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Lyle Mays – Composer, Arranger, Producer and Keyboardist, Part One

Issue 144

It’s been a year and a half since we lost the brilliant composer, arranger and keyboardist Lyle Mays. While he had avoided the limelight during the last phase of his life, working quietly as a music software manager, his work lives on in the small number of recordings he made under his own name, in his gigs as an arranger, producer and occasional sideman, and as well as being a founding member of the Pat Metheny Group, working with Metheny through the Group’s epic final recording, The Way Up.

Lyle grew up in poverty in rural Wisconsin, taking piano and guitar lessons from willing instructors who saw his potential. His ability to improvise began almost after he started playing the instruments – he didn’t consider it a talent that needed to be learned, as he thought that was the way music was typically performed. Indeed, many of his solos are more like improvised compositions, with thematic development and a specific endpoint in mind.

Lyle first met Pat Metheny at a summer music camp and, when the two attended the same university, the seeds were sown for their musical careers both together and separately. Lyle would play on all of the Pat Metheny Group albums, one of Pat’s solo albums (Secret Story), a duo recording with Pat (As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls), and remain a close lifelong friend even after Lyle retreated from the music business.

Lyle was a complex individual, very mathematically and logically inclined. It was reflected in his compositions as well as his other passions in life. He was a lifelong fan of LEGO bricks, and had a room in his home dedicated to some of his creations. Because he liked building with LEGO, he also found success as an amateur architect, having designed a home for his sister. He easily solved Rubik’s Cube, and was excellent at games like billiards. It’s no surprise that he enjoyed working with computers and software.

Thankfully, towards the end of his life, Lyle was once again interested in recording music. While we will never see an entire final album from Lyle, his final work is the composition “Eberhard,” which was released this past Friday, August 27, 2021.

In Part One of our Lyle Mays series, we’ll take a look at recordings of his through the decades, including his earliest. Part Two will cover interesting recordings throughout the years that Lyle was involved with in one way or another.

To start, the following is one of the earliest recordings of Lyle Mays’ work. The Lab 75 album by the North Texas State University Lab Band has a couple of noteworthy distinctions. First, it was the first album by this organization that would feature arrangements written by only one person – Lyle Mays. Second, it was the first college/university lab band album to be nominated for a Grammy. Lyle wrote all the arrangements, and penned all but one of the tunes, the oddball being a Chick Corea composition. Lyle is featured on piano, Rhodes and Clavinet on the album. At about the five minute mark in the video below, Lyle is featured on a Rhodes solo.

 

While Lyle first recorded with Pat Metheny on his Watercolors album, the first time many of us heard Lyle Mays was from the lead-off track of the self-titled 1978 Pat Metheny Group album, “San Lorenzo.” I chose this tune since the original recording highlights a great solo by Lyle*. He has said numerous times in interviews that he considers himself more a composer than a jazz musician, and this tune is a great showcase for his style of improvising. (*YouTube has none of the ECM albums available for streaming so, for the next few videos, I have reverted to using live versions. You can follow along with the Qobuz playlist posted at the end of the article, which features the original ECM recordings.)

 

Three years after the eponymous Pat Metheny Group album, Pat and Lyle went into a studio to record as a duo. The tune “It’s For You” on this album marks the first composition Pat and Lyle wrote together, years prior to recording the album. For me, the highlight of this album is “September Fifteenth.” During the recording sessions, pianist Bill Evans passed away, and this tune was their tribute/eulogy for Evans. It’s quiet, reverent, and lovingly rendered by the duo. Despite Pat’s fine work on this piece, it’s Lyle’s section in the final half of the tune that may perhaps be the standout of his many recordings. Unfortunately, this performance is not available on YouTube, but here is a live version of the same track. (My Qobuz playlist features the correct version.)

 

“The First Circle,” the title tune from the PMG’s final album with ECM, is an epic moment as well. The tune is mostly in an 11/4 time signature, and Lyle devised the hand claps at the beginning, notable for the mathematical idea behind them. (The handclaps are the inverse of the “pulsing” beat throughout the tune.) The original version appears in the Qobuz playlist, so my placeholder this time is the live version from the Pat Metheny Group album The Road to You.

 

In 1986, Lyle released his self-titled first album. Perhaps his most revered and beautiful composition appears at its closing: “Close to Home.” It had its roots in a tune he named “Mars.” Of the tunes in his solo catalog, this is the one that may be the most covered. Even Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire was enamored of it, and Lyle worked with Maurice to arrange a version of the tune that became an interlude on their Heritage album from 1990. Here is Lyle’s version.

 

Lyle’s second album Street Dreams, from 1988, picks up where his first one left off, progressing his style even further. Highlights include “Possible Straight” which adds a big band to the mix, an echo of his past work with the NTSU One O’Clock Lab Band. The partially-orchestrated “Street Dreams” suite names the album. “August” pays tribute to his grandfather. The following is an easygoing favorite of mine from the album, which is reminiscent of his work with the Pat Metheny Group. Here is “Before You Go.”

 

Lyle’s third album, Ficitionary (1992), was a total departure from the style of his first two. This one was a straight-ahead jazz date with Marc Johnson on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The tunes are all originals. The album leads off with a fitting tribute to Bill Evans, and goes far afield with a duo of spontaneous “free” jazz tracks. The tune “Hard Eights” sums up the album quite well, allowing plenty of space for all three in the trio to expand.

 

The following album, Solo: Improvisations for Expanded Piano from 2000, is an interesting departure. While one hears influences of both classical and jazz here, it could also pass for ambient or new age. These were sketches that grew into improvised compositions in the studio, Lyle recording the piano to tape as well as MIDI, after which he composed orchestrations that were performed on synthesizers to accompany his improvisations. This is “We Are All Alone” from that album.

 

Finally, here is Lyle’s new recording, “Eberhard,” which became available this past Friday (August 27) on CD, vinyl, download and streaming. Anyone who is a fan of Lyle’s music will enjoy this fascinating new release. If I had to describe the style of “Eberhard,” it is a cross between his first two albums (Lyle Mays and Street Dreams) with touches of the final Pat Metheny Group album, The Way Up, and a sprinkling of the ECM Records aesthetic. It is very much a Lyle Mays work melodically, a long-form composition presented in sections.

In addition to Lyle’s piano and synthesizers, bassist Steve Rodby produced the track, and a cast of well-known musicians (including Lyle’s niece Aubrey Johnson on featured vocals, Bob Sheppard, Bil Frisell, Alex Acuña, Jimmy Johnson, Mitchel Forman and others) take part to create a broad, almost orchestral sound. The tune’s composition and arrangement also evokes the tune’s honored namesake, bassist Eberhard Weber, and the sound he created on his many ECM Records albums. (The vocals on this track remind me of Weber’s Fluid Rustle album, and the low-key marimba that opens the tune echoes a melody of sorts that is reminiscent of so many of Weber’s unique solos over the years.) Enjoy!

 

Here is Lyle’s obituary in the Green Bay Press Gazette.

A companion Qobuz playlist highlighting most of the music in this Lyle Mays feature can be found here:

https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/6696534

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