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Lyle Mays - Part Two

JazzReview: Do you feel that most of that can be satisfied within the PMG: your ability to express yourself?

Lyle Mays: Well, certainly a lot of can be satisfied within the PMG because there’s so much variety. Also I've had something to do with the structure and the notes that we're playing, so I feel like there's a part of me whenever we perform. Yeah, it satisfies quite a lot. There's the potential for reaching far more people playing with the PMG than if I would tour on my own.

JazzReview: Absolutely. Have you done that much?

Lyle Mays: I've done, I think, just a handful of tours. I did some quartet, acoustic quartet tours after "Fictionary" came out.

JazzReview: Who was on that?

Lyle Mays: Marc Johnson, of course, on bass and Mark Walker on drums; a very talented drummer; used to live in Chicago. He's on the ‘Oregon’ record. Wonderful drummer. People are just starting to find out who he is very smart drummer. He's the kind of drummer that can call out the chord changes to a tune if the bass player or the piano player doesn't know. [laughs]

JazzReview: Well, that's annoying.

Lyle Mays: [laughs] But, it’s a demonstration of his musical knowledge.

JazzReview: Oh yeah, I'm kidding. Who else?

Lyle Mays: And my good friend, Bob Sheppard tenor and a bunch of other instruments. He's a great doubler. He gets calls for symphonic clarinet dates, you know, in the studios. He's a great, great doubler.

JazzReview: Did any of that get recorded? Any plans for that?

Lyle Mays: There weren’t plans to record it. It was really just to go out and play some jazz, yeah.

JazzReview: Why the 'Expanded' piano...for this record?

Lyle Mays: Well, Pat came up with that title and I thought it was a pretty clever way of letting people know that the notes you're hearing are all coming from the piano. I didn't add any counter lines, any additional harmony. What you're hearing is what I improvised ...and the piano is at the core of it, but the sonic environment is much different than solo piano. It’s larger, there’s more detail, there’s more stuff. I hope people feel there's a connotation of 'improved piano,' or something. I thought that it was a clever way of packing a lot of information into a few words. I also kind of liked the two-part nature of the title. It almost reminded me of an academic work; they all seem to have two titles. [laughs] I like that it kind of tipped the listener off that maybe this wasn't just a lark.

JazzReview: There's a Jarrett piece that Vie always liked. I’m sure you’ve probably played this tune: 'Memories of Tomorrow' [Part 2c on 'Koln Concert']? I can really hear you doing something like that. Aside from "Falling Grace", do you ever consider doing more contemporary standards like that?

Lyle Mays: - Not much. I mean, "Falling Grace" was a real, you know, anomaly, actually. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with playing modern standards and I don’t think there’s deliberateness on my part to not play modern standards, but you know. I’m really more interested in exploring what I can come up with. I just love composition.

JazzReview: Right. I’m sure that that would be pretty endless in itself. Do you do all the sound design for your recordings?

Lyle Mays: Yes and no. I mean, all the sort of prepared piano samples...the real sound-effecty things were things that I made from samples that I had recorded out in LA. There are times when I'll use a commercial patch on a synth, but I usually alter it in some way.

JazzReview: No one else is actually making any for you.

Lyle Mays: No, no, I can still program. I learned how to do that back in the Oberhiem four-voice days, you know, Prophet 5? There were no patches, you had to do your own programming.

JazzReview: What are you using as far as your current equipment setup? Is the Synclavier still involved...the M-1 (Korg)?

Lyle Mays: I think Pat has finally given up on the Synclavier [laughs].

JazzReview: Really?

Lyle Mays: I would work with Pat's for those records. For instance, on my first record there's no Synclavier. I guess, it’s a tricky question because by the time this comes out my rig might've changed. I'll tell you what it was for the last project.

JazzReview: Why don’t we do that?

