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Lyle Mays - Part One

What if you were to look beyond the obvious of what you normally do each day, and learned to see beyond? What if your mind and ears were always open, yet you stayed deeply focused and unwavering from your concentration on the moment?

Lyle Mays pulled that which was not obvious and created the improvised compositions of his long awaited new album, "Solo - Improvisations for Expanded Piano." At the same time, Mays has accomplished what he has always done with the Pat Metheny Group: surprised us, baffled, mystified, intrigued and inspired us.

Extremely intelligent, articulate, insightful and thoughtful in nature, yet with energy, soul and a quirky sense of humor, Mays is also principled. This is evident in his attitude about the absence of the monumental works of Weather Report and others from the recent Ken Burn's Jazz documentary, which overlooked all of jazz guitar [save Wes and Jim Hall] the organ groups, the avant-garde, fusion and the 1970’s altogether.

Listening to Mays, you hear the strains and references of the contrapuntal music tradition of Europe, while using the unconventional context of high energy and real-time improvisation. All the traditional techniques, far older than the jazz idiom with which he is most closely associated, are continuously reworked, re-invented and used to great effect in the PMG [hey, long hair is still long hair].

Upon hearing Mays latest album, it will come as no surprise that his interests extend beyond music, least of all his interest in architecture [particularly Frank Lloyd Wright], having designed his sister's home. The similarity in his creation of both abstract design and structure is clear. This is what Mays is all about: creating structure from the new, to the old and back again. It's all relative. Mays makes it very clear that you can get to and from anywhere, doing it in an imaginative way.

Though an integral part of the Pat Metheny Group for over a generation, Lyle Mays' primary focus remains in composition and arrangement, sifting for what's new and unusual and presenting it in ever more creative ways. While Metheny is the obvious predominant force in the group, it's Mays and the band’s setting that supports Metheny’s brilliance, allowing PMG to shine as well as it does. Vice versa, it's symbiotic as the best, most lasting, and timeless collaborations.

Some of the most talented and underrated composers and improvisers remain so, partly due to the lack of a need to strive for attention, in a business where that could easily keep a career from even starting. Between the endless touring and thinking outside the box with the PMG, Mays recently managed to release his fourth solo recording, which is truly a solo piano excursion. Yet in its own way, it is as ambitious an album as Mays has done to date. It’s anything but a traditional piano album, as it was mostly improvised. At times there are as many as a hundred tracks flowing in and out of the audible range, yet what is heard is the central instrument with influences ranging from Evans and Jarrett to Stravinsky, Ravel and Berg, as only Mays could direct.

May’s first self-titled album remains a testament to creativity and nuance in the pursuit of evocation of mood and imagery. The casting of impressionists Bill Frisell, Billy Drews and others was almost as much a part of the compositional process for this music as the scores themselves. They were trusted to carry out a very unique and specific vision. With Frisell again employed as foil, this continued into Mays’ next release, "Street Dreams," where Lyle really shines in the extensions and answers of what the first release posed and promised.

This brings us to "Fictionary," Mays’ previous release with the interactive brilliance of Jack Dejohnette and Marc Johnson, as untraditional a trio recording, as you are likely to find. Finally, "Solo," a somewhat misunderstood recording of brilliance, release, exposure, confrontation and dark beauty, where Mays allows psyche and sensibility, soul vs. symmetry, and precision to travel across the keyboard in an improvised, real-time journey of personal discovery.

Among the other notable projects Lyle has been involved with are the score to "Falcon and the Snowman," Steve Swallow’s ‘Home," Rickie Lee Jones’ "Girl at Her Volcano," and Eberhard Weber’s, "Later That Evening."

Currently Mays and Metheny are sequestered away in New York writing for the sessions that will form the next Pat Metheny Group album [with new drummer Antonio Sanchez]. The expected street date is summer 2002, with a support tour to follow.

JazzReview: I was surprised you're out in LA. How’s that working out for you?

Lyle Mays: Well, it’s beautiful out here and I'm lovin’ it.

JazzReview: Yeah? How long has it been?

Lyle Mays: It's been about over three years now, close to four.

JazzReview: How much a part of what you do is instinct would you say?

