RIP Lyle Mays 1953 - 2020
I guess, when you get to a certain season in life, you become accustomed to the fact that many of the previous generation of creative greats whom we so admired are, sadly, no longer with us. But while I’ve been saddened at the untimely loss of, say, Bowie, Prince, Dr John or Neil Peart and I’ve respected those who felt that sorrow more closely, I must admit that I have never felt quite so empty, stunned and - yes - heartbroken as when I read of the death of the jazz pianist/keyboard player, Lyle Mays.
That’s probably because Lyle Mays was one of very few musicians - and I can count them on the fingers of one hand - that I regard as personal heroes. Yes, I admire lots of different musicians - singers, instrumentalists and composers - from all styles and genres and I’ve drawn influence from many of them. But there are just a few people whose work spoke to me on a level unlike any other. They are the artists who changed the way I saw music - along with my view of the world and my place in it. Their music, from the moment I first heard it, connected with my soul and became indelibly etched on my way of thinking.
I can still recall with absolute clarity the first time I heard anything by Lyle Mays. Prior to that encounter I was ignorantly dismissive of jazz. I thought it was probably clever but I didn’t connect with it. Just didn’t really like the way it sounded. To me, jazz was either rasping trombones and honking clarinets on the streets of New Orleans or it was a terribly cerebral affair - all black turtlenecks in some smoky Parisian basement. My definition of jazz was: It’s C Major so we play all the black notes. Nice!
Then it happened! A friend at university pulled me into a listening room. (Yes, this was well and truly pre-internet, pre-spotify, pre-digital anything.) He had just bought an album by a couple of Americans, a guitarist and keyboard player called Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. The album was called, bewilderingly, “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.” The slightly surreal artwork gave nothing away - the headlights of a car passing a telegraph pole on an open prairie with, bizarrely, an outstretched hand holding a telephone receiver. The rear of the sleeve showed two long-haired, denim-clad young men. Not a black turtleneck in sight.
My friend put the LP on the turntable and, just before he lowered the needle, warned, “This is jazz… but not as you know it!”
To say I was blown away is an understatement. That album has remained in my top three, Desert Island Discs choices ever since. The opening title track that occupies the whole of Side 1 is an epic, cinematic soundscape - a tour-de-force that, over the years, has taught me so much about composition, improvisation, arrangement, orchestration, texture, emotion, sound, articulation, production, tension and resolution. I could go. I urge you to listen to it!
Every moment of the whole album is extraordinarily well crafted. There are some standout jewels - like the way Lyle Mays voices and articulates those beautifully warm Major 7th chords that open “September 15th” or his achingly Chopin-esque piano solo in the same tune. Or the astonishing, joyful explosion of a piano solo in “Ozark”. I’ve got a sheet music transcription of that piece and I still don’t know how he even came up with those ideas.
And all that was just my first encounter. I’ve spent much of my adult life surrounded by his work and immersed in his sound world. I’ll be the first to admit, it doesn’t really show. Nobody has ever listened to anything I’ve written and said, “Aha - Lyle Mays!” And perhaps that’s as it should be. He was a one off. A unique voice - incredibly thoughtful and carefully conceived yet so unashamed emotional.
Rest in peace - and thank you!