Home » Jazz Articles » Lyle Mays Goes Solo



Lyle Mays Goes Solo


Sign in to view read count
AAJ: Sure. I think it gets to the root of a person's personality—musically or personally—even.

LM: I would agree.

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

LM: I found that interesting, that story.

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

LM: 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. Its starker.

AAJ: Right. I think he was rebelling against that with percussion and different things.

LM: Hmmm. 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.

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

LM: 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.

AAJ: It really is. It has a lot of facets to it. I like your idea of fulfilling, or not, and manipulating expectations. You mentioned your tune "Slink" (Lyle Mays 1986) and the drum ending, you know, referring to that. And I've always thought that that was what jazz is pretty much all about. If it loses its (element of) surprise it's probably not meeting its criteria, maybe, that I've always felt that 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 stale.

LM: Unfortunately. I mean, in the hands of great players it'll never be stale. Because everything they play is just worth listening to (laughs).

AAJ: I mean, 90-95% of the records I have are that, probably, and they'll always be and they'll always be exciting and have those moments that knock you out.

LM: But sometimes its not possible to improvise those moments. Sometimes they have to be designed.

MB: Yeah. I suppose so. Its a balance.

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

AAJ: Right, where they can't all be thinking telepathically.

LM: Yeah. You can't try that kind of stuff, you'd have trainwrecks constantly, so..

AAJ: True. But I guess as a group works more together probably 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.

LM: 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, you know, that had to follow it.

AAJ: Right. Exactly. I mean, sometimes you can pare a band down to where it's just you playing or just a drum line of some sort and 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 relayer or rebuild.

LM: But they're 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 compositional moves that have nothing to do with what a band can accomplish during improvisation. They're two different areas.

AAJ: 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.

LM: Well there's a lot of tracks going on (laughs) so at some point I'm not sure it's a small group.

AAJ: But you do take it live as well and its 7 guys.

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

AAJ: 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.

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

AAJ: But there are times when, in the middle of a performance, where it could be Pat just playing his guitar, pretty much.

LM: Oh, sure.

AAJ: Which is incredible. I mean, it's 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.

LM: But, you know, just to bring up a point on the other side of things: an issue like the tuning of the drums, you know, 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 jazz playing. We have the wrong instruments for it.

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

LM: 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 it's difficult to get an intimate group feeling given the nature of the sheer amount of amplification going on.

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

LM: Oh, a lot of people. Stravinsky just kind of reinvented the concept of barlines. I'm not sure there's any rhyme or reason at times (laughs).

AAJ: 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.

LM: Yeah or patterns or all sorts of things...basslines. People were always asking, you know, when we first did "So May it Secretly Begin" what was the time signature, you know, we just laughed: 4/4, you know (laughs).

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

LM: 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, you know, "First Circle" does have a little different kind of time signature. We called it 22/8.

AAJ: (laughs).

LM: 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 barline notion because it tends to keep the flow going, and I'm just interested in it. My ears find it interesting.

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

LM: 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!

AAJ: Uh huh (laughs).

LM: It's a very guitarist idea, to get all those strings vibrating in a chord.

AAJ: Sympathetic strings, yeah. That resonance.

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

AAJ: (laughs).

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

AAJ: It was a transducer of some sort?

LM: I guess. I don't know about that stuff. But, you know, it was a different era of technology (laughs) back then.

AAJ: You guys had some pretty eclectic connections there of some sort (laughs). Interesting characters.

LM: Yeah, I actually know a rocket scientist. Some interesting connections.

AAJ: (laughs) That's interesting, you know. I mean, I think that's cool that we don't get so insulated into what we do that we can't interact with people from vastly different disciplines.

LM: Yeah. At one point I had a former NASA physicist, had a doctorate in particle physics, he was over working on the Ring in Switzerland. He designed a MIDI interface for the 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. Because it was really patched together technology because it wasn't off the shelf, it was, you know, custom.

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

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

AAJ: I know.

LM: 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.

AAJ: I know. I guess maybe that's why they weren't able to stay in business and 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.

LM: Well, it just sounded so good!

AAJ: Well, it had the 4 partials at once, I guess, right?

LM: 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.

AAJ: So he's just completely let it go? It's not being supported at all? I thought they'd [New England Digital] reorganized in some way; the engineers.

LM: I think, yeah, there was a concerted effort to keep it going for quite a while, I think that they reorganized. But 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. So, I think the technology caught up.

AAJ: So, you didn't really use the Synclavier very much?

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

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

LM: Yeah (laughs).

AAJ: In a word, yeah, right?

LM: In a word.

AAJ: Yeah (laughs). 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.

LM: 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 reinvent himself. And in broad ways, three different times. I mean, at the end of his life he was a 12-tone guy.

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

LM: It's just such stimulating music. It's unique. It's uncopyable.

AAJ: I mean, anything that you keep going back to that's been around that long it 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 and you obviously put a lot of work into that, into getting that on there. And I think really that can be said about all the highest art.

LM: 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, you can't predict what's going to be timeless. Almost by definition you have to wait 'til a hundred years go by (laughs) or something.

AAJ: And then you can't benefit from it anyway. But then again should we be thinking about pandering to trends and all.

LM: In that sense of, and 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, you know 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, you know, certain disco beats or whatever sound so in-the-past. And the group's music, I think, has worn rather well.

AAJ: I think so too

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

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

LM: 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. Moreso, maybe.

AAJ: I think because its 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.

LM: Well that may be another...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, that might be another contributing factor. Or maybe the absence of that will maybe insure that it won't be timeless.

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

LM: 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), you know?

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

LM: 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.

AAJ: Do you ever get frustrated with yourself, in the sense that, like, 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.

LM: I think we egg each other on (laughs) to be more obsessed.

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

LM: 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 are a very sophisticated instrument, but 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.

AAJ: 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?

LM: Oh, a number of things. When you walk up to a piano, you don't have to turn it on (laughs). If you play.

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

LM: 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.

AAJ: Because it's direct. it's acoustic, yeah.

LM: 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 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's no synths that I know of that changes the sound—and it wouldn't even have to model the real world—but just, 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 thing in my sequencer with crossfading 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. And that's a big one for me. And I don't know when that's going to change, but that would be a giant step forward.

AAJ: Sure. I was surprised when you 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.

LM: 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 samples of raw material that I could then hopefully work with later.

AAJ: Was it because it was that piano?

LM: No, any piano. For the idiotic (laughs) stuff I was doing, you know?

AAJ: Yeah, didn't even have to be in tune.

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

AAJ: Right.

LM: I tell everybody they forced me to do it.

AAJ: (laughs) That's great.

LM: 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.

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

LM: Oh, yeah (laughs).

Post a comment

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.