on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2020 19 Feb

RIP Lyle Mays

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | Tags:  5 Comments

I am still pretty broken up about the loss of Lyle Mays, a true innovator on keyboards, a gifted arranger and composer, and when at the piano, a formidable and expressive melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic master on the instrument. He was one of my musical heroes.

There is no doubt in my mind that while Pat Metheny was the frontman and “star” of the Pat Metheny Group, it was Lyle Mays who added that special secret ingredient. His distinctive gifts helped catapult the band to major international success and achieve that rarified level of music making for which it became known.

The chemistry between Metheny and Mays was entirely unique. While it is not uncommon for jazz musicians to forge long-term associations, Metheny and Mays were also a writing team, something common in the pop world but almost unheard of in the jazz idiom. When they would perform together in the middle of PMG’s epic three-hour shows, one could hear them finishing one another’s musical sentences—-two musical minds in perfect sync, acting as one. As a writing team, they were truly the Lennon/McCartney of jazz. While Metheny’s compositions without Lyle’s input were always solid, there was something ineffable and synergistic about this collaboration. In fact, I used to call the Pat Metheny Group the Beatles of jazz. Anyone who caught them, especially in those early years, knows exactly what I mean. From the first few bars of “Phase Dance,” their ritual opener for many years, the excitement in the audience was more akin to what one would expect at a concert of a great rock band than a conventional jazz group. But then, they were anything but conventional in their approach.

Lyle Mays clearly owed a lot to the jazz greats who came before him—-he had a particularly close musical affinity with Bill Evans. You could hear it not only in his lyricism, but also in the way he pushed and pulled at the time with his over-the-bar phrasing, something Evans pursued and perfected over the entire course of his career.

During his career, Mays only produced four solo albums, each one well worth tracking down. That first album, “Lyle Mays,” is a marvelous example of his compositional mastery, his personal approach to orchestration using his trademark synth sounds, and his exquisitely sensitive piano touch. I consider it to be a desert island record.

Although Lyle stopped performing around 2011, there was a more recent surprise release of a live quartet two-disc album recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany back in 1993. It’s a near-audiophile recording and, devoid of synths, the set really illustrates just what a resourceful pianist Mays truly was. Some jazz snobs criticized Lyle’s playing in PMG as too “rhapsodic” due to his tendency to play solos that often built up to large chordal climaxes. One listen to this live album dispels any false notions regarding his line playing. Mays had obviously absorbed the entire history of jazz, up to and through bebop and beyond, and went on to effortlessly augment that vocabulary with rock, gospel, R&B, Afro Cuban, world, and classical influences. When I was a young player, I was amazed how he managed to inject Floyd Cramer and Vince Guaraldi licks into his solos—-the essence of heartland America—-and somehow it all fit beautifully. For these reasons, his music speaks to a wider audience than most mainstream jazz musicians are able to reach.

For over a decade it was a mystery why Lyle dropped out of the music world to pursue a career as a music software product specialist. There was much speculation. Pat Metheny, respecting Lyle’s privacy, only said Lyle was “enjoying his civilian life” away from the rigors of constant touring. All of this may be true, but we now know Lyle was dealing with a long-term recurring illness, which may have contributed to his decision to stop performing. One thing is certain: Lyle Mays’s music has made an indelible mark on our musical culture, one that went far beyond the insular world of jazz to inspire a multitude of fans and musicians (the latter often his most ardent fans.) The universal spirit and depth of Lyle’s generous heart, distilled in every single note, touched us all.

This entry was posted on Mittwoch, 19. Februar 2020 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Motti P:

    Every word you wrote spoke for me as well – thank you


    PS and this time I’ve signed my comment and I’m sharing

  2. Valeria Sapiain:

    Beautifully expressed, you speak for me as well, thank you for sharing these thoughts

  3. Jan Reetze:

    I couldn’t say it better. Thanks, Brian.

  4. Brian Whistler:

    Thanks all. It is a great loss.

  5. Sonator:

    This is a moving orbituary

    If there is a keyboard player on my Metheny albums, it is Lyle Mays

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