Lyle Mays: Ah...one of the best questions anyone's asked me. It gets down to the nature of instinct and how we train ourselves. I don't think we're born with musical instincts. I think we need to be exposed to things, study things, and have musical experience, before the word ‘instinct’ even applies. So, what I've said in the past is that I kind of view soloing or composition, or any musical endeavor, like withdrawing from a bank account. The more that you invested over the years, the bigger the withdrawal you can make when it comes time to make that withdrawal.

JazzReview: That’s a good analogy.

Lyle Mays: So having said that, there's a fair amount of instinct going on, especially in improvisation, because it’s instantaneous almost a thinking in real time. You might be able to think a fraction of a second ahead of what you play, but that's about it. So I'd say in improvisation, instinct is a huge part, but it’s with the caveat I mentioned before.

JazzReview: I guess I've heard it said that that some of the better improvisers in Jazz history supposedly were said to have been thinking way ahead.

Lyle Mays: Well, the great chess grandmaster, Emanual Lasker, was once asked how many moves he thought ahead and his answer was wonderful. He said, ‘just one, but it’s always the best one.’

JazzReview: [laughs]

Lyle Mays: I love that!

JazzReview: It’s perfect.

Lyle Mays: It kind of debunks the notion that deep thought is somehow so advanced in time.

JazzReview: I was going to ask you about your influences. You've mentioned Jarrett, Evans, Chick, Herbie, Paul Bley...McGlaughlin, Zappa, Stravinsky, Bartok. How have they affected your sound and conception? How have they each made an impression on you?

Lyle Mays: Well again, some caveats. In the past I've often been asked which piano players influenced me and I'd glad you broadened this out. In the past I think it was a mistake to simply answer which piano players have influenced me because that’s such a small part of the influence. I would say I'm influence by improvised thought and also compositional thought. I listen to a whole lot of classical music, so I mean it’s probably such a broad question. I'm not sure I can answer it or do justice to it in just this one phone call. Suffice it to say that I've been influenced by a lot of things, not just playing. I don’t think of my jazz playing as coming from a player's kind of standpoint. I'm trying to always think more compositionally.

JazzReview: I've heard you say that you never set out to be a player, per se.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, and I still don’t, in a sense that I don’t practice playing like an athletic event. I try to keep the mind in shape. I try to keep the flow from the mind to the hands in some kind of shape. I'm a little afraid of practicing certain things for fear that it would come out when I went to improvise, and that wouldn't really be what I was thinking at that moment. It would be some kind of habit or something.

JazzReview: I'm sure there are a lot of players that would be afraid of the opposite, that what they practice wouldn't come out.

Lyle Mays: Well, I'm not advocating it. It works for me, you know [laughs]. I don't feel right telling people not to practice, I guess.

JazzReview: It seems like you're more interested in keeping the mental aspect sharp than just going through the rote licks with your fingers all the time.

Lyle Mays: And I seem to be very lucky in that, you know. The hands usually respond.

JazzReview: Yeah, well I guess everything coming from the mind anyway. If you think that way then that tells the fingers what to do. What do you tend to listen to these days? You mentioned the classical.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, unfortunately nothing current. There’s very little out there, although Oregon’s got a very interesting record out they did with an orchestra in Moscow. I tend to like [laughs] projects in general. Plus, I'm really a fan of Paul McCandless.

JazzReview: Sure. I know you did a record with him.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, I think he’s a really thoughtful player a very interesting musical soul. I used to listen to a fair amount of Brazilian music, but I feel like modern Brazilian music has gotten too Americanized. It’s kind of lost its charm for me, as opposed to the early Milton (Nascimento) stuff.

JazzReview: It’s gotten kind of homogeneity with all the American groups co-opting it.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, its kind of interesting. I mean there are still some very talented players down there, but I'm not as much of a fan as I was. I guess I keep going back to Brahms, Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy.

JazzReview: Bartok.

Lyle Mays: Bartok, Berg. Love Berg’s music, especially the violin concerto, but I have this disc network system and they have one of the greatest jazz radio stations I've ever heard. They play a lot of Blue Note era stuff completely without commercial interruption no DJ. It’s just one hip cut after another. I take lot of pleasure in that.

JazzReview: I live on that stuff.

Lyle Mays: Well, you should check it out on a personal level. I mean it’s really the greatest jazz radio station ever, plus on the screen while the music is playing, they show the artist, the record, the label, the title I forget. It’s really pretty hip.

JazzReview: I did an interview with Pat a long time ago and he mentioned that he will tend to start a piece, and of course, you may finish it. That may be a real generic way of describing how you work, then arranging and orchestrating them. Do you still work this way?

