Lyle Mays Interview

By Mike Brannon for All About Jazz
Published: May 2001

What if you were to look beyond the obvious of what you normally do each day, and you learned to see beyond? What if your mind, and ears were always open yet you stayed deeply focused and unwavering from your concentration on the moment?

For Lyle Mays, it was to pull that which is not obvious from the piano to create the improvised compositions of his long-awaited new record, "Solo - Improvisations for Expanded Piano". Yet at the same time, this what he has always done with the Pat Metheny Group: surprise us...baffle, mystify, intrigue and inspire.

Extremely thoughtful, intelligent, articulate, insightful and thoughtful in nature, yet with energy, soul and a quirky sense of humor, Mays is also principled, as evidenced by his attitude regarding the absence of the monumental works of Weather Report (and others) from the recent Ken Burn's Jazz 'documentary' (which also 'overlooked' all of jazz guitar - save Wes and Jim Hall - the organ groups, the avant guard, fusion and the 70's altogether). In listening to Mays, you hear the strains and references to the countapuntal music tradition of Europe but used in the unconventional context of high energy, real-time improvisation. All the traditional techniques far older than the jazz idiom, with which he is most closely associated, are continuously reworked, re-invented and used to great effect in the PMG (hey, long hair is still long hair).

Upon hearing Mays latest record, "Solo...", it should come as no surprise that his interests extend to things beyond music, and which bring new perspective to it, least of all his interest in architecture (particularly Wright), to the point of having designed his sister's home. The similarity in the reference both to the design and creation of structure and form in the abstract, from the ground up, is clear. And this is what Mays is all about... creation of structure: the new from the old and back again. It's all relative. He makes it very clear that you can get to anywhere from anywhere else and everyone does this in their own way.

Though an integral part of the Pat Metheny Group as a player for over a generation, Lyle Mays' focus remains primarily on composition and arranging. Sifting for what's new and unusual and presenting it in ever more creative ways. While Metheny is the obvious predominant force in that group, it's due to May's and the band's setting and support that Metheny's brilliance shines as well as it does. And vice versa. It's symbiotic, as the best, most lasting and timeless collaborations are.

One of the most talented and underated composers and improvisors remains so in part due to the lack of a need to strive for attention in a business where that could easily keep a career from even starting. Between the endless touring and thinking outside the box with the PMG, Mays recently managed to release his fourth solo recording, which truly is a solo piano excursion, yet in its own way, as ambitious an album as he has done to date. It's anything but a traditional piano record, as it was mostly improvised. At times there are as many as a hundred tracks flowing in and out of the audible range, yet what is heard are mostly the central instrument with influences ranging from Evans and Jarrett to Stravinsky, Ravel and Berg, but all as only Mays could direct.

May's first record ("Lyle Mays") remains a testament to creativity and nuance in the pursuit of evocation of mood and imagery. The casting of impressionists Bill Frisell, Billy Drews and others was almost as much a part of the compositional process for this music as the scores themselves. They were trusted to carry out a very unique and specific vision. With Frisell again emplyed as foil, this continued into the next release, "Street Dreams" where Lyle really shines in the extensions and answers of what the first release posed and promised.

This takes us to "Fictionary", May's previous release with the interactive brilliance of Jack Dejohnette and Marc Johnson, which is as untraditional a trio record as you're likely to find.

And finally, "Solo", a somewhat misunderstood recording of brilliance, release, exposure, confrontaion and dark beauty where Mays allows psyche and sensibility, soul vs. symmetry and precision to travel across the keyboard in an improvised, real-time journey of personal discovery. Among the other notable projects Lyle has been involved with are the film score to "Falcon and the Snowman", Steve Swallow's "Home", Rickie Lee Jones "Girl at Her Volcano", "Later That Evening" Eberhard Weber, Currently Mays and Metheny are sequestered away in New York writing for the sessions that will be the next Pat Metheny Group record (with new drummer Antonio Sanchez). The expected street date is for this Summer with a support tour to follow.

