Jimmy Lyons

by Tom Hull

The Box Set

Cecil Taylor's pianistics are so spectacular, and so daunting, that it's surprising he ever spent much time in small groups with horns. Indeed, since the late '80s he hasn't. But from 1961 to 1985 Taylor's groups featured alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons (often with a trumpet or tenor saxophonist in addition). After Lyons fell ill and died in 1986 at age 54, Taylor replaced him with Carlos Ward, but soon backed off to a trio, solos, and one-shots with Europe's top avant-gardists. Lyons recorded a handful of albums under his own name, but virtually all of the few people who know of him know him through Taylor. The relationship vetween the two has been compared to Hodges and Ellington, or Desmond and Brubeck, but it is inevitably more difficult to untangle.

Anyone who has wondered what Lyons brought to the party will be helped out immensely by The Box Set, a small, unfancy package, crammed with five previously unreleased discs of solo and small group Lyons, doubling what was heretofore available, and a fact-packed 60-page booklet. Jan Ström, whose devotion to Lyons previously resulted in a 120-page sessionography, has strategically selected the material to cover a broad range of dates and groups, each in enough detail to stand on its own.

The logical way to approach the box is from the middle out. Start with the 11-minute interview that fills out disc four, to get an introduction to the man, particularly that he sees composition and improvisation as the same thing. Then go to disc three for his solo concert: sounds a lot like practice, as he strings together breath-length thoughts, twisting and turning around each other, like a painter laying out his palette. The pace is methodical, easy to follow, but on disc two he adds bass and drums and gets his back up. He starts with a 25 minute run, structurally like his solo exercise, but blisteringly fast. After he lets the bassist play a little, he finishes furiously, then does it all again. Lyons is sometimes characterized as the guy who brought Charlie Parker into the avant-garde. But this disc shows is that the essential lesson Lyons took from Parker was to keep pushing harder and faster.

The fourth disc feature another trio, but with bassoonist Karen Borca replacing the bassist, giving him two lead instruments plus drums. Nearly as fast, the contrast in tones and trading of lines are dazzling. The fifth disc also features Borca, but the interaction is a bit less intense, perhaps because added bassist William Parker stands out, or perhaps because in 1985 time was running out for Lyons. After all, the freshest, most pleasurable disc is the first one, recorded in 1972, with Raphé Malik's bright trumpet sparring with Lyons. One thing you notice in all three of these discs is that Lyons often feeds the others his best lines. Malik and Borca have never sounded so confident as in his company. And while it would be a stretch to say the same about Taylor, Lyons' selflessness may have been the secret of the Cecil Taylor Unit's success. Without naming anyone, Taylor once said, "It's rare to find musicians who are loyal and protect you and give you space to be yourself. You learn to value them highly and to give them the same space they give you." The Box Set was specially designed for fans who care as much about that space.


Rick Lopez's William Parker gigography shows Lyons playing with the Cecil Taylor Unit (which included Parker) up to 1985.11.16, even though the last album date I have for Lyons with Taylor was 1984.10.24, Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants). Parker played a "Jimmy Lyons Benefit" on 1986.02.01 (with Frank Wright, Maurice McIntyre, and Andrew Cyrille). Lyons died 1986.05.19 (lung cancer; he had had major surgery on what was described as a congenital lung problem back around 1971). The Cecil Taylor Unit played on 1986.04.10 (lineup: Taylor, Earl McIntyre [bass trombone], Frank Wright, Thurman Barker, Parker, Steve McCall). The same lineup recorded Olu Iwa on 1986.04.11-12. The next entry for the Cecil Taylor Unit (Taylor, Carlos Ward, Karen Borca, Barker, Parker, Freddie Waits) was 1987.03.04, and played a number of other dates into 1988 with Ward, Parker, Barker, and sometimes others (Wadada Leo Smith on 1988.02.06). By 1990.11.20 the Cecil Taylor Unit had no horns (Parker, Tony Oxley, Henry Martinez), and the name doesn't appear thereafter (at least not in the Parker gigography; Parker played regularly with Taylor well into 1992). Since Lyons, Taylor has played with various saxophone players, but none consistently (at least after Ward; Evan Parker shows up on a couple scattered albums).