Lyle Mays: OK. The whole system is run by an Apple computer Studio Vision that is going to change, cause Opcode's out of business. So, I'm gonna have to switch [laughs] platforms. That was just sort of the command center. And the main controlling keyboard when I work at MIDI studios is the Kurzweil 2500. I also use a Kurzweil 2000, a Roland JX-10 and an old dinosaur, the Korg DW-8000.

JazzReview: You're kidding?

Lyle Mays: Which died on the last day of dumping synths to tape and I frantically programmed new pad sounds with the studio clock running.

JazzReview: [laughs]

Lyle Mays: There’s a rack with a Wavestation...the E-4, fully loaded and the 2080 and the Roland sampler I stopped using. I just didn’t like the interface...the sound quality that much, but this could all change.

JazzReview: Right. I'm thinking of a gig I saw you guys do quite a few years ago. It was at Nightstage, Cambridge, MA. It was unusual in the sense that you played the music before it was recorded. I think Pat said that was the only time that ever happened. How was that experience?

Lyle Mays: What time period are you talking about here?

JazzReview: Mid-80's.

Lyle Mays: Well, in the early 80's we would always take music on the road before we recorded it. It evolved on the road. The form that you hear, for instance, on 'San Lorenzo', on the white album, it developed on the road. It just kind of evolved as we played it.

JazzReview: I think it was specifically set up to do this. One of the tunes, I think was supposed to be called 'China' and it changed names when it got to the record.

Lyle Mays: That would've been before ‘Letter from Home?

JazzReview: Yeah, that’s right.

Lyle Mays: Starting with around the time of 'First Circle,' we started doing more complete composing before we'd go on the road mainly because we were getting heavily involved with sequencers, drum machines and trying to integrate that technology. And to do that, you have to nail down the form [laughs].

JazzReview: Absolutely.

Lyle Mays: You have to be complete if you’re going to use any kind of additional track. But kind of forced our hand...I think, for me to put out sequencers. I think it’s a very good idea to take stuff on the road before it’s recorded. So, there’s nothing wrong with that idea. It’s just that we forced to stop doing that due to technology.

JazzReview: Yeah. Right. I can understand that. The classical aspect that you take to the jazz format: interludes, segues, extended endings and all that, propelling it, adding drama to it, opening a piece up and taking it to an unexpected place. Do you hear anyone else, really doing that in jazz very much?

Lyle Mays: Not as much as I would like. Maybe it’s just something personal to me. I don't know.

JazzReview: Do you get people talking about that...I mean, do people mention it?

Lyle Mays: Yeah, there are a few people that have been affected by that. The first that comes to mind is Billy Childs, and he's a great guy. I really admire his ambition. He's not content to make like just simple music. He's also a composer. He's written chamber pieces. So maybe it takes some of that kind of background to really think more compositionally in jazz. But, there's other players who simply want to play and don’t want to be hindered by elaborate forms. There are arguments on both sides.

JazzReview: Sure. I think it gets to the root of a person's personality, musically or personally.

Lyle Mays: I would agree.

JazzReview: You mentioned Stravinsky would avoid the seduction of the sound of the piano by deadening the strings.

Lyle Mays: I found that interesting, that story.

JazzReview: Yeah. I'd never heard that before I read it in a previous interview that you'd done.

Lyle Mays: He was also suspicious of strings: the lushness. He wrote a lot of things without strings. A lot of the string writing is not the soaring, romantic classical orchestra sound. It’s starker.

JazzReview: Right. I think he was kind of rebelling against with percussion and different things.

Lyle Mays: Mmm! Anyway, I actually tried that very technique when I was writing a piece, a chamber piece for violin and marimba. I wanted a little less resonance from the piano. You know, I wanted to just hear the notes, just pure notes and get away from the very thing that Stravinsky said, the seductiveness; what word he actually used, the concept is clear.

JazzReview: Right, yeah. I think that word says it all. I mean, we can all get seduced by whatever instrument just does it for us.

Lyle Mays: Well, the nature of seduction is dangerous in music all the time. If you start falling in love with what you're doing you can lose the critical facilities [laughs] necessary to do good editing, you know? It’s an interesting word.

