To entirely misquote Prince Hal, I could have better spared a better-known musician. Lyle Mays died yesterday, after what his niece called “a long battle with a recurring illness”. Just how long of a battle? It is not possible to know, although perhaps there is a hint of it in the interview section of a 1994 Pat Metheny Group DVD in which Mays says, “I think a lot… about time… and what to do with the time I have.” Mays was forty-one years old at the time; the comment came off as an uncomfortable mix of ego and baked-in oddity. In retrospect, perhaps it was merely a statement of fact from a man who knew he had an expiration date.
Nate Chinen provides a good summary of Lyle’s career in this obituary. Like Lennon and McCartney, the partnership of Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny produced music that was arguably better-realized and more interesting than anything either of them could do alone. Without Mays, Metheny tends to degenerate into endless fusillade runs of chromatic scales; without Metheny, Mays created music that was often hugely “outside” and which required tremendous effort to absorb and understand. As an early and enthusiastic adopter of digital synths, Mays recorded a lot of stuff which sounds awfully dated to our modern ears. His Street Dreams album is an utter tour de force, unfortunately undermined to a considerable extent by the fact that those same synth tones appeared in a lot of instantly-forgettable trash pop. A contemporaneous reviewer archly trashed the man’s entire oeuvre as “so much talent, saying nothing” — and the slur stuck in the minds of many listeners.
With that said, Mays’ eponymous solo record still holds up. His interaction with Bill Frisell and Marc Johnson offers some insight into just how much Pat Metheny might have been more of a hindrance to Mays’ ideas than a help. I’ve probably written a half-million words or more with this music in the background. Which doesn’t make it “background music”. Not to me, at least.
I had the pleasure of seeing Mays perform live with the Pat Metheny Group on five or six occasions. The most memorable of which was probably the Georgetown stop for the 2005 “The Way Up” tour. It was arguably the most competent and musically interesting version of the PMG since the original Mehteny/Mays/Egan/Gottlieb quartet, with Antonio Sanchez replacing Paul Wertico and Richard Bona taking the focus off Steve Rodby’s never-exactly-great bass work. I figured the boys were at the top of their game and would be for years — but Lyle left after that tour and did not return. It was a blow from which Metheny’s stage and studio efforts never recovered. Life’s like that sometimes. You don’t always know just how little time you have left. Maybe Lyle did know, after all. I will miss him, now that he is gone.