Quote from Cecil Taylor (Whitney Balliett, American Musicians II, p. 520): "It's rare to find musicians who are loyal and protect you and give you space to be yourself. You learn to value them highly and to give them the same space they give you. Each musician has to play his world in the framework you design for him. Improvisation is the blood that makes the music go. It's also a way to prepare oneself to talk responsibly with others in a musical community."

Quote from Brian Morton & Richard Cook (The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Edition, p. 939, although the quote mostly goes back to the first edition): "If Charlie Parker had a true heir -- in the sense of someone interested in getting interest on the inheritance, rather than merely preserving the principal -- it was Jimmy Lyons. Compared to his light-fingered onrush, most of the bop epigoni sound deeply conservative. He didn't have the greateest tone in the world, though it seems rather odd to describe a saxophonist's tone as 'reedy' as if that were an insult. Lyons' delivery was always light and remarkably without ego. Years of playing beside Cecil Taylor, in addition to accelerating his hand-speed, probably encouraged a certain self-effacement as well."

Other Penguin Guide quotes, under Cecil Taylor:

  • Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come: "Lyons shapes his bebopper's vocabulary into gritty flurries of notes, a man caught in a squall and fighting his way through it and over it. He would become Taylor's most dedicated interpretative colleague, but here he is sharing in the discovery of a fierce new world. Melody has a part to play: the two versions of 'Lena' measure out a beleaguered lyricism, for instance. Group interaction is a matter, sometimes, of clinging tight and hanging on, but this was a trio that had already done a lot of work together, and in the multiple layers of the monumental 'D Trad, That's What' and 'Call' the musicians seem to touch on an inner calm to go with the outward intensity."
  • Cecil Taylor Unit / 3 Phasis: "This is a superb group, full of contrast but bursting with the spirit of Taylor's music and exultant in its ability to make it work. . . . Malik and Lyons play bright or wounded or bitingly intense lines, and they play their part in a group chemistry which sometimes has the players contrasting with one another, sometimes combining to push the music forward, sometimes providing a textured background to Taylor's own sustained flights of invention."

From the booklet: "Jimmy Lyons is perhaps the strongest champion among the avant-garde of Charlie Parker's famous manifesto that music should be about 'playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.'"

From a bulletin board posting, by Jan [Ström], in answer to a question about why which sessions were picked, and what's left: "It was quite tricky to pick the sessions but I would like to have a historic picture but also show Jimmy's different group sizes. Missing is, among many others, a wonderful duo recording which isn't released yet with Andrew Cyrille but, to go for a 6 CD box should had increased the price so, there was a compromise. Another favorite is a quartet with Ahmed Abdullah -- maye next time."

Went back to relisten to various Cecil Taylor records. Nefertiti is easily the best: the whole thing is amazingly fresh and vibrant. The fabled Unit Structures was better than I had remembered it; Conquistador faired similarly. Both benefit from concentrating on Lyons. Eddie Gale plays trumpet on the former, Bill Dixon on the latter. Gale is, I think, a player more in Lyons' mold, where Dixon favors Taylor. Fondation Maeght Nights (Vol. 1) and Spring of Two Blue J's are later live tapes, and suffer a bit in terms of sound. Also the absence of trumpet takes something away from the overall lustre of the sound. The Cecil Taylor Unit and 3 Phasis are prodigious six-piece ensembles. They've been hugely praised by Taylor's fans, but don't do a lot for me. However, One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye has a lot of marvels. It starts with a duo between Lyons and Malik (highly relevant to the first disc on the Lyons box), then has a longer duo between Ramsey Ameen and Sirone (violin/bass), and a 5:39 drum solo by Ronald Shannon Jackson. Then the Unit gets down to work. The only later record of I have of Taylor with Lyons is Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), which has a bigger and messier band -- two trumpets (Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko), five reeds (Lyons, Frank Wright, John Tchicai, Gunter Hampel, Karen Borca), two drums (Rashid Bakr, Andre Martinez), and Parker on bass. Despite all the talent, and occasional thrills, I think it's just a mess.


Disc 1 (036): Jimmy Lyons Quartet: Sept. 15 or 16 or 17, 1972, Studio Rivbea, NYC. Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Raphé Malik (trumpet), Hayes Burnett (bass), Sydney Smart (drums). Although recorded in NYC at Sam Rivers' loft, this came out of the period (1971-73) when Lyons was mostly playing at Cecil Taylor's side in Antioch, Ohio, where Taylor was teaching. Malik also came from Taylor's orbit, and is very conspicuous here.