JazzReview: It really is. It has a lot of facets to it. I like your idea of fulfilling, or not, and manipulation expectations. You mentioned your tune "Slink" (Lyle Mays 1986) and the drum ending, you know, referring to that. And I've always thought that was what jazz is pretty much all about. If it loses its element of surprise, it’s probably not meeting its criteria that I've always felt it should have that improvisation normally does. You know like when you mention a formulaic thing where you have head-solo-head for 50 years? That gets kind of stale.

Lyle Mays: Unfortunately. I mean, in the hands of great players, it'll never be stale because everything they play is just worth listening to.

JazzReview: Ninety to ninety-five percent of the records I have are that they'll always be exciting and have those moments that knock you out.

Lyle Mays: But, sometimes it’s not possible to improvise those moments. Sometimes they have to be designed.

JazzReview: Yeah. I suppose so. It’s a balance.

Lyle Mays: If you want to do some tempo change or anything that requires the group moving as a unit.

JazzReview: Right. Where they can't all be thinking telepathically.

Lyle Mays: Yeah. You can't try that kind of stuff, you'd have train wrecks constantly.

JazzReview: True. I guess as a group works more together, more of those moments happen, but still like you say, a lot of it has to be designed, because otherwise some things will never happen.

Lyle Mays: Or, you know, some things are impossible to improvise. That’s what one of the pleasures of doing the last record I did was. I could do those very kinds of surprise moves because there was no band that had to follow it.

JazzReview: Right. Exactly. I mean, sometimes you can pare a band down to where its just you playing or just a drum line of some sort. I guess layering and extracting instruments can really help with that. You know, where you don't have so much going on and then you can re-layer or rebuild.

Lyle Mays: But their kind of two different areas. I mean, yes there are great improvising bands that do constantly surprise and entertain us in those ways, but there's other kinds of compositional moves that have nothing to do with what a band can accomplish during improvisation. They're two different areas.

JazzReview: They have to be written. How do you go about getting such a huge sound from a small group context? I'm referring to your group with Pat.

Lyle Mays: Well there are a lot of tracks going on, [laughs] so at some point I'm not sure it’s a small group.

JazzReview: But, you do take it live as well, with its 7 guys.

Lyle Mays: It’s been 7 for the past few years. I'm not sure how much the audience hears but there are additional tracks Sequenced tracks. Also, there are times I'm triggering stuff from the MIDI piano. So, it looks like I’m just playing the piano, but you're hearing a brass section or whatever. We'll use any trick we can [laughs]. It feels like a modern big band at times.

JazzReview: It really does. I guess it also has to do with some of your background musicians playing quite a few instruments and switching off a lot. That probably helps with that.

Lyle Mays: That's definitely a group effort. And it’s also an attitude. We wanted it to sound big and that may have evolved from just playing big venues where being intimate wasn’t, didn't, quite feel appropriate.

JazzReview: There are times when in the middle of a performance, where it could be Pat just playing his guitar.

Lyle Mays: Oh, sure.

JazzReview: Which is incredible. I mean, its like one venue can be many venues. All of a sudden you're in a small jazz club or something, except you don’t hear all the clinking glasses and everything. So, that’s kind of cool.

Lyle Mays: But you know, just to bring up a point on the other side of things, an issue like the tuning of the drums or the size of the bass drum or whatever. There's a whole lot that you have to decide ahead of time and that precludes a lot of the intimate kind of jazz playing. We have the wrong instruments for it.

JazzReview: Right. True. You can kind of approximate certain things, I suppose.

Lyle Mays: But it’s not a satisfying version of it. Also, at the volume level that is necessary for big venues, certain intimate things don't feel right. A solo instrument is one thing, but it’s hard to get an intimate group feeling. Maybe not impossible, but its difficult to get an intimate group feeling given the nature of the sheer amount of amplification going on.

