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The Emergence of Jimmy Lyons

Robert Levin By

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[Editor's Note: From Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970]

Since 1960, when he began working with Cecil Taylor, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons has been developing from a somewhat diffident musician into one of the more potent voices in the New Music. In recent recordings and appearances with Taylor, Jimmy has been playing with a glowing assertiveness and an often stunning beauty.

This past spring, Jimmy's first record under his leadership, Other Afternoons on the French BYG label, was released and it should make anyone who can get hold of it take serious notice—not only of his increasing mastery of the alto saxophone, but also of his newly revealed and exceptional talent as a composer. The album is highly charged and demonstrates Jimmy's capacity to play and write with a startling rhythmic energy, a strong sense of melody, and a near-to-excruciating lyricism. He's accompanied on the record by three first-rate musicians, trumpeter Lester Bowie, who makes fierce and electrifying music and two colleagues from Taylor's unit, Alan Silva, a fine bassist and brilliant cellist, and Andrew Cyrille, who I think sometimes might be the best drummer on the planet.

Born in Jersey City, December 1, 1933, Jimmy began playing alto when he was in high school. "At the time, and mostly from records, I was into Ernie Henry. I'd heard Bird first, but when I heard Ernie Henry I dug him more. Afterwards I heard Bird again and could see how he offered more. Then I started listening to people like Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, James Moody.... What really got me to start was a chick who lived next door. She had a baby grand and used to have people coming over and jamming all the time—Elmo Hope, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and a lot of local players. I'd been playing for about six months then, mostly by myself, tunes like 'Indiana'—I had no teacher, but I had a very good ear—and she heard me and one day she said, 'Hey, you're sounding good, why don't you come over?' I did, and Monk was there. We played for about a half hour. He told me he wanted me to play a certain figure—sevenths—so I thought, sevenths? I didn't know what he was talking about. I could hear it, but I'd never studied or learned. Monk said I was talented, but that I had to get down and take care of business; had to learn about music and do a lot of wood-shedding. It was actually a beautiful experience. Later I played with Elmo Hope. We had a piano too at that time, and he used to practice on it afternoons when my mother was out working. We used to play and put things together, but I still hadn't had any formal training.

"In 1959 I met a cat named Rudy Rutherford. He wasn't as modern as some of the cats I was playing with, but he said, 'C'mon, I'll teach you how to play the saxophone.' I needed to learn and he showed me a few things. He was very helpful.

"A year later I met Cecil. I was playing with a bassist at a club called Raphael's on Bleecker Street. Cecil worked opposite us on weekends. He had Archie Shepp and Denis Charles with him, and the whole thing really knocked me out. Up until then I was playing mostly as a hobby, working at the Post Office, with just occasional gigs here and there. But hearing Cecil made me want to get into music full-time. Later a mutual friend said Cecil was looking for another horn, so I went down—he was living on Dey Street then—and we started rehearsing."

With Cecil, Jimmy was obliged to take a leap into a whole new methodology. "I had to reorganize my whole approach to music and break a lot of habits. That's not very easy to do. I'd spent about a year trying to get myself together scale-wise and key-wise and tune-wise. Then, all of a sudden, this other thing came up. It took me a little while to get myself together in Cecil's music, to stop thinking chord-wise and to think about linking idea to idea. Like on the [Gil Evans Orchestra] Into the Hot album (Impulse, 1961), I didn't feel I was playing as well as I should be."

If Jimmy's work on Into the Hot was uncertain and tentative (and still more imitative of Charlie Parker than an extension of the Parker tradition into the New Music), it gradually, as I've said, assumed authority and individuation. Witness the progression of his playing on Taylor's four succeeding albums: Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Fantasy, 1964), Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (Fontana, 1962), Unit Structures (Blue Note, 1966) and Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966).

In my conversation with Jimmy I posed a number of questions at random. His comments on various aspects of his approach and aesthetic, as well as the New Music and the current scene in general, follow.

His influences: "Well, of course there was Bird and there is Cecil. Also, I really dug Sonny Rollins a lot—and Jackie McLean. The man who wrote the liner notes for the BYG album said I'd been influenced by Ornette, but I haven't really. I like Ornette, and I must say it's always good to hear him. But if Ornette and I sound alike in any way it's because of the mutual influence we share of Bird. As for Bird, I think he was what every musician should be. He's an inspiration for every musician to do his own thing instead of being imitative. That's the realization I came to. I mean the major thing to learn from Bird was not to play like him, but to play yourself."

His procedure: "Music has come to me to be an abstract thing. I don't try to imitate sounds like birds, or give a direct symbol of the sky or anything like that. I try to just let the music come out of myself without giving any special meaning in front. I might think about what it might symbolize after I play it, but not before. It's more innate with me than deliberate."

The New Music and bebop: "Bebop was very romantic in a sense. It talked about heroic actions—things to do politically as well as musically, rather than doing it now. Of course Bird got to some things, and a lot of the cats who are playing today aren't as modern as he was. When I say 'modern,' I mean using techniques that are indigenous to the modern school, like wide skips or things of that nature. But basically bebop was about the idea of doing what had to be done, rather than actually doing it. Now we're doing it."

The meaning of freedom: "When we talk about 'free jazz' it doesn't mean that you play whatever pops into your head. It just means greater freedom of choice, and not being tied to some previous cat or things like chord structures."

The jazz continuum: "To move to the next step you have to have a knowledge of tradition—of the tradition of the black aesthetic—to have heard all of the things of the past and to truly have been moved by them. I don't mean just checking them out, but having been really moved by them."
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