  1. "Jump Up" (10:02)
  2. "Gossip" (14:04)
  3. "Ballad One" (15:14)
  4. "Mr. 1-2-5 Street" (11:18)
  5. "Jump Up # 2" (17:28)
  6. "Round Midnight" (7:37 INC, T. Monk): up to midway just done with a little bass, as befits the ballad; then Malik comes in, very muted.
Disc 2 (037): Jimmy Lyons Trio: June 30, 1975. Studio Rivbea, NYC. Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Hayes Burnett (bass), Henry Letcher (drums).
  1. "Family" (41:24): Lyons rips off about 25 minutes of rather rough but very fast and generally well thought out solo, with some fine drumming from Letcher. The bass seems underrecorded, and the bass solo that comes next is a dead spot unless you're paying very close attention. Sonny Rollins' "East Broadway Run Down" is often cited as an influence here.
  2. "Heritage I" (37:18)
Disc 3A (038): Jimmy Lyons Trio: as above.
  1. "Heritage II" (13:36)
Disc 3B (038): Jimmy Lyons Solo: April 9, 1981, Soundscape, NYC. Jimmy Lyons (alto sax).
  1. "Clutter" (20:02)
  2. "Mary Mary Intro" (11:41): references Mary Lou Williams.
  3. "Never" (6:09)
  4. "Configuration C" (5:18)
  5. "Repertoire Riffin'" (14:29)
  6. "Impro Scream & Clutter II" (7:21)
Disc 4A (039): Jimmy Lyons Trio: May 12, 1984, Geneva, Switzerland. Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Karen Borca (bassoon), Paul Murphy (drums).
  1. "Wee Sneezawee" (13:38)
  2. "After You Left" (9:24)
  3. "Theme" (10:40)
  4. "Shakin' Back" (10:56): a segment here around 8:00 in caught my ear, with just Lyons and some drums.
  5. "Good News Blues" (11:06, Karen Borca)
Disc 4B (039): Jimmy Lyons interview: July 27, 1978. Host: Taylor Storer.
  1. interview (11:42)
Disc 5 (040): Jimmy Lyons Quartet: February 12, 1985, Tufts University, Medford, MA. Jimmy Lyons (alto sax), Karen Borca (bassoon), William Parker (bass), Paul Murphy (drums).
  1. "Wee Sneezawee" (13:15)
  2. "After You Left" (9:39)
  3. "Tortuga" (13:09)
  4. "Gossip" (9:27 INC)
  5. "Shakin' Back" (13:02)
  6. "Driads" (15:49)
  7. "Jump Up" (0:36)


Note: Jan Ström has compiled a comprehensive Lyons sessionography, which is being sold as a 120 page booklet for $24 (according to Cadence's pricelist). I don't have access to this. Everything below is quickly constructed from other sources, just to provide a quick overview. I understand that Tom Lord's jazz discography (allegedly the most comprehensive, certainly the most expensive) has a mere 9 entries for Lyons. I suppose that well-funded libraries can budget money for items like this, but freelance writers can hardly afford them. I am sympathetic to the amount of work that it takes to produce a good discography, but I also feel that locking up such data behind cash registers is counterproductive.

Principal albums:

  • Jimmy Lyons: Other Afternoons [1969.08.15; Affinity 34; Get Back 309]
  • Jimmy Lyons & Sunny Murray Trio: Jump Up [1980; Hat Art 6139: 1995.10.19]
  • Jimmy Lyons: Riffs [1980.09.13-14; Hat 3503]
  • Jimmy Lyons/Andrew Cyrille: Something in Return [1981.02; Black Saint 120125]
  • Jimmy Lyons/Andrew Cyrille: Burnt Offering [1982; Black Saint 120130]
  • Jimmy Lyons: Wee Sneezawee [1983.09.26-27; Black Saint 120067]
  • Jimmy Lyons: Give It Up [1985.03; Black Saint 120087]
  • Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set [1972.09, 1975.06.30, 1978.07.27, 1981.04.09, 1984.05.12, 1985.02.12; Ayler 36-40 5CD: 2003]
Total records in list above: 8 (2 in house, 0 from other sources).

