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Paul Lytton : Reliability, Sensitivity, Creativity

Drummer/percussionist Paul Lytton is one of those musicians who have all of the earmarks of a subversive musical scout. He is reliable, dependable, incredibly sensitive to different musical situations, and constantly inventive, whether he uses his electric percussion or basic drum kit. He constantly reinvents his playing while he nurtures his own formidable style.

One of the most outstanding new music piano trios in recent years is Lytton’s trio with bassist Barry Guy and pianist Marilyn Crispell. On their new disc, Ithaca (Intakt), Lytton rides the tides of Barry Guy’s compositions, which in turn are stormy and “eye of the hurricane” calm. Although much of the music is composed, there is a lot of room for improvisation, and Lytton handles both with color and aplomb.

As Bill Shoemaker says in downbeat magazine, Lytton’s playing is often “flinty” here, and this trait helps to add much color and shading to Guy’s compositions. For example, on “Fire and Ice”, which is in itself a roller-coaster ride, Lytton indeed plays with fire in the raucous parts, but, with his use of sensitive colors, never allows himself to overtake the music. In the slower, more melodic parts, his punctuation and willingness to softly shade Marilyn Crispell’s playing is the most subtle kind of power there is.

One of the reasons for Lytton’s involvement with Guy is his long-standing trio with the bassist and saxophonist Evan Parker. He has made many recordings with this trio throughout the past 20 or so years, and his latest, although actually a quintet with pianist Sten Sandell and guitarist David Stackenas (both from Sweden), on Gubbröra (Psi), proves Lytton’s resourcefulness. To meld with the colors of the unusual quintet with acoustic guitar and piano, Lytton offers open high hats, brassy cymbals, and responses that underlay the music instead of attempting to dominate it. To Lytton, a drummer’s role is to complement others as a team player. He obviously does so here.

Last year, an illness in the family made it essential for Barry Guy to bow out of a U.S. tour with the trio, so Evan Parker hired his long-time friend and associate in the Schlippenbach Trio, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, to take Guy’s place for the tour in late 2003. The resulting recording, America 2003 (Psi), again shows Lytton’s inventiveness within a fresh setting.

As Lytton was a substitute for Schlippenbach Trio drummer Paul Lovens in a late-1990s tour, he already knows his role within this volatile trio. Here, as Lovens would relentlessly drive the trio with a volley of toms and sharp cymbal shadings, Lytton propels the music with an almost swing feel, which complements Schlippenbach’s Monk influence throughout. Probably the most outstanding among many fine moments is Lytton’s duo with Parker on “I Had a Friend Among the Angels”. Here, Lytton underpins Parker’s formidable tenor with flurries of skins, wood, and cymbals. The live recordings, which are quite good for location recordings, show the strength of this great trio.

Lytton can also acquit himself quite well with another drummer. One of the last dates of the Parker/Schlippenbach/Lytton trio involved a sextet with Peter Brötzmann’s trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake at Victoriaville’s annual festival. Of course, Brötzmann, Parker, and Schlippenbach together go back many years. Therefore, artistic director Michel Levasseur’s idea made for a welcome collaboration.

Although much of this disc, entitled The Bishop’s Move (Victo), features each trio in bold relief, the moments with the double trio often shine, as Lytton works underneath and through Drake, who, even at his most free moments, can emit a beautiful earthy funkiness. This wondrous contrast is perhaps best illustrated at around the 35-minute mark in this glorious 73-minute improvisation.

Lytton’s first meeting with Norway’s Paal Nilssen-Love on Ken Vandermark’s Map Theory (Okka Disk), a large “Territory Band” outing, is amazing. The two really meld beautifully here, whether it is on the Beefheartian moments of the first piece, “A Certain Light”, or the twisted swing on “Towards Abstraction”, which also features a rousing solo by trumpeter Axel Dörner. Lytton has performed much with Vandermark now (with this ensemble, a duo, and separate trios with Paul Lovens and Kent Kessler), and their association has resulted in some fresh, inventive moments.

Paul Lytton continues to grow with his playing through middle age, and there seems to be no end to the new ground he uncovers with each new recording. According to Vandermark in his liner notes to Map Theory, “Paul could be easily one of the major ‘free jazz’ drummers on the scene today, if he wanted.” It’s time to give this brazen musical scout the solid credit that he has deserved for quite some time now.