Jason Lyon, jazz pianist: Something Else! Interview

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I first saw Jason Lyon at Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec in London. I had gone to see Gareth Lochrane on flutes, as he was guest of the Jason Lyon Trio – which is comprised of Jason on piano, Joel Prime (the Old Avengers, Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet) on drums and Henry Gilbert (jazz re:freshed) on bass. Pretty soon I, along with most of the audience, was enjoying Gareth – but also Jason as he played.

He is an extraordinary piano player, using his own quirkiness of style to introduce a sense of fun, emotion and dexterity. Until recently, Jason Lyon was host to the popular Wednesday slot at the brasserie’s Loft jazz venue, entertaining with his trio and varied guests – including Branden Allen, Gilad Atzmon, Tom Dennis, Ant Law, Dan Oates, Benet Mclean, Kitty La Roar, Ed Jones, Duncan Eagles, Anita Wardell and Vasilis Xenopoulos, to mention only a few of the astounding line-up featured. The guests, of course, played their solo pieces but every time I saw the concept in action, the guest also became part of the trio and augmented it to a quartet with whatever instrument they played.

Jason has a way of drawing in people who play with him, even if he is unaware of it. He is a natural leader of a group, encouraging, nodding, being generous with time given to players and, of course, completely flooring the audience with the depth of his playing abilities. He has a reputation for being just a tad cynical, but beneath the protective veneer his love of music shines through.

The Wednesday first half sessions were often followed by a jam session where audience members could join the band on stage on voice or instruments. These sessions became a six-year institution, with the final session in June of this year. Now, Jason is at something of a pivotal point and there is no doubt this gifted player will find new avenues to explore musically. So before he does, I decided to catch him for an interview.

About his background, Jason Lyon says, “I didn’t come the traditional route, or rather only partially. I started very young on classical music and ground my way up through the grades on piano, violin and clarinet. I got to the able-to-get-around stuff on bass and percussion later on. I got pretty far, and I’ve worked on a great deal since under my own steam, but I didn’t go on to music college. Rather, I took a different path. That did lead to an issue of self-doubt for a while which is not uncommon, so I hear. By that, I mean that without the certificates, I often didn’t feel quite worthy playing with people who had them.

“People’s reactions are funny. They’ll catch you in the break and ask you where you studied and you say you studied languages and international relations,” he adds. “A little bit of light goes out in their eyes. ‘So you’ve got a day job?’ they will ask. ‘Yup, journalism.’ ‘Oh, so you write about music?’ is the next question, inevitably. My response is not as expected. ‘I started off there, but mostly in the political and economic field these days; I just fight crime by night.’ The eyes of the listener grow dimmer. ‘So, music obviously isn’t your entire life,’ and so it goes. You don’t fit into their boxes and in 30 seconds flat, you’ve gone from jazzy cool cat to gray suit in their eyes. Five minutes earlier, they were loving your music. Boxes! Incidentally, music journalism has been a stepping stone for many people. I’ve worked with hard-core Fleet Street politicos who began on the NME.

“I don’t want to denigrate anyone who comes the college route,” Jason Lyon quickly notes. “I’ve played with many of these musicians and I love them to bits. I just recently programmed a mini-festival to feature great players from RAM [the Royal Academy of Music], the Guildhall School, London, Trinity, Leeds – and the capstone for my own residency involved young Tom Ridout, who was an absolute joy to play with. Watch out for him.”

I have to interject here and say that I too watched Tom Ridout play at the final Jason Lyon residency gig, and he is truly a sax player to watch for in the future.

Jason continues, “When I was coming up, you couldn’t do a degree in jazz and even teaching aids like the playalongs and fakebooks hadn’t crossed the pond. If you expressed an interest in jazz, your teacher might put you on a diet of Scott Joplin. They wouldn’t discuss the harmony with you, you just learned it. So you listened a lot, played a lot, made a lot of mistakes, got frustrated and took every chance to buttonhole musicians for advice. Most of them were accommodating, some –and perfectly fairly – didn’t want to spend their break discussing harmonic intricacies. I’ve been in that position since: ‘Hey, loved the way you quoted X on the Yth chorus of Z,’ ‘Did I really? Okay, great. Glad you liked it.’ ‘So, that upper structure line over the bridge …’ ‘Come over and meet the guys.’

“In short, I love music and I’ve worked hard at it, but there are other things I’m also very interested in. I reckon that’s healthy.”

I asked Jason how, then, did he come to start off in jazz? He replied, “Well, when you’re starting off, you don’t take a gig, you make a gig. One of the earliest residencies I had about 25 years ago was a jam and, wow, was I green. It’s a great education: any tune, any key, any style, any tempo. Here’s an original or an arrangement: Fine, count it off. First things first – just try to survive.

“South London was a bit of hotbed of jam sessions at the time. A lot of great players came through that scene and I’m proud to have participated in it,” Jason Lyon adds. “Over the years, jams became something of a specialism. I enjoy the spontaneity and the opportunity to encourage people and bring them on. I also did quite a bit of private teaching and mentoring too.

“This latest [residency] at Toulouse Lautrec ran for something like five years – not a bad age in gig years. Residencies evolve and the line-up and format have changed over time. And, of course, residencies have a natural lifespan.

“I’ve also run and played in trios, small bands, co-run a salsa band, done cabaret shows, some classical stuff and had the Jason Lyon quintet with Ian Bailey on tenor, Dee Byrne on alto (author of “Part II – Belonging” attached below), Sophie Alloway on drums and Alan Gibson on bass. However, there’s something about the jam format, or perhaps at least the spirit of it, that’s always appealed to me. Jamming is in the jazz DNA.”