Sideman albums:

  • Cecil Taylor & Roswell Rudd: Mixed [1961.10.10; Impulse 51270: 1998]
  • The Gil Evans Orchestra: Into the Hot [1961.09.14-1961.10.31; Impulse 9: 1961; MCA/Impulse 39104: 1988]
  • Cecil Taylor: Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come [1962.11.23; Arista Freedom 1905 2LP; Revenant 202 2CD] -- previously issued on various labels/titles, including: Innovations (Freedom), What's New (Freedom), Trance (Black Lion), Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Freedom); also on Debut, Fantasy, Fontana, Polydor
  • The Jazz Composer's Orchestra: Communication [1964.12.29, 1965.04.10; Fontana 661011: 1965; Nippon Phonogram 195J-23] -- one Carla Bley and two Mike Mantler compositions
  • Cecil Taylor: Unit Structures [1966.05.19; Blue Note 84237]
  • Cecil Taylor: Conquistador [1966.10.06; Blue Note 84260]
  • Cecil Taylor: Student Studies [1966.11.30; BYG 4003; Affinity 74; Fuel 2000 61339: 2003] -- also released as The Great Paris Concert (Black Lion 760201: 1994/5; Get Back 2019: 2002)
  • The Jazz Composer's Orchestra: The Jazz Composer's Orchestra [1968.01.24, 1968.05.08, 1968.06.20-21; JCOA 1001/2: 1968; Polydor 20362: 1989] -- music composed by Michael Mantler; top name: Cecil Taylor, other cover names: Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Larry Coryell, Gato Barbieri
  • Eddie Gale: Black Rhythm Happening [Blue Note 84320: 1969; Water 118: 2003] -- credited as Jamie Lyons
  • Cecil Taylor: Nuits de la Fondation Maeght [1969.07.29; Shandar 83507] -- also released as: The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor (Prestige 34003: 1977); Fondation Maeght Nights (Vol. 1) (Jazz View 001
  • Carla Bley/Paul Haines: Escalator Over the Hill [1968.11, 1970.11, 1971.03, 1971.06; JCOA: 1974; ECM 839310: 1990]
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Akisakila [1973.05.22; Konnex 5039/40]
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Spring of Two Blue-J's [1973.11.04; Unit Core 30551: 1974; Jazz View 8]
  • Wildflowers: The New York Loft Sessions Complete [1976.05.14-23; Knitting Factory 3037 3CD] -- one cut, "Push Pull," with Karen Borca and Hayes Burnett
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Dark to Themselves [1976.06.18; Enja 2084]
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Cecil Taylor Unit [1978.04; New World 201]
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: 3 Phasis [1978.04; New World 203]
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Live in the Black Forest [1978.06.03; MPS 68220: 1979; Universal (Japan) 9014: 2003]
  • Cecil Taylor: One Too Many Salty Swifty and Not Goodbye [1978.06.14; Hat Art 6090 2CD]
  • Andrew Cyrille: Nuba [1979.06; Black Saint 120030]
  • Cecil Taylor: It Is in the Brewing Luminous [1980.02.08-09; Hat Art 16: 1981; Hat Art 6012: 1990]
  • Cecil Taylor: The Eighth [1981.11.08; Hat Musics 3508; Hat Art 2036 2LP: 1986; Hat Art 6036: 1989]
  • Joel Futterman Trio With Jimmy Lyons: In-Between Positions [1982.05; Bellaphon 45018]
  • Joel Futterman Quartet With Jimmy Lyons: Moments [1981.07-1983.06; Ear Rational 882456909]
  • Cecil Taylor Unit: Nicaragua: No Parasan/Willisau '83 Live [1983.08.27; Nica 2LP: 1984]
  • Joel Futterman Quartet With Jimmy Lyons: Interaction [1984; JDF 3]
  • Cecil Taylor Segments II: Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) [1984.10.22-24; Soul Note 121089]
  • Joel Futterman Trio With Jimmy Lyons: Inner Conversations [1984.10, 1986.06; Ear Rational 1019: 1990]
  • Joel Futterman Quintet With Jimmy Lyons: Passage [Konnex 1026: 1991]
Total records in list above: 29 (12 in house, 3 from other sources).


