Lyle, Interrupted

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.

3 Replies to “Lyle, Interrupted”

  1. Avatarbenjohnson

    I had Street Dreams inflicted on me and I actively avoided him. My loss. A listen to The Ludwigsburg Concert flipped my opinion of him right around.

  2. Avatarpanatomic

    i had the pleasure of seeing the premiere of american garage in a small theater in september 1979. the band had been off since the album was released and my college traded them our theater for rehearsals in return for them opening the tour there. lyle co-wrote that album with pat. it was one of the greatest concerts of my life and i’ve seen everybody from led zep to leonard bernstein.

  3. AvatarJohn McMillin

    From their first albums, I considered Lyle to be Pat’s equal in all respects. When I think back to the ECM era, the first thing I hear is Lyle’s synth tone bubbling up with a big fat back rub of warm sound. Then Metheny’s guitar enters, like a swarm of butterflies in musical Teletubby Land. That sound could have been sickeningly sweet, but there was so much composition, dynamics and musicality that the tunes never grow old. The name was Pat, but the music wasn’t. (If you think it’s simple, just try to play it!)

    Mays was first and still best at drawing human emotion out of synth keyboards. And he was doing all the coding himself, so no one had heard those timbers and tones before. My enduring image of live PMG shows includes an apple Power Book atop his Steinway Grand, something you just didn’t see in 1980. On the otehr corned of the piano was an autoharp. It all made a powerful, hopeful statement about the positive possibilities of man and machine.

    Mays had it all: great melodies, dazzling keyboard skills, inventiveness, wit, romanticism, drama. But the jazz world turned during the 1980s, as traditionalists like Wynton moved in to reclaim jazz from the kind of longhaired electric players who previously cashed in the Blues for Rock ‘n Roll. In a 2015 JazzIz interview, Lyle acknowledged his troubles with the Jazz Police, poor solo reviews and slow album sales. He doubted there would be another, saying “funding is the issue.” There’s a tragic side to this story, I feel, of a career interrupted.

    Lyle was the most indispensable member of the Pat Metheny Group. His death remind me how I’ve already been missing him for many years.


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