JazzReview: Exactly. I was going to ask you about the over-the-barline ideas that you'd mentioned that came from Brahms.

Lyle Mays: Oh, a lot of people. Stravinsky just kind of reinvented the concept of bar lines. I'm not sure there's any rhyme or reason at times [laughs].

JazzReview: Right. I'm surprised how much stuff is written in 4/4 when it sounds anything but...that you guys do. I guess it has to do with accenting and so on, where you're implying other things.

Lyle Mays: Yeah or patterns or all sorts of things...bass lines. People were always asking, you know, when we first did "So May it Secretly Begin" what was the time signature? We just laughed: 4/4, you know [laughs].

JazzReview: Yeah. But you can see what they were saying.

Lyle Mays: I think they heard the...sure, in that particular piece, the bass movement. The rhythm of the bass movement I'm sure draws the people's ears to the irregular kind of flow and they're not sure what it is. But, on the other hand, "First Circle" does have a little different kind of time signature. We called it 22/8.

JazzReview: [laughs]

Lyle Mays: You could think of it as a bar of 12 and a bar of 10. But especially in my playing I'm very interested in the over the bar line notion because it tends to keep the flow going, and I'm just interested in it. My ears find it interesting.

JazzReview: Right. On the first records who's idea was it to have you have an autoharp there?

Lyle Mays: It was Pat's idea. He called me up on the phone - back in the early days - and started strumming this Autoharp that he had tuned to an open chord. And he was just like 'dig that, man!' [laughs] It was like, all those strings!

JazzReview: Uh huh [laughs].

Lyle Mays: It’s a very guitar player kind of idea, to get all those strings vibrating in a chord.

JazzReview: Sympathetic strings, yeah. That resonance.

Lyle Mays: Another friend of ours suggested a Naval issue submarine detector.

JazzReview: [laughs].

Lyle Mays: Called it a hockey puck because that’s exactly what it looked like. And that was how we amplified the autoharps.

JazzReview: It was a transducer of some sort?

Lyle Mays: I guess. I don’t know about that stuff. But, you know, it was a different era of technology back then.

JazzReview: You guys had some pretty eclectic connections there of some sort. [laughs] Interesting characters.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, I actually know a rocket scientist...I actually know a brain surgeon. Some interesting connections.

JazzReview: [laughs] That is interesting. I think that's kind of cool that we don't get so insulated into what we do that we can't interact with people from vastly different disciplines.

Lyle Mays: Yeah. At one point I had a former NASA physicist. He had a doctorate in particle physics and he was over working on the Ring in Switzerland. He designed a MIDI interface for the 4-voice before any were commercially available. Yeah, it was very hip. It had some features that interfaces don't have anymore, like registers that you could load up and play back in random order triggered by key presses. It was really patched together technology because it wasn’t off the shelf, it was, you know, custom.

JazzReview: That's really hip. Yeah, it is.

Lyle Mays: Actually, I kind of you brought up the Synclavier before. It's kind of sad to see the Synclavier kind of go away because that was such an ambitious instrument.

JazzReview: I know.

Lyle Mays: And it was designed for high-end users. And these days I don’t see any product that's specifically aimed at the high-end user. I mean, everyone’s trying to. Like the networks, everyone's seeking the same audience, the same broad audience.

JazzReview: I know. I guess maybe that's why they weren’t able to stay in business. I'm amazed that Pat was able to hold onto the product so long. You know, as ambitious as he is, that he was able to get that much use out of one product.

Lyle Mays: Well, it just sounded so good!

JazzReview: It had the 4 partials at once, I guess, right?

Lyle Mays: Well, far beyond that, the circuitry, the quality of the components, the speed of the computer, I mean there was so much that was just high quality about it.

JazzReview: So he just completely let it go? It's not being supported at all? I thought they (New England Digital) would reorganized in some way; the engineers.