On recording versus live music Lyon comments, “I’ve done the precision recording thing, but I prefer the live experience, the immediacy, the fact that the music is experienced in the moment and then up into the air it flies. There have been some great recordings, of course, and without them jazz would have probably died – but if you’re a perfectionist, it’s interesting to consider that these classic recordings featuring great players actually contain flubs all over the place.

“I decided to repurchase an early ’90s album recently – usual story, lent it to someone and on it went into the world, in its own sweet way. I won’t mention names but it’s so good (and so discontinued) that I spent a fortune to get it shipped from Germany. The pianist on it is an absolute beast and someone I admire greatly – everyone on the album is, actually – but there’s one number where he’s really struggling to make it against the whip-fast tempo. You look past it. Musicians aren’t machines. Well, not yet.

“Jazz albums have also taken on elements from classical and pop production, often to their detriment I find,” Jason Lyon says. “Overdubbing might be an efficient way to work but it replaces give and take with ‘give and backing track.’ It’s like those classic Deutsche Gramophone recordings; one minute into a symphony there have already been 30 splices. The editing is done incredibly skillfully for the technology of the day, but even if you can’t hear the cuts you can sense the disjointedness. I prefer to keep the spirit and the blemishes – even if the blemishes are mine. The group performance is what it is and I wish people would stop trying to Photoshop music.”

One of the elements of Jason’s evenings are the banter and explanation he gives, or encourages the musicians to give, about the music they are about to play. “The patter stuff is something I grew into,” he says. “I get that some musicians think the music should speak for itself, but jazzers often complain that people don’t get their stuff, so maybe you could tell them about it? This one’s based on that one. This one was written for a film that has nothing to do with jazz whatsoever, the jazzers just liked it. This one was made famous by a pop singer but you’ll never guess how it originally sounded. I wrote this while waiting for a bus with a sore elbow. I’d like to introduce our drummer – it’s a blistering summer night, so he’s wearing shorts … aren’t those fantastic knees? Very rhythmic knees.

“Music is, I believe, a carrier wave for emotion and if the band are having fun, it’ll travel across the air as surely as the notes do. Any good band is ultimately about esprit de corps.”

So, what I wondered influences Jason now. “The honest answer to that question is always going to disappoint: I’m influenced by everyone. Sure, I have my preferences and weaknesses, same as anyone else but I’ve got something from all of them. I don’t actually think I know a musician who could pick a Top 3. A Top 300, maybe.

“I know your interest, Sammy, is more on the free side of things, and that’s an area where I can comment more usefully, hopefully. I actually enjoy freedom within a framework. Bend it, break it, bring it back. Play for a while on the spirit of the tune, explore a bit. Ornettish, you know?

“Just speaking of the pianists for a moment, people like Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew Miller, Geri Allen and Kenny K spring to mind as players who would remake standards in that kind of way,” Jason Lyon adds. “All music is basically a web of interest, tension and release, and the basic cadences and substitutions are only one way to achieve that flow.

“I was lucky to have grown up not thinking Mozart was sweet and Scriabin was weird. It was all music to me. I love classical music. Prokofiev and Stravinsky, in particular, are very interesting from a jazz perspective in terms of their approaches to layered tonality and rhythm. I also occasionally try a bit of sloppy Bachish two or three-part invention; sometimes it works, sometimes it flops.

“Maybe that’s what the free thing is about, in one respect. You want to witness musicians walking a tightrope. The possibility that they occasionally wobble and might be about to fall off adds to the experience. As an improvising musician, your job is to take risks. Disappoint them occasionally, but for goodness’ sake don’t bore them.”

So, what about playing further afield? “There’s a thing going around that I never leave my own post code. Well, sometimes things stick unfortunately. I admit that I do like to choose my projects and I’m not an avid road warrior anymore, yet it’s ironic that when that remark was first put out, I’d just done a sextet special at the Bull’s Head and was making plans to go to Bulgaria for a classical performance. Didn’t have time to ask about Bulgarian post codes.”

With the residency at Toulouse Lautrec just finishing, I wondered what Jason had planned next. “Well, I’m taking a breather,” he answers. “Running a weekly gig and jam does take its toll and I need to recharge just for a bit. And if anybody is thinking, ‘What are you complaining about; I’d kill for that,’ all I can say is: Try it for a couple of years and get back to me.

“The trio’s really firing and the format of the Jason Lyon Trio with a guest firebreather will continue, but jam will be off the menu. The business of pulling rabbits out of a hat is terrific but I think it’s time to apply a bit more focus. There’ll still be rabbits – rabbits are our business, rabbits are what we do. Whether covered in jam or not. In general, there is more to come.”

Like what? “I have other projects on the boil,” Jason says. “For instance, I’ve been involved in some productions recently with a very talented Canadian video maker called Bracken Burns and we’ve got a thing or two on the cards. Not all of them focused specifically on music. I enjoy the creative and logistical challenges against budget and deadline. That’s a hangover from my journo production days. ‘F—, the splash has just fallen over and we’ve got ten minutes to deadline …’ It’s very jazz.”

Jason Lyon has shown me a warmth whenever I have made my way to Toulouse Lautrec and we have developed a banter which not only is friendly but is also a discussion of music at a level which is pretty satisfying. He really, really gets jazz in every concept, free or not. As for feeling slightly inferior with college graduate or people with certificates? That matters not one iota.
So, Jason’s residency at Toulouse Lautrec may have come to a timely end as these things do and must, but I have no doubt that we shall see something more of this talented and interesting player.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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