintains a disjointed percussive framework, while Lyons soars above with anticipatory and variegated clusters of lines, notes and phrases. This isn’t effortless music to grasp but the overall aggression is something to behold. The remastering brings out the best of Cyrille and Lyons. At times, the music is like an onslaught, but the music breathes as well, and the remastering facilitates what can and should be examined. Music critic Gary Giddens’ liner notes are well written: Cyrille reminiscences about Lyons and discusses the music. Unfortunately, Giddens’ text can only be studied by most of us with the aforementioned magnifier.
The oldest record is 1979’s Nuba. For some Lyons aficionados, this may be the most unappealing album. That’s because this studio affair includes the late singer, poet and composer Jeanne Lee (who passed in 2000). During her career, she also partnered with Carla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Marion Brown and others. Cyrille utilizes a broad range of percussive devices, from agogô bells (commonly employed in samba music) to a vibraslap, and everything in between. Lyons is less forceful or persistent across the seven cuts. Lee is heard on each track, either reciting her verse or generating wordless vocalizations to supplement the sax and percussion. The exhilaration level is far below the other albums, and some songs are incomplete or imperfect. The opener, “Nuba,” fades out: there is an impression there was no apparent closure. While most of the material isn’t necessarily memorable, there is a suitable subtlety in several compositions, such as “In These Last Days,” where Lyons, Lee and Cyrille balance sections of passion against moments of quietude. But, to apply a clichéd comment, the jazz/poetry Nuba is an acquired taste which Lyons’ devotees may not enjoy.
Characteristic of the ongoing Black Saint/Soul Note remaster reissues, this is a basic package. The five CDs are in simple paper sleeves which are placed inside a thicker cardboard container, with reproduced artwork on some sleeves. As cited above, the back cover liner notes for Wee Sneezwee, Give It Up and Something in Return are recreated, but the very tiny text cannot be read without squinting through a magnifying glass. Credits on some of the other reprinted back covers are also hard to see. But, the remastered sound is splendid and that’s a critical consideration for anyone who may want to buy this Lyons compilation.
CD 1: Wee Sneezawee, Gossip, Rememberance, Shackinback; Driads.
CD 2: Give It Up, Methods, Never, Ballada.
CD 3: Popp-A, Exotique, Burnt Offering.
CD 4: Nuba, CornBread Picnic (Maize), The One Before Zero, JJ&A, In These Last Days, Sorry, Nuba 2.
CD 5: Take the A Train, Something in Return, Lorry, J.L., Nuba, Fragments I.