Lyle Mays: I think. Yeah, there was a concerted effort to keep it going for quite awhile. I think that they reorganized. I will say that some of the commercially available products out there have gotten up to the level sonically of the Synclavier and the computer interfaces are far better now. I think the technology kind of caught up.

JazzReview: So, you didn’t really use the Synclavier very much?

Lyle Mays: Yeah, I did quite a bit of work on the Synclavier. But again, it was kind of a love/hate relationship. It was an ungainly [laughs] instrument to use at times, but in the end worth it, you know. It was state of the art when we started using it and that was one thing that was kind of fun about it.

JazzReview: I heard that it could be kind of temperamental live with temperature and humidity changes, dragging it around, and all that kind of thing.

Lyle Mays: Yeah [laughs].

JazzReview: In a word, yeah, right?

Lyle Mays: In a word.

JazzReview: There's a quote here of yours: "every situation demands that you re-examine yourself as far as composition, and what it is that you think you do." This is, I guess, just for you maybe. I just thought that was really interesting in that it breaks again with expectations and allows for surprise and keeping an open mind.

Lyle Mays: Yeah, and I think that thought is very much influenced by what I've read of Stravinsky. I think he was very much interested in re-inventing the wheel every time he sat down to write. I found that one of the stimulating things about his output is that there's a vast difference between "The Firebird," "The Rite of Spring," "Petrushka," and all the new classical stuff. It’s just that he did re-invent himself, and in broad ways, three different times. I mean, at the end of his life he was kind of a 12-tone guy.

JazzReview: Absolutely. Obviously he's had a lot of influence on you.

Lyle Mays: It's just such stimulating music. It's unique. It's uncopyable [sic].

JazzReview: Anything that you keep going back to that's been around that long, just ends up being timeless and not dated. Kind of like your new record. People are saying how much, on each successive listening, that they're hearing more things. You obviously put a lot of work into that, into getting that on there. I think that all the highest art really that can be said about it.

Lyle Mays: Well, detail is important and it may be an element. It may be a quality of art that's necessary for us to come back to. I'm not sure what makes something timeless. I mean, it's kind of like you can't predict what's going to be popular and you can't predict what's going to be timeless. Almost by definition, you have to wait 'til a hundred years go by or something.

JazzReview: And then you can't benefit from it anyway. Then again, should we be thinking about pandering to trends and all?

Lyle Mays: In that sense Pat agrees with me here, too. We're both strongly opposed to jumping on to any current trends. We never used wah-wah pedals, you know. I didn’t do Synth solos with the pitch wheel, like a cat's tail pulled. That's what it sounds like to me now, you know, twenty years later. At the time it sounded like the hip thing, but now certain disco beats or whatever sound so in the past. It think the group's music has worn rather well.

JazzReview: I think so too

Lyle Mays: Because of that conscious effort to stay away from the current trends.

JazzReview: You can kind of extrapolate into the future, ten, twenty, thirty years, whatever, and listen to this music and still enjoy it on the same levels.

Lyle Mays: Yeah. I don’t think there's anything, you know, there's no real comment on today’s culture. I mean in my solo record, its references are as much to the classical output as any current jazz player, more so, maybe.

JazzReview: I think because it’s more conceptual than of the time. On one side it harks back to your classical training, but it’s also got an abstract element, as well, so it sounds new.

Lyle Mays: Well that may be another kind of, how can I say this, speaking of what makes something timeless. It may have to do with internal logic. In any field, architecture, painting, whatever, if there's an internal logic, things relate to each other. They make sense with each other and that might be another contributing factor. Or maybe the absence of that maybe will insure that it won't be timeless.

JazzReview: It may just resonate psychologically with a greater proportion of people.

Lyle Mays: So, if you're simply using the world beat of the moment and there's no real deeper compositional thought going on, that's going to sound dated in twenty years. I can almost guarantee it! [laughs]

JazzReview: How do you go about finding the balance between the endless tweaking that you've described yourself doing to the spark of an originally inspired moment?