AAJ: I was surprised you're out in LA. How's that working out for you?

LM: Well, its beautiful out here and I'm lovin' it.

AAJ: Yeah? How long's it been?

LM: Its been about...over three years now, close to four.

AAJ: How much a part of what you do is instinct...would you say?

LM: of the best questions anyone's asked me. It gets to the nature of instinct and how we train ourselves, because I don't think we're born with musical instincts. I think we need to be exposed to things, to study things, to have musical experience before the word 'instinct' even applies. So, what I've said in the past is that I view soloing or composition or almost any musical endeavor... sort of like withdrawing from a bank account. And its like the more that you invested, over the years, the bigger the withdrawal you can make when it comes time to make that withdrawal.

AAJ: That's a good analogy.

LM: So having said that, I would say that there's a fair amount of instinct going on, especially in improvisation, because its almost instantaneous, its almost thinking in real time. You might be able to think a fraction of a second ahead of what you play but that's about it. So I'd say in improvisation instinct is a huge part, but its with the caveat I mentioned before.

AAJ: Right. I guess I've heard it said that that some of the better improvisers in Jazz history supposedly were said to have been thinking way ahead.

LM: Well, the great grandmaster, chess grandmaster, Emanual Lasker, was asked how many moves he thought ahead and his answer was wonderful, he said 'just one, but its always the best one'.

AAJ: (laughs)

LM: I love that.

AAJ: Its perfect.

LM: Because it debunks the notion that deep thought is somehow so advanced in time.

AAJ: I was going to ask you about your influences. You've mentioned Jarrett, Evans, Chick, Herbie, Paul Bley...McGlaughlin, Zappa, Stravinsky, Bartok. How have these affected your sound and conception? How have they each made an impression on you?

LM: Well...again, some caveats. In the past I've often been asked which piano players influenced me and I'd glad you broadened this out. In the past I think it was a mistake to simply answer which piano players had influenced me because that's such a small part of the influence. I would say I'm influence by improvised thought and also compositional thought. I listen to a whole lot of Classical music, so, I mean its probably such a broad question I'm not sure I can answer it or do justice to it in just this one phone call. Suffice it to say that I've been influenced by a lot of things and not just playing. And I dot think of my jazz playing as coming from a players standpoint. I'm trying to always think more compositionally.

AAJ: Right. I've heard you say that you never set out to be a player, per se.

LM: Yeah, and I still dot, in a sense that I dot practice playing, like an athletic event. I'll try to keep the mind in shape. I'll try to keep the flow from the mind to the hands in some kind of shape. But I'm a little afraid of practicing certain things for fear that it would come out when I went to improvise and wouldn't really be what I was thinking at that moment. It would be some kind of habit or something.

AAJ: I'm sure there are a lot of players that would afraid of the opposite: that it wouldn't come out...what they practice.

LM: Well, I'm not advocating it. It works for me, you know. I cant, you know (laughs) I don't feel right telling people not to practice, I guess.

AAJ: It seems like you're more interested in keeping the mental aspect sharp than just going through the rote licks with your fingers all the time.

LM: And I seem to be very lucky in that, you know, the hands usually respond.

AAJ: Yeah, well I guess everything coming from the mind anyway. If you think that way then that tells the fingers what to do. What do you tend to listen to these days?You mentioned the Classical.

LM: Yeah, unfortunately almost nothing current. There's very little out there... although Oregon's got a very interesting record out they did with an orchestra in Moscow. And I tend to like ambitious (laughs) projects in general, so, plus I'm really a fan of Paul McCandless.

AAJ: Sure. I know you did a record with him.

LM: Yeah, I think he's a really thoughtful player. A very interesting musical soul. I used to listen to a fair amount of Brazilian music but I feel almost like modern Brazilian music has gotten too Americanized. Its kind of lost its charm for me, as opposed to the early Milton (Nascimento) stuff.

AAJ: Its gotten kind of a homogeneity with all the American groups co-opting it.