Lyle Mays: What I've said in the past is that the way we work together keeps evolving, keeps changing. It’s kind of hard to pin down. We've tried everything from sitting together to write, to going off into other rooms or each one trying to come up with everything. [laughs] We've done a little bit of everything, I guess. What doesn’t work is sitting down together and saying, ‘ok, we're gonna write something together.’ What seems to happen is, one or the other has to come up with a mood or a melody or some defining sort of musical nugget that is really the main element of the piece. Then we can each add details later. But that impulse for the piece, the sort of reason for being, its’ Ming, [laughs] its’ thing, whatever has to come from one or the other.

JazzReview: So did you tend to bring these to each other? Just kind of play them off tapes or the Synclavier? How does that work?

Lyle Mays: Yeah, we both tend to make sequencer demos, real rough of an idea and usually not too complete, so that they can be really finished later. Like I say, we’ve tried everything. We've tried all sorts of things.

JazzReview: I think it’s attributed to Picasso saying, ‘try everything, but only once.’ I don’t know if you’ve heard that one. I kind of like that.

Lyle Mays: [laughs] That’s very interesting, certainly good advice.

JazzReview: How do you go about composing music for yourself? Is it any different?

Lyle Mays: Oh, I wish I knew. [laughs]

JazzReview: You can still say that. You can still put it that way.

Lyle Mays: Oh yeah. At some level its mysterious to me, but I guess it’s kind of a two-stage process. There’s kind of the dreaming and the editing, and I think you have to be good at both to write music. You have to let your mind go so those unexpected thoughts can come in, but you also have to be able to recognize what's good about a thought. Throw out what’s not, expand on what’s good, and find continuations. I guess in that kind of general way that’s the way I go about writing. I'm not sure I said anything.

JazzReview: Yeah, you did actually. You've said before that basically you're never going to write again. I think a lot of writers say that. I think they feel that terror you’re talking about.

Lyle Mays: Well, I think, yeah, I've heard that too and I think its because its such a mysterious process. We really can’t codify it.

JazzReview: But why all that self doubt? I mean, how much material do you have to amass before you stop feeling that way each time you sit down?

Lyle Mays: Well, let’s clarify it a little bit. I'm not scared that I can’t come up with anything anymore.

JazzReview: - Well, I mean, up to your [minimum] standards.

Lyle Mays: - Yeah, that it wouldn’t be up to my standards.

JazzReview: But, then there is writer’s block, too.

Lyle Mays: That’s true. It’s a very real thing. I mean, there are some times when I've committed to a project and I've sat down to start it and nothing comes. I'll just sit at my rig [laughs] and put in the time, you know. I know I'm going to have to come up with it, try different things. I guess at some point there’s no substitution for just sticking to it.

JazzReview: Do you ever find yourself just thinking ‘I just gotta get out, go see a movie or take a walk,’ or something?

Lyle Mays: Oh sure, there’s times when that’s helpful, but you know, there’s a trap there too because you could end up just constantly distracting yourself. [laughs]

JazzReview: I know. It’s a balance.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, at some point you have to go back to the business of coming up with something. It’s a fascinating thing, you know? I don't know.

JazzReview: Was "Falcon and the Snowman" Pat and your first score?

Lyle Mays: Of any significance, yes.

JazzReview: What was that experience like for you both?

Lyle Mays: I was scared to death.

JazzReview: It’s incredible.

Lyle Mays: Oh, well, thank you. I've been afraid at times that it was a bit too musical and might’ve distracted at times from the story.

JazzReview: That’s a strange thing to say.

Lyle Mays: Too complete, maybe, musically.

JazzReview: Did you think distracting? Is that what you’re saying?

Lyle Mays: I was afraid. People haven’t really said that but, you know, we tried to make every little cue also tell a musical story, as well as fit with the scene.

JazzReview: I think that’s a big point of the scoring.

Lyle Mays: Well, there’s also a time for music that doesn’t really tell a story. It’s just part of the story being told.

JazzReview: You don't want to give something away in advance, sure.

Lyle Mays: Or tell a conflicting story. There is a danger there, but in general it was a fascinating experience. The first thing I did on my old Apple computer when we started work was to write a program that converted musical tempos into SMPTE duration’s and frames. So I could, you know. We could figure out how long a cue had to be. Now there’s commercial software that does it.

