Sunday, October 13, 2013

BYG Actuel 09: Jimmy Lyons - Other Afternoons

It is one of the great misfortunes of BYG Actuel that the label never got the opportunity to record Cecil Taylor. Taylor was present in Paris during the Actuel summer, hanging around the background as the mysterious guru of the scene, but his presence is undocumented as far as records go.

Jimmy Lyons, Alan Silva, and Andrew Cyrille were all crucial components in the BYG Actuel story, but their experiences in Europe did not begin in 1969. These three terrific musicians formed the core of Taylor’s quartet, the Cecil Taylor Unit (which memorably appeared in expanded form on Taylor’s two Blue Note dates, Unit Structures and Conquistador!), had already enjoyed France’s open-arms acceptance of free jazz when the Unit travelled to Paris in 1966.[1] When Taylor returned to Paris three years later, Alan Silva had already moved on to Archie Shepp’s band,[2] but he brought his former Unit bandmates into the fold at the always open Studio Saravah soon after they arrived. All three got their first opportunities to record as leader at Studio Saravah, although none of them could coax Taylor—who didn’t release any albums between 1966 and 1973 and didn’t record any non-live albums again until 1978—into the studio.

Jimmy Lyons did the next best thing with his Actuel album Other Afternoons. He brought together Silva and Cyrille for a rough approximation of the Cecil Taylor Unit and filled the void left by Taylor’s absence with a member of a group just as known for their iconoclasm as Taylor is: Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Cecil Taylor has his own mathematics and internal logic for his remarkably complex playing, but working out those musical equations requires him to fill a lot of space with incredibly dense collections of notes. Bowie takes the opposite approach as a fill-in for Taylor. Much as he did within the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s canny uses of negative space and collaborative soloing, Bowie plays only when he’s absolutely needed, which often puts him squarely in a role supporting Lyons throughout Other Afternoons.

Both sides of the record follow roughly the same format: a more intense piece that segues directly into a much more melancholy second piece. Of these, the opening title track is the album’s standout. Much as they did in the Cecil Taylor Unit, Silva and Cyrille are tasked with providing a solid foundation for the others to solo over. Their years of experience playing together gives their work together a nice lived-in feel for their rhythmic energy music. Cyrille in particular does not let up at all, and he sounds absolutely frenzied straight through. Lyons and Bowie sound like they’re sparring, and even when one is accenting the other’s playing there is an aggression underpinning everything. The battle mindset is a good one for both of them, and Bowie really integrated himself in the existing group dynamic effectively. He even managed to fit in a bit of trademark Art Ensemble weirdness by spontaneously shouting out “Did you see that? Did you see that? What!” in the middle of the song. Working without Taylor allows for a much different in-group dynamic for these musicians, and Lyons seems to be relishing the opportunity to really stretch out without the force of Taylor’s presence pulling him in other directions. His final solo is absolutely devastating, and Cyrille takes an extended solo as well, and it makes me strongly reconsider my negative stance on drum solos that Claude Delcloo’s clunky playing only reinforced on previous Actuel records.[3]

Right off the bat on “Premonitions” Lyons and Bowie’s hostile interplay has cooled to a much more tandem style and they keep things low key throughout, allowing Silva to absolutely dominate the piece in a way that would never be possible with Taylor bashing away at his piano. Silva gets a characteristically amazing long solo that whets the appetite for his first BYG Actuel record, which was released soon after Other Afternoons. While Silva is the primary focus, Lyons has some particularly beautiful playing himself. He can’t match Arthur Jones in terms of pure melancholy, but he is able to stretch out into that territory in a way that isn’t characteristic of most of his work up to this point in his career.

Lyons’ playing is best characterized as Charlie Parker-esque bebop stretched to fit the wide expanse of free music, and side two opener “However” is basically a loose bop song with free elements. Hell, Silva actually plays a walking bass line for most of this song, and Cyrille focuses his drumming on keeping time rather than adding texture, although he keeps allowing other rhythms in, creating a schizophrenic back beat for Lyons and Bowie. Bowie’s solo in particular is terrific and it puts the lie to the idea that free jazz musicians played out music because they couldn’t really play straight-ahead jazz. Cyrille gets to close out the song with another solo, and his solo is very much a continuation of the song’s primary rhythmic base rather than bringing the whole piece to a halt because he has some unrelated drumming to do.

“My You” is a natural continuation of “However.” Much like side one’s downbeat piece, Silva gets an extended solo early on, although this time around he gets to work in some delightfully shrill stuff with his bow. Cyrille leans heavily on the cymbals here, and his cymbal work is nice and splashy. The horns are mostly absent until the second half, but both Lyons and Bowie absolutely slay. Bowie seems to just instinctively get what Lyons is trying to do with these compositions and his approach to soloing, and his work accentuating Lyons’ solo is absolutely just what the composition needed.

Unlike Silva and Cyrille, Lyons’ involvement with BYG Actuel didn’t really extend past his own album for the label. In fact, Lyons didn’t end up recording as leader again until Riffs in 1980, but from there he managed almost one album a year as leader until his premature death from lung cancer in 1986. In that decade between Other Afternoons and Riffs, he was a major force both in Europe, where he toured frequently with Cecil Taylor, and in the New York loft scene, where he found acclaim with a few ensembles of his own. He was also one of the artists chosen for inclusion in the essential document of loft jazz, the 5LP set Wildflowers. In a crowded field of twenty-two pieces and countless incredible musicians and composers, Lyons’ “Push Pull” stands out. Without BYG Actuel, Lyons may never have gotten the opportunity to make his voice as a composer and leader heard until the loft period.

Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 10: Alan Jack Civilization – Bluesy Mind
Actuel 11: Archie Shepp – Poem for Malcolm
Actuel 12: Alan Silva and His Celestial Communication Orchestra – Luna Surface
Actuel 13: Paul Bley – Ramblin’
Actuel 14: Acting Trio – Acting Trio

[1] One of these performances was documented on the live album Student Studies, released in 1973 by the Japanese arm of the BYG label.
[2] Silva, along with the rest of Shepp’s sextet, found himself in France for the Pan-African Festival right around the same time that the Cecil Taylor Unit arrived.
[3] Cyrille’s grasp of percussive dynamics makes his solo drum outing What About? (Actuel 16) a pretty satisfying listen.

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