LM: Yeah, its interesting. I mean there's still some very talented players down there but I'm not as much of a fan as I was. I guess I keep going back to Brahms and Bach and Stravinsky and Ravel and Debussey.

AAJ: Bartok.

LM: Bartok, Berg. Love Berg's music, especially the violin concerto, But I have this disc network system and they have one of the greatest jazz radio stations I've ever heard. They play a lot of Bluenote era stuff. Completely without commercial interruption - no DJ - its just one hip cut after another. I take lot of pleasure in that.

AAJ: I live on that stuff.

LM: Well, you should check it out...on a personal level. I mean its really the greatest jazz radio station ever, plus, on the screen while the music is playing, they show the artist, the record, the label, the title, I forget... Its really pretty hip.

AAJ: I did an interview with Pat a long time ago and he mentioned that he will tend to start a piece and of course, you may finish it - of course that may be a real generic way of describing how you work - and then arrange and orchestrate them. Do you still work this way?

LM: What I've said in the past is that the way we work together keeps evolving, keeps changing. Its hard to pin down. We've tried everything from sitting together to write together to going off into other rooms or each trying to come up with everything (laughs) and we've done a little bit of everything, I guess. What doesn't work is sitting down together and say, ok we're gonna write something together. What seems to have to happen is one or the other has to come up with a mood or a melody or some defining sort of ... musical nugget...that is really the main element of the piece. And then we can each add details later, but that impulse for the piece, the sort of reason for being...its ming (laughs), its thing, whatever has to come from one or the other.

AAJ: So did you tend to bring these to each other... just play them off tapes or the Synclavier or how does that work?

LM: Yeah, we both tend to make sequencer demos - real rough - of an idea. Usually not too that they can be really finished later. Like I say, we're tried everything, we've tried all sorts of things.

AAJ: I think its attributed to Picasso saying that 'try everything, but only once'. I don't know if you've heard that one. I liked that.

LM: (laughs) That's very interesting. Certainly good advice.

AAJ: How do you go about composing music for yourself? Is it any different?

LM: Oh, I wish I knew (laughs).

AAJ: You can still say that. You can still put it that way.

LM: Oh yeah. At some level its mysterious to me. But I guess its a two stage process. There's the dreaming and the editing and I think you have to be good at both to write music. You have to let your mind go so those unexpected thoughts can come in. But you also have to be able to recognize what's good about a thought; throw out what's not, expand on what's good; find continuations. I guess in that kind of general way that's the way I go about writing. I'm not sure I said anything.

AAJ: Yeah, you did actually. You've said before that basically you're never going to write again every time you're trying to write, you know. I think a lot of writers say that. I think they feel that terror you're talking about.

LM: Well, I think, yeah, I've heard that too and I think its because its such a mysterious process. We really cant codify it.

AAJ: But why all that self doubt? I mean, how much material do you have to amass before you stop feeling that way each time you sit down?

LM: Well, lets clarify it a little bit. I'm not scared that I can't come up with anything anymore.

AAJ: well, I mean, up to your (minimum) standards.

LM: Yeah, that it wouldn't be up to my standards.

AAJ: But then there is writer's block, too.

LM: That's true. Its a very real thing. I mean, there some times when I've committed to a project and I've sat down to start it and nothing comes. And I'll just sit at my rig (laughs) and put in the time, you know. I mean I wont...I know I'm gonna have to come up with it. Try different things. I guess at some point there's no substitution for just sticking to it.

AAJ: Do you ever find yourself just needing to like: 'I just gotta get out'; go see a movie or take a walk or something?

LM: Oh sure, there's times when that's helpful...but you know, there's a trap there, too, because you could end up just constantly distracting yourself (laughs).

AAJ: I know...its a balance.

LM: Yeah, at some point you have to back to the business of coming up with something. Its a fascinating thing, you know? I don't know.

AAJ: Was 'Falcon and the Snowman', you and Pat's first film score?

LM: Of any significance, yes.

AAJ: What was that experience like for you both?

LM: I was scared to death.

AAJ: Its incredible.

LM: Oh