  • Robert Shapiro: Cecil Taylor Sessionography.
  • Rick Lopez: William Parker Sessionography.
  • Cecil Taylor Online Sessionography.
  • Reviews: Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set
    • Clifford Allen, All About Jazz: "One can more clearly understand the singular impact of Lyons' voice separated from his usual pianistic foil, and one can also see the importance of that foil to Lyons' development."
    • Joe Milazzo, One Final Note: focus on 1975 trios, "some of the strongest music Lyons ever made." "In his most rapidly articulated passages, the internal rhythm of Lyons' phrases, the careful compression and distension of space within what sound like 'flurries' (a random scatter) of notes is advanced to a level that a very few musicians -- the Coltrane of Interstellar Space,, Evan Parker in certain of his solo soprano sax recitals, Roscoe Mitchell -- have achieved. He seems an inexhaustible font of ideas not so much because of the content of his solos, phrase by phrase, well-defined note by well-defined note, is so remarkable. . . . What is so amazing is that this breakneck processing of melodic variations, tightly organized but separated utterly from any sort of harmonic foundation, is the foundation of Lyons' approach." "The only vaguely disappointing music here is to be found on disc 5 . . . an unfriendly live mix . . . there are solos that meander: an unpardonable sin when one is discussing improvising as focused and committed to dogged pursuit of articulation as Lyons' typically is." Discusses Ekkehard Jost's lack of any citation of Lyons, despite some depth on Unit Structures, then: "What Bud Powell was to Charlie Parker, and what McCoy Tyner was to John Coltrane, Jimmy Lyons was to Cecil Taylor. Like Powell and Tyner, Lyons entered his association with his visionary partner as a more-than-competent, technically accomplished conversant in the prevailing musical idiom. Like Powell and Tyner, Lyons, through the course of his association with his visionary partner, transformed himself into the improviser able to prove the universal musicality of another man's work by most fully engaging and at times struggling with the underlying principles of what could otherwise have been mistaken as an essentially idiosyncratic and wholly instrument-bound conception." The clever thing about that argument is the instrument inversion, but it also makes it a harder argument to sustain.
    • Derek Taylor, Dusted:
    • Charles Walker, Sudden Thoughts.
    • Ken Waxman, Jazz Weekly: "On his own witout Taylor, Lyons, the melody man, appears to be playing more outside than with his longtime keyboard associate. Maddeningly, six solo outings . . . 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."
    • Dan Warburton, The Wire: "One explanation as to why Lyons chose to release so little was his excessive self-criticism (in a 1978 Cadence interview he opined that there were 'too many recordings, duplication of the same thing')" "In terms of the sheer technical mastery required to bring off such advanced note play, the three extended 1975 Rivbea workouts rank with both Dolphy and Parker's finest recorded work. One can only wish there were more recordings of such literally breathtaking interplay between musicians -- and between one man and his music - but in the light of the relative scarcity of Lyons recordings, the appearance of these five discs is one of the most important events not only of the past ten months, but arguably the past ten years."
    • Paul Donnelly, Tangents: longer than the quoted review on the Ayler Records page below (attributed to ejazznews.com).
    • Geoffrey Totton, International Music Forum (NZ).
    • Hernani Faustino, New Jazz Improv: in Portuguese?
    • Jason Bivins, Cadence: "One of the most oft-repeated canards about Jimmy Lyons is that his alto playing was the natural extension of Charlie Parker's. I've never been entirely sure about this comparison, though Lyons was certainly indebted to Bop (in terms of his tone, his phrasing, the fleetness of his technique, and even the structure of his improvisations at times)." "He can worry a phrase or a note in an almost Otis Redding-like way, pulling them apart, dissecting their most minute detail, but just as surely clinging to them as if they'll run away at any moment. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the rapid runs are so lofty and go through such sweeping changes in altitude that they are, yes, birdlike (though not, perhaps, Bird-like)."
    • Ayler Records Feedback: customers comments, many of the reviews listed above.
    • Jazz Corner: bulletin board discussion.
  • Reviews: Jimmy Lyons: A Sessionography
    • Ayler Records: Franz Krieger, Jazz Research News; Bob Rusch, Cadence; Stuart Kremsky, Iajrc Journal.