For Darren Lyons, exploration of the world of jazz is as much a personal journey as it is a journey for the art itself. The drummer and percussionist describes himself as an artist who can stay true to the roots of jazz while still pushing the boundaries of genre.
"I feel there are things in jazz that have to be maintained," Lyons said, "but my interest in all other styles has led me to become adventurous and able to play multiple styles."
He has been in the vanguard of New York City jazz for 15 years. In 1996, he formed his eponymous Darren Lyons Group, which got its start at The Knitting Factory. Until 2004, the group held the coveted Saturday night slot at the Tap Bar. Lyons, who is fresh off the release of his fourth album, Evil Genius, is now taking a fresh crop of talented musicians to play at B.B. King's famed Lucille's Grill in New York. The group will make their debut there in an 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. gig on Friday, August 5.
Lyons is no stranger to the New York jazz scene. He recalled the era of the late 70s and 80s, calling it "an ideal moment to see many different styles of music by tremendous players." But these days, the boundaries of genre aren't always as easy to cross. "I still believe there are very good players in NYC today, but I feel fewer are taking chances musically," he said, attributing the situation partly to a public that would sometimes rather stand by the comfortable and the familiar. "Times change, and I think jazz purists sometimes inhibit the growth of the art form." It's all a careful balancing act. "We have to keep this music socially relevant and let it move forward," he said.
Lyons assembled a core of kindred spirits for the Lucille's gig. "The whole group has 'big ears,' and we all love similar music, which also tends to make a more cohesive end result," he said. Two of the members - Chad McLoughlin on guitar and Skip Ward on bass - are Darren Lyons Group veterans who played with Lyons on Evil Genius. Chris Clark, the keyboard player, is the newcomer, but Lyons said you wouldn't know it by the way he plays. "During my ten years playing with Chad and Skip, we have been able to develop a telepathy and radar which makes it a lot of fun. This is true of Chris Clark too, who is new but a great fit," Lyons said. "Playing with this live unit really is one of the best I have assembled. I have always been fortunate to play with guys I feel possess a greater vocabulary than myself musically, and this current lineup is by far the best in my career. I selected this lineup because of the balance it brings to the music."
And they're only getting started. There will be audio and video recordings of their Lucille's set, and Lyons said he plans to release a live CD with the group as they perform around the city. They're also looking into returning to Lucille's in October.
As if Lyons isn't busy enough, this winter he's headed for the studio with Ward, guitarist David Phelps, keyboardist Adam Holzman and a few others to produce a new Darren Lyons Group album.
The music of the Darren Lyons Group is available on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, Abstractlogix.com, and his own website, www.darrenlyons.com. Lyons can also be heard on WBGO 88.3 FM, the world's largest jazz station, which has been playing his latest acoustic release, Three Trios.
For now, Lyons said he hopes his musical journey will allow him to continue to work with great musicians in great recordings and live performances. He said he's also always keeping an eye out for new talent and having them join his group to continue to advance the art form. Of course, that is the whole meaning of the journey, for him and for jazz. "I suspect we will continue to see musicians break musical walls down as they have done," he said. "I have faith."