Lyle Mays: Oh, I can't find the balance. I'm not happy with how long it took me to get the synth sounds whipped into shape for this last record very frustrating at times.

JazzReview: Do you ever get frustrated with yourself, in the sense that you think, "can't I let this go, kind of thing?" You and Pat seem to balance each other out that way when you write tunes together.

Lyle Mays: I think we kind of egg each other on [laughs] to be more obsessed.

JazzReview: But you're very productive, I mean, that's the final result. It's almost as if you blend together to become one great composer, not that you aren’t individually, but very effective together.

Lyle Mays: Well, getting back to the original question of endless tweaking. It’s a real problem for me. I'm not satisfied with the current level of technology. I don’t think synths a very sophisticated instrument. Yet, I'm in an era where I can’t imagine ignoring them. They're here. I feel obligated to see what kind of musical use I can get out of them, but I can’t find a balance.

JazzReview: What will have to happen to them, as far as you're concerned? What's going to have to happen to technology before you feel that it’s just very intuitive, that it’s working with you and not just distracting you with its interface?

Lyle Mays: Oh, a number of things. When you walk up to a piano, you don’t have to turn it on [laughs]. If you play.

JazzReview: So, basically we need to get you a clapper for all your rig.

Lyle Mays: It’s more immediate [laughs] and it’s also more responsive. There’s so much more nuance that a human can give to a good instrument than can be captured with the current MIDI standards.

JazzReview: Because it’s direct. It’s acoustic, yeah.

Lyle Mays: You know, the incremental nature of dynamics just doesn’t model what humans are capable of, but a bigger problem is the way notes interact. If you play one note on a piano and then play two notes on together on a piano you’re not just getting those two notes. You’re getting a combination, the interaction of those two notes, which is then a third sound. And, there are no synths that I know of that changes the sound. It wouldn’t even have to model the real world, but for instance, if it could change the sonic world with different amount of notes being played, that would make the synth more interesting. At this point I have to do that kind of thing in my sequencer with cross fading and tweaking different elements of, say, an interval on two different tracks to get different movement. There's a lot of movement in real acoustic music and there's no movement of the sound in the synth world. That’s a big one for me. I don’t know when that’s going to change, but that would be a giant step forward.

JazzReview: Sure. I was surprised when mentioned going to Mad Hatter to use the piano, but it sounds like you didn’t really play it conventionally. You just pulled samples off it.

Lyle Mays: Exactly. I didn’t play a note the whole time. I was tossing things into it, scraping the strings, banging on it, just getting as many kinds of samples of raw material that I could, then hopefully work with later.

JazzReview: Was it because it was that piano.

Lyle Mays: No, any piano. For the idiotic [laughs] stuff I was doing, you know?

JazzReview: Yeah, didn’t even have to be in tune.

Lyle Mays: Yeah. The funniest part of the story is that they asked me to sign the piano afterwards.

JazzReview: Right.

Lyle Mays: I tell everybody they forced me to do it.

JazzReview: [laughs] That’s great.

Lyle Mays: It wasn’t my idea. It was ludicrous, but if you see my signature on that famous piano, it wasn’t really me 'playing' the piano.

JazzReview: Right. Well I guess you'll always have that disclaimer, right?

Lyle Mays: Oh, yeah [laughs].

JazzReview: Thanks for your time, Lyle. All the best to you.

Lyle Mays: My pleasure.

Lyle currently has four solo recordings out: "Lyle Mays" [Geffen 1986], "Street Dreams" Geffen 1988], "Fictionary" [Geffen 1993] and this years "Solo: Expanded Piano". As a sideman he has notable recordings are with Paul McCandless, Eberhard Weber and Steve Swallow.

JazzReview writer, Mike Brannon, is guitarist/writer for the award-winning Synergy Group. The latest release is "Barcodes" w/ members of King Crimson and Grammy-winning Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. The follow-up, "Later", w/ special guests, Harvie S [Swartz], Paul Wertico, Bob Berg and others TBA will be released in fall '02.

Additional Info

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