Lyle Mays, 1953–2020
Updated: Mar 4
If you are a music fan, and especially a fan of modern impressionist jazz, you have no doubt heard of the Pat Metheny Group. Lyle Mays, pianist and key collaborator with Pat Metheny, passed away on February 10, 2020 at age 66. His musical artistry had a profound effect on my appreciation of jazz, and I will miss him greatly. I first heard PMG live in 1980 when I was a graduate student in marketing at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at UNH. They played at the Memorial Union Building (the “MUB”), a multiple use building with lecture rooms, a cafeteria, and the radio station. It was in the center of campus, and most students would pass by it on their way to one academic building or another. They set up in the large center room with no tiered seating, with folding chairs and mediocre acoustics. No matter; it was amazing.
The band then was based out of Boston with Pat on guitar, Lyle on piano, Danny Gottlieb on drums, and Mark Egan on fretless bass. They created stunning, soaring sounds, such as can be heard on “San Lorenzo”, and I became a lifelong fan. I have seen them play at multiple venues, and have always left inspired and uplifted. Much of that emotion was fueled by the clean, dynamic, and technical keyboard playing of Lyle Mays. The last time I saw them play together was for their tour of “The Way Up” at the Warner Theater in Torrington, CT. That album is a remarkable tour de force, and the last and perhaps most impressive PMG recording released.
Mays was not in the mold of any mainstream pianist. He was not a straight-ahead player like Ellington, Petersen, or Brubeck, or more modern men like Jarrett, Sample, Corea, or Duke. Mays was unique: he had grace and power, finesse and precision, and an amazing sense of time.
Mays used space to punctuate and separate musical elements and ideas. He was a master of musical tension, using opposing themes to tell a bigger story. He integrated sequencers, synthesizers, and samples long before most players knew what they were. He built them into the structural underbelly of soaring compositions that the untrained ear simply heard as beauty.
With his long hair, flowing shirts, and wizard-like appearance, he would glide out from the stage wings like a character in a Harry Potter novel, but who also happened to be an amazing keyboard player.
Mays had a few solo outings (Lyle Mays, Street Dreams, Fictionary) but most of his best known work was with PMG. There is a video released by Spectrasonics of complete improvisation that is also excellent.
For those of you who would like to read more, both the NY Times and DownBeat have written thoughtful obits. If you want to hear him arguably at his greatest power and dynamic range, there is no better example than from "Imaginary Day": "The Heat of the Day", or my personal all time favorite PMG composition, "Full Circle" of the same album name. Wikipedia has (per usual) nicely outlined his discography.
Pat Metheny has said that a key reason The Pat Metheny Group was so popular was that it provided a "high trip quotient". In other words, there was always a deeper meaning, a longer story to tell. Aside from his music, Lyle was a lover of math, science, and architecture, and so it all fits into the context of the larger story of his own life.
He is already missed. May he rest in peace.