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 tried replacing him, but soon backed off to a trio, solos, and one-shots with Europe’s top avant-gardists. Even though Lyons recorded a handful of albums under his own name, the few people who know of him know him through Taylor. The relationship between 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 his propensity for seeing 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 that the essential lesson Lyons took from Parker was to keep pushing harder and faster.
The fourth disc features 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 the 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 Raphe 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’s 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 Cecil Taylor fans who care about that space.