Lyle Mays, the composer, arranger, pianist, and keyboardist of Pat Metheny Group, passed away on February 10, 2020 at the age of 66. On that day, his niece and musician, Aubrey Johnson posted on Lyle Mays’ official Facebook page: “It is with deep sadness that I share that my uncle, Lyle Mays, passed away this morning in Los Angeles surrounded by loved ones, after a long battle with a recurring illness.”
The news was shocking for countless musicians and the global fan community of Pat Metheny Group (PMG), who waited for almost ten years for Lyle’s comeback to the music scene from his semi-retirement. All of sudden, they came to realize how huge his existence was in the music world as they grieved the loss of one of the greatest masters of all time.
Lyle Mays, The Sound Architect of Pat Metheny Group
Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny, the two like-minded mid-Westerners, founded the Pat Metheny Group in 1977 and received sensational responses from both the audiences and the critics.
Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny were both born and grew up in Mid-western rural towns in America. Their environment growing up was not close to the jazz capital, New York City, but they were looking for fresh sounds based on their own cultural identity. They were based on jazz, but rejected any categorization of their genre and started to make their own natural and intelligent, but also limitless and powerful style.
They released Water Colors (ECM, 1977) and Pat Metheny Group (ECM, 1978) received enthusiastic response from both audiences and critics with their obvious, unique style. Lyle’s gospel-flavored humorous melody line and transparent harmonic color was praised for its “crystal clear touch.” Pat’s friendly and memorable guitar melody was praised by Downbeat magazine as “wind blowing through trees”.
Lyle and Pat’s duo album, As Falls Wichita Falls So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM 1981) defined what could be considered a contemporary jazz duo in such an advanced stage. Because all the ECM records’ albums had to be recorded within only two days due to producer Manfred Eicher’s style, Lyle improvised, arranged and orchestrated the album on the fly in the studio. Like the magic of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959, Columbia), this album could have spontaneity and sincerity with an authentic voice and became a timeless masterpiece of our time.
Lyle once mentioned that he listened to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa when he grew up. American Garage (ECM, 1979) had the vibrant energy of American rock, pop, gospel, folk and jazz. Lyle performed with his warm organ on “American Garage” and Oberheim synthesizer on “(Crossing The) Heartland” and “The Search.” Lyle’s Synthesizer work on Joni Mitchell’s live album, Shadows and Light (Asylum, 1980), contributed to the cinematic impact of the masterpiece.
PMG’s Offramp (ECM, 1983) album became another milestone album. Like the title, mysterious nightscape, and sign on the album “Turn Left,” the album art concept symbolized their new radical direction of the album. The blending of Lyle’s orchestrated synth layers and Pat’s dreamy wind-instrument-sounding guitar synthesizer made the album stand as a “one of a kind.” Lyle stated that he designed gradual dramatic explosion like in Bolero music for “Are You Going with Me?” He also composed the beautiful intro and played eloquent and bright piano solo on “James”. They became the group with the most beloved music of all time. Brazilian percussionist and vocalist, Nana Vasconcelos, sang on “Bacarole” and “Au Lait” and he brought a mysterious world music vibe to the group. Offramp earned PMG their first Grammy Award, followed by another Grammy winner with their first live album, Travels in 1984.
First Circle (ECM, 1984) put the group into another realm and distinguished them from any other jazz band on the planet. Jazz was traditionally considered a dark and smoky jazz club culture or a closed mania clique. However, this album presented a more bright and exotic color of nature. PMG always aimed for a relatively small ensemble size, but their orchestral approach started to expand like a mid-large scale jazz big band through Lyle’s compositional architecture.