JazzReview: Of course, and you developed it...no, just kidding. [laughs]

Lyle Mays: No [laughs]. I’m not Al Gore. I didn't invent the Internet.

JazzReview: [laughs] Does that mean you’re not a Democrat?

Lyle Mays: [laughs] I leave politics completely out of music. But, to complete the answer to your question, it was really hard work, really kind of stimulating work and an opportunity to use some forces that, up until then, I hadn’t really been able to use. Writing for that boy’s choir was a really interesting experience.

JazzReview: I mean stylistically, you guys have really gotten around now.

Lyle Mays: Well, you know, we have wide ranging interests.

JazzReview: I think that’s real important. Why do you think you were approached for that project, having not done something that large, or of that nature up to that point?

Lyle Mays: Well, I would just say hats off to Schelsinger for having the courage to hire these two kids, unproven.

JazzReview: I'm sure he saw something.

Lyle Mays: He’s very smart about using music like in 'Cowboys.’ Who can forget that haunting theme?

JazzReview: Absolutely. I think what’s really rare and impressive in what you do is something that many soloists in jazz don't do which for them is, sublimate the ego where you sometimes say you will not go for the second solo, in lieu of new musical material.

Lyle Mays: Well, I guess my motivation for it is concern for the listener. It makes for a more interesting musical experience, not a string of solo my one criticism of traditional jazz these days. I guess when it was first developed it made sense. You know, people had things to say and you wanted to hear what each person had to say. But now, yeah, forty/fifty years down the road, its like, let's find some new models, folks! That was then, this is now.

JazzReview: Right. No, I think it makes a lot of sense and I'm surprised more people aren’t doing it. I've heard Michael Brecker do it and very few others. Mike Stern those kinds of guys, where they'll actually add some material between soloists, change the key, and put more thought into the structure and journey.

Lyle Mays: Yeah. I mean, when you think about a piece like, "Are You Going with Me?" it has nothing to do with the traditional jazz form.

JazzReview: Right.

Lyle Mays: If you tried to play that tune with a jazz band, it would sound ridiculous. [laughs] The whole point is it’s a Bolero-like build. So anyway, I’ve always been interested in putting some different kinds of form into the jazz environment, and I think on ‘Imaginary Day’ it’s kind of the pinnacle of that. It’s fairly ambitious.

JazzReview: On your own record, "Fictionary," you did ‘Falling Grace.’ I thought that was such a great choice. Besides the strong melody and emotional impact of a tune like that, are you attracted to the circular through the composition aspect? Did that have anything to do with it?

Lyle Mays: Well, I'm a huge fan of Steve Swallow.

JazzReview: Of course. Apparently that’s the first tune he ever wrote. [sic] That’s what I've heard. (Steve Swallow confirmed ‘Falling Grace’ was his second tune)

Lyle Mays: Really? Hmm. I’ve never heard that. If that’s true, it’s incredible! I remember my first tune. [laughs] No one else will!

JazzReview: Well, I try not to remember my first one [laughs]...first ten or twenty.

Lyle Mays: But, I love the form of ‘Falling Grace.’ Also the internal logic of the chord changes. I mean, there are references. It’s like there’s development within just the piece itself. Ideas get developed just in the flow of the chord changes. I find that very stimulating, and the fact that it’s an attempt to be a modern tune. It’s not a throwback tune. It’s not trying to be like early jazz. It is, what it is. As a matter of fact, I was trying to say that the whole record of ‘Fictionary’ is not retro, not be-bop. This was trying to write modern tunes in a straight-eighth style to be played in the traditional trio format. But, I don't want to make a traditional trio record.

JazzReview: Right. And looking at it, Dejohnette and all, it looks like a traditional trio format, but not the way you treated it.

Lyle Mays: I think part of that was the compositional framework.

JazzReview: Right. And your conception of what you’ve described before, in that you’re thinking larger compositions, more extended type things. I think that came across in that record, where it wouldn’t have in a lot of trios where they’re just blowin’ changes.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, take for example a piece like, ‘Lincoln Reviews his Notes.’ It’s a very different kind of sense playing...rubato interspersed with a steady beat and very interactive playing. I mean, you can follow the form, but it’s a very free interpretation of it. I was trying to stretch things a little bit, I guess.

