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Jimmy Lyons’ Other Afternoons Gets Another Listen

The alto saxophonist’s 1969 debut deserves one—and then another

Jimmy Lyons in 1966
Jimmy Lyons at the recording session for Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, 1966 (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

Jimmy Lyons had a beautiful and penetrating alto sound: warm, round, slightly bitter. In his lifetime, he mostly put that miraculous sound in service of his master Cecil Taylor, an act of devotion that may have obscured just how great Lyons really was.

His first record as a leader, Other Afternoons, is a comparatively rare example of Lyons away from the Taylor fold. It remains an extraordinary document, one of the most poetic examples of the aggressive “new thing” that dominated critical conversations of the era. Cut in August 1969 in Paris for BYG Actuel, it was part of a weeklong BYG recording marathon that resulted in a dozen important releases by the likes of Andrew Cyrille, Grachan Moncur, Archie Shepp, Alan Silva, Dave Burrell, Sunny Murray, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Silva and Cyrille had been playing with Lyons in the Cecil Taylor Unit, while Lester Bowie was borrowed from the Art Ensemble. Together Lyons, Bowie, Silva, and Cyrille make for an unruly yet spacious quartet. Some of the other BYG Actuel dates are pretty dense, but Other Afternoons has relaxed breadth and depth.

The composed melodies Lyons brought to the date would have been convincing on their own, but the way Lyons and Bowie phrase them “together” is smeary high art. The long alto solo on the title tune is simply marvelous. Lyons is a brainy player, his notes are securely atonal and always “complex,” but he also uses plenty of motivic development and blues intonation to tell a soulful story. Bowie is similarly theatrical, with cascades of incendiary notes offset by simple trumpet fanfares and even vocal utterances. (“Did you see that? Did you see that? What?!?”) Occasionally one of the frontline players appears while the other is blowing to improvise in the old New Orleans style. It’s up to the bass and drums to provide ferocious rubato drive, and Silva and Cyrille are certainly up to the task, melting the “beat” backwards and forwards at the same time.

The mysterious “Premonitions” is like disjunct European chamber music, featuring unresolved questions from the two horns and a substantial cadenza for Silva. Unexpectedly, “However” is almost a traditional swinger, apparently Lyons’ take on hard bop. After the thrilling head, Silva walks and Cyrille swings underneath alto and trumpet solos of desolate beauty. Lyons is closer to Charlie Parker than Ornette Coleman in overall affect, but in its way “However” is delightfully Coleman-esque, with singing phrases that turn unexpected harmonic directions while remaining bluesy as hell. Bowie’s confident preach at midtempo makes for an excellent blindfold test. “However” transitions seamlessly into the closer “My You,” which dissolves into more Silva chaos before closing with a heartbreaking horn hymn over groaning arco accompaniment; perhaps a tribute to Albert Ayler? 

Lyons told Robert Levin, “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.” Other Afternoons goes from ancient to the future and back with rough finesse and measured joy. I’ve owned my copy for decades; it’s one of those LPs that just gets better and better with time.


Further Listening

Jimmy Lyons/Sunny Murray with John Lindberg: Jump Up/What to Do About (hat Hut, 1981)—A good live date with a generous serving of unfettered alto.

Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set (Ayler, 2003)—A huge trove of singular music including lively performances from Lyons’ long-term collaborator, bassoonist Karen Borca.

Cecil Taylor Unit: Akisakila (Trio, 1973)—The Taylor trio with Lyons and Cyrille was one of the pianist’s greatest groups, and this Japanese concert is a telling document of peak intensity.

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.