In 1986, Pat Metheny Group was involved in scoring John Shlegenger’s film, The Falcon and The Snowman (EMI, 1984). Lyle Mays scored the gorgeous Ambrosian boys choir part (conducted by John McCarthy) in the opening track of “Psalm 121/Flight of the Falcon,” and “Epilogue (Psalm 121),” and the orchestration of the rest of the album for National Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Steve Rodby). Overall, Lyle used the sleek, warm and emotional Oberheim synthesizer texture and catch the drum machine sound effectively. The alternative pop nature of the theme song, “This is Not America” with British pop/rock icon, David Bowie and PMG’s sharp accompaniment soon became a Top-40 hit. The final track, “Epilogue (Psalm 121),” was a touching tone poem, reminiscent of “The Bat” from Offramp.
Pat Metheny Group’s first Gold album (sold more than 500,000 copies), Still Life (Talking) (Geffen, 1987) made this instrumental music group an international sensation. The mid-’80s was the time of detent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The power hegemony was divided more multi-directionally rather than bi-directionally. As represented by their free appearance of long hair and blue jeans, PMG became America’s musical ambassadors of reconciliation and cosmopolitan spirit during their extensive world tour through their heartfelt melodies and energetic Brazilian rhythms. Lyle Mays’ soothing and powerful touch on the synth became an amalgam and catalyzer of the variety of the musical elements of the group.
PMG released seven more albums – The Letter from Home (Geffen, 1989), The Road to You (Geffen, 1993), We Live Here (Geffen, 1995), Quartet (Geffen, 1996), Imaginary Day (Warner Bros., 1997), Speaking of Now (Warner Bros., 2002), The Way Up (Nonesuch 2005). Lyle’s ideal combination of tireless technological exploration and musical support made their huge success possible. As a member and co-composer of the group, (“Episode d’Azure” from We Live Here is solely his composition), he won a total of eleven Grammy Awards.
Lyle Mays, The Creative Artist
Lyle Mays was known as one of the first artists and sound designers to most musically start using polyphony synthesizers. His atmospheric exploration in new sonic texture became a significant hallmark of his innovative works for almost four decades. Later he was also involved in developing the synth sounds of Kurzweil and Korg because of his knowledge of computer languages.
Lyle Mays released his first album Lyle Mays in 1985. There were the Lab ’74 and Grammy-nominated Lab ’75 with the One O’clock Lab Band from his alma mater, University of North Texas (UNT), with his compositions and arrangements.
However, this was his first album to show his own idiosyncratic color not being a part of the PMG. The first track, “Highland Aire,” shines with its blended pure Scottish vibe and Brazilian rhythm. After his piano solo section, Lyle developed a dramatic and poetic transformation rather than simply going back to the original theme. For many music fans, the last track, “Close to Home,” became the most haunting ballad that had ever existed. The Brazilian singer “Zizi” Possi and American R&B funk group, Earth Wind and Fire made reinterpreted versions of it later.
In 1988, Lyle Mays released his second solo album, Street Dreams. He stated that he spent a lot of time orchestrating and arranging the album. The first track, “Feet First,” featured the studio drumming legend, Steve Gadd, and was dedicated to the jazz rock duo, Steely Dan. Its groovy rhythm and stylish horn arrangements showed he was no stranger to the humorous and exciting energy of the legendary band. “August” was a sweet tune dedicated to Lyle’s grandfather with the same name. “Newborn” was a soulful lyricism that featured his gorgeous synth layers. A suite of “Street Dreams” was related to new experimental music that Lyle was exploring at the time.
Lyle’s third solo album, Fictionary, (Geffen, 1993) was more about an untraditional concept of music with a traditional jazz piano trio format. His musical hero, Bill Evans’ former band members, Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Marc Johnson (bass) joined the ensemble. Marc Johnson was also Lyle’s fellow UNT alumnus who played for the One O’Clock Lab Ensemble. Lyle stated his music on this album was influenced by the contemporary jazz pianists who moved him the most, like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Paul Bley. However, he dedicated “Bill Evans” to the legendary artist, as he did on “September Fifteenth,” for the former duo album with Pat Metheny, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, and “Mirror of Heart” for his first solo album, Lyle Mays.