JazzReview: I think one of my favorite recordings period, is actually your first one with Bill Frisell. From the very first piece, you get a sense of freedom and expansiveness in the way the pieces unfold. You get a sense that they can go anywhere and that they’re timeless. I don't know how to better describe it.

Lyle Mays: Those are very kind words.

JazzReview: Thank you. It’s very inspiring to listen to.

Lyle Mays: It’s a sentimental favorite of mine, too. I think there’s an element of luck in that album in that particular sense. It came together as a band very quickly with very little rehearsal and still to this day, it sounds like a band, not just some guys that got together to make a record. I can only thank the stars for that, ‘cause that doesn't happen very often. [laughs]

JazzReview: Was there much rehearsal?

Lyle Mays: There was enough for me to really get my ideas across about the dynamic shape of the piece and the stylistic kind of areas that I wanted to explore. But, those are very talented people. It took very little time to get those ideas across. So, I guess they were pretty specific rehearsals and not really overly long.

JazzReview: You really seem to have an affinity for guitarists...Frisell and Pat, I guess Pat and Frisell especially. Is it the kind of blend with strings that makes it work for you?

Lyle Mays: I would say that Pat and Bill are two of the most non-guitarlike guitar players. They really transcend their instruments. What I'm drawn to is that they're not guitar players. They're much more than that. They can color music. Their sonorities are so different than the average guitar, so I guess I'm not putting down guitar, I'm just saying, its not so much the nature of guitar, it’s what individuals do with it.

JazzReview: They happen to play guitar.

Lyle Mays: And, yeah, they're great musicians; they happen to play guitar.

JazzReview: That's true. How did you pick the players for that record? I mean, did you say to yourself, 'this has to be Bill Frisell or it has to be someone who can get these sounds that are in my head?’

Lyle Mays: Well, I knew I wanted to use Frisell because I was just such a fan and I thought that his sensibilities would be perfect for the music. But after that, Steve Cantor, who's listed as the producer on the record, did a lot of great things and talked a lot over the music and suggested a bunch of them. Of course I wanted to use my friend, Marc Johnson, who I've been playing with since North Texas, and who I think has played everything I've ever written [laughs] at some point or another. Except the stuff with Pat, but I mean stuff I've written on my own. So, Steve Cantor really kind of put that ensemble together. He has real gift for envisioning what people would sound interesting together.

JazzReview: Yeah, its amazing when you get a team behind the scenes and in the studio all working together so well to produce something like that. I mean, they had to, I would say. The new record, the 'Solo' record you mentioned, it’s the most honest thing you've done.

Lyle Mays: Yes, I have said that and I'm not sure how people interpret it. [laughs]

JazzReview: Yeah, I was just going to ask what is the importance of honesty to you, musically and personally. How does it manifest in your life and music?

Lyle Mays: I don’t think it has a big part. I mean, the actual root of the word ‘art,’ is ‘artifice.’ At times you want to make something that isn’t you, something that's beyond you. I don't know if that's dishonest, but I'm not a big fan of just raw honesty. I'm not really bragging about the record being honest, you know. I don't think it’s necessarily a virtue. It just happened to strike me when I listened to it, as biographical. So, I'm probably getting more of that honesty out of it than other people. From another angle, it’s very honest in that its what I was thinking at the time.

There's no additional musical material other than the overdubbed solo on the last piece, but again, that was what I was thinking at the time. It’s also honest in that it’s a solo project, but using the instrument as I've come to see it, the acoustic piano combined with the synth world. I felt it was me performing on my instrument and along those lines, a solo piano record wouldn't have been as honest because I'm not really just a piano player. I don't devote my time to that.

JazzReview: Well, at least in the sense that you didn't pre-compose a lot of material and then re-create it. I guess in that sense being in the moment, anything in the moment, would be considered more honest I suppose.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, there's a number of ways of looking at it.

JazzReview: Why has it been so long since your previous release...just other projects?

Lyle Mays: Well, I personally need lots of time between these grueling PMG records and world tours.

JazzReview: [laughs] Yeah.

Lyle Mays: There are times when I finish with a tour and I'm just exhausted. Plus, I don't quite see the virtue in just being busy all the time. I've a lot of other interests and I guess I don't feel a particular pressure to have a career. I'm just interested in exploring music, and I'm not gonna do it at the pace that maybe some people expect.

END of PART I - Click here for Part II of this Interview

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Lyle Mays
  • Subtitle: The Nature of Instinct
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