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Lyle Mays: Lyle Mays

John Kelman By

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Lyle Mays—Lye MaysLyle Mays
Lyle Mays
Geffen Records

Today's Rediscovery falls under the category of "where is he now?" I first heard of keyboardist Lyle Mays in 1977, when Gary Burton's quartet (with guest Eberhard Weber), played at the Glebe Collegiate High School auditorium in my home town of Ottawa, Canada. After the show, speaking to the other members of the group—electric bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Danny Gottlieb and a then just starting out Pat Metheny—the guitarist told me that he and Gottlieb were leaving the vibraphonist in just two weeks to form his own group, and that he'd found a pianist "who's going to be the next Keith Jarrett."

Well, 38 years later, pianist Mays hasn't exactly attained Jarrett's rarefied status, though he certainly has a large community of fans who wonder why he's fallen largely off the map, with his last (and only fifth) solo recording, Solo: Improvisations for Expanded Piano (Warner Bros.), released nearly fifteen years ago. Still, Mays' tenure in Metheny's flagship Pat Metheny Group, from its humble beginnings in 1977 through to its (so far final) 70-minute epic, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005)—and the accompanying world tour that culminated in a massive outdoor show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal the same year—has ensured Mays a significant place when the history of jazz from the latter quarter of the 20th century through to early in the new millennium is written. As co-writer, alongside Metheny, of many of PMG's most memorable compositions—a lengthy partnership that truly made the pair the Lennon & McCartney of jazz—the keyboardist's importance in that history is even more assured.

That Mays has only released a handful of albums under his own name, and remained largely silent since 2005 has, however, been both curious and frustrating to many of the longtime fans. Many wish the guitarist would bring PMG back into action, despite his Unity Group—heard on Kin (<—>) (Nonesuch, 2014) and a year-long world tour that hit destinations as distanced as Ottawa, Canada and Stavanger, Norway—appearing to be the new Pat Metheny Group in everything but name only. The guitarist's current group—centred around drummer of choice Antonio Sanchez (the only carryover from PMG), reed man extraordinaire Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and "utility player" Giulio Carmassi—has, it would seem, found a more equalized balanced between the kind of epic long-form writing that was endemic to PMG and the more open-ended hard-blowing band, improvisational speaking, for which the guitarist has been searching in recent years.

That the best album in Mays' diminutive discography as a leader happens to also be his first is, on one hand, a remarkable achievement but, on the other, a shame that the keyboardist has, in the ensuing years, been unable to follow it up with more...and better. Street Dreams (Warner Bros., 1988) was certainly a worthy follow-up to the keyboardist's leader debut, but its more urban vibe is somehow less successful when compared to the cinematically expansive music of the simply titled Lyle Mays, released two years earlier.

Perhaps it's also that, unlike Lyle Mays, Street Dreams' larger cast of characters simply couldn't match the profound chemistry that Mays found when he brought together drummer Alex Acuña (Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, The Manhattan Transfer), guitarist Bill Frisell (Paul Motian, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber), saxophonist Billy Drewes (Billy Hart, in addition to Frisell and Motian), bassist Marc Johnson (Bill Evans, John Abercrombie, Enrico Pieranunzi) and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos (Pat Metheny Group, Egberto Gismonti, Codona). Beyond writing that helped define and clarify just what Mays brought to his collaborative writing with Metheny, this was a group capable of just about anything.


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