On his last solo album, Improvisations for Expanded Piano (Warner Bros., 2000), Lyle experimented on a combination of intuitive improvisations, synthesis of tonal possibility between acoustic and electronic effects, and orchestral expansion in a wide ambience with Yamaha’s cutting-edge technology, “Disklavier MIDI acoustic piano system.” Lyle presented his deep, impressionistic, elegant piano solo on “Let Me Count The Ways” and his breathtakingly gorgeous and dreamy soundscape on “Long Life” .
Lyle Mays also composed for children’s audio books, The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher & The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1988), East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1991), Moses the Lawgiver (1993), The Lion and the Lamb (1996), and worked with PMG bassist and producer, Steve Rodby, and the drummer of Lyle’s band, Mark Walker, from Rabbit Ear Productions. He created cinematic orchestral music, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s color, blended with his unique contemporary jazz elements. His gorgeous and exquisite scores perfectly fit the soothing stories and lovely pictures.
HIs other notable collaborative works included Steve Swallow’s Home (ECM, 1980), Eberhard Weber’s Later That Evening (ECM, 1982), Pedro Aznar’s Contemplación, (EMI, 1984), Mark Isham’s original score for the movie “Mrs. Soffel” (starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson) in 1984 (later released by Windham Hill, 1985), Paul McCandless’ Premonition (Windham Hill, 1992), Nando Lauria’s Points of View, (Narada, 1994), Noa’s Noa (Geffen, 1994), and his original score for Mustang: The Hidden Kingdom (TV Movie documentary) in 1994.
Lyle Mays’ Immortal Legacy
Even though there are countless jazz pianists influenced by Bill Evans like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Rich Beirach, Kenny Werner, Fred Hersch, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Geoff Keezer, many music listeners consider Lyle Mays a true successor of Bill Evans at best. He carried on his aesthetics of impressionistic subtlety and ambience with a contemporary musical language in the most advanced form, sound, and context that the broad audience could appreciate as the art of today. In the public’s eyes, he was mostly quiet and peaceful, but his existence in the music world was immense.. Many musicians stated that his music had changed their lives forever and his passing also opened a new door into the next chapter of their lives.
Lyle always asked “why not?” and rebelled against the mannerisms of the norms. At the same time, he always thought about “how?”: How to deliver music to the audience in the highest level of emotional experience? How to blend multiple elements, technology, and new sounds in as musical a way as possible? How can we build structures and drama in music as a compositional art in the most poetic way?.
Not many jazz composers and arrangers were able to reach Lyle’s level of proficiency. He wanted to deal with longer forms rather than the simplistic jazz song forms. He blended jazz as an improviser’s art and dramatic compositional concepts in jazz as the European classical music tradition had established over the centuries.
He tried to communicate with audiences and solve the old problems of the jazz composition traditions. There were problems that couldn’t be resolved easily by players just blowing out their rhythm and brass sections and conventional chord changes. The solo content of many jazz musicians was based on their prepared patterns, scale theories, and a meaningless bunch of licks. Many of them sounded like they were playing in a sports competition. Lyle tried to solve these issues by balancing lyrical aesthetics of improvisation with his sophisticated design.
As a result, the broad audience opened their hearts to a new music and sounds they had been wishing to hear for a long time. Lyle invited listeners to just walk into a world that he had painstakingly created with his fearless talent. Whether a musician or non-musician, music mania or casual listener, the audiences sang along and danced in their hearts with PMG’s quality music that was contributed by Lyle, at the group’s center. His powerful music elevated the value of the audience’s lives and went beyond the borders, regardless of their culture, gender, skin color, or ideology.
As time goes by, Lyle’s achievements will come into the light in the world even more. People will come to know what an advanced inventor and original thinker he was. Lyle was an inspired artist who changed the world and made it an even better place.
Rest in Peace, Lyle Mays. The Quiet Revolutionist.
by Jinho Choi