by Ian Mann
January 25, 2017
An engaging and varied set of original compositions are enhanced by some first rate arrangements and the playing, both individually and collectively, is superb throughout.
The Jeremy Lyons Ensemble
“The Promise Of Happiness”
Jeremy Lyons is a London based saxophonist and composer who obtained a jazz degree at Leeds of College Music before undertaking further studies at Middlesex University. He subsequently played in trios and quartets with pianist Hans Koller and bassist Dave Whitford, also Middlesex alumni and now leading figures on the UK jazz scene.
Lyons then went on to form a new quartet featuring guitarist Ben McDonnell, drummer Buster Birch and bassist Vicky Tilson, the latter a band leader on her own right. This line up recorded the album “Vestige”, released in December 2013.
Lyons has spent time living and working in South Korea and it was this experience that inspired the music to be heard on “The Promise Of Happiness”. The eight individual pieces reference places travelled to and people met and the album was recorded in London over a two day period in May 2015 and was eventually released in December 2016 on Lyons’ own Phia record label. The cover features an image of the Daegu skyline by photographer Jamie Bowlby-Whiting.
“The Promise Of Happiness” is an ambitious recording featuring a stellar, hand picked eleven piece ensemble featuring a number of Lyons’ former associates. It’s ironic that Lyons himself is one of the few musicians in this all star cast whose playing I wasn’t previously familiar with, a situation that has now been happily remedied.
The Jeremy Lyons Ensemble lines up as follows;
Jeremy Lyons – soprano & tenor saxes
Tom Harrison – flute & alto sax
Jon Shenoy – clarinet & tenor sax
Noel Langley – trumpet & flugelhorn
Yazz Ahmed – trumpet & flugelhorn
Patrick Hayes – trombone
Sarah Williams – tuba & bass trombone
Ben McDonnell – guitar
Hans Koller – piano
Dave Whitford – double bass
Buster Birch - drums
The ‘mini big band’ line up offers Lyons a wide range of compositional possibilities and his arrangements are full of rich textures and colourful voicings. There is also scope for some excellent soloing with each piece typically featuring two musicians in this role. The soloists are encouraged to be expansive and there’s some wonderfully fluent and inventive individual playing throughout the album. Meanwhile the ensemble arrangements are focussed and disciplined yet still rich and colourful. This is an album that was obviously a labour of love for Lyons – and it shows.
Lyons cites fellow saxophonists Stan Sulzmann and Mark Lockheart as influences on his composing, both having written for large ensembles. He also mentions the late, great pianist and composer John Taylor as another source of inspiration. Given that Koller and Williams have both worked extensively with Mike Gibbs I’d be surprised if the veteran Rhodesian composer wasn’t also a source of inspiration for Lyons. I certainly fancy that I can hear something of Gibbs’ unique influence in this music.
Despite its being inspired by Lyons’ Korean experiences there’s nothing obviously ‘oriental’ about the music. Neither is there much conventional big band swing, instead we have contemporary large ensemble writing of the type pioneered by Gibbs, Gil Evans and others. Most of the tunes are medium paced beginning with “Tattletale” with its subtle mix of colours and textures and astute blending of high and low register instruments. Engineers Dick Hammett, Alex Bonney and Peter Beckmann aid the music with a pinpoint mix. The featured musicians are Koller on piano with a thoughtful and skilfully constructed solo, and the effortlessly fluent Langley on gently soaring trumpet.
“New Openings” adopts a slightly brisker pace with Whitford on bass initially propelling the band before taking the first full length solo, his playing both resonant and melodic. In a typically colourful arrangement there are brief cameos from several of the instrumentalists but the second major feature goes to the young alto saxophonist Tom Harrison who exhibits a commendable maturity with a carefully crafted solo that gradually increases in pace and intensity.
Lyons himself is the featured soloist on the quietly insistent “Shinbu” where he impresses with his power, imagination and fluency. He more than holds his own in this illustrious company and on this evidence I’d also like to hear his playing and composing in a small group context.
“Disquiet” opens with the sound of Harrison on flute, the subdued opening fanfare subsequently leading to a quirky, Latin tinged number with features for Hayes on warm toned trombone and the versatile Birch, a colourful and imaginative presence throughout the piece, at the drums. Set within the context of the arrangement Birch’s slot is very much a “drum feature” , rather than a solo.
The late trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler has been suggested as an influence on the arrangement of “Upward Lift”, a wholly plausible idea given his close links to Taylor and Sulzmann. A typically multi-faceted composition and arrangement from Lyons includes a distinctive solo from McDonnell and a subtly probing tenor excursion from Shenoy who plays with great assurance, power and fluency.
Introduced by Koller’s unaccompanied piano “So Long, Suwon” is a gentle ballad or lament featuring soft, lush ensemble textures and a delightfully eloquent and lyrical solo from Ahmed on flugelhorn.
As its title suggests “The Promise Of Happiness” is an altogether more optimistic affair with Lyons demonstrating his abilities on soprano with a slippery solo. He’s followed by McDonnell, an imaginative and coolly elegant presence on guitar, and the piece as a whole benefits from a punchy and incisive arrangement.
There’s a suitably warm and nostalgic feel to the closing “Old Haunt Revisited”, a piece incorporating something almost approaching an orthodox big band arrangement at times, but also finding room for an appropriately reflective piano solo from Koller.
All in all I was hugely impressed with this new album from Lyons. An engaging and varied set of original compositions are enhanced by some first rate arrangements and the playing, both individually and collectively, is superb throughout. Admittedly there’s nothing startlingly original here but this is a well crafted album that offers many rewards to the listener. I’m pleased to have discovered the music of Jeremy Lyons and his is a name that I’ll be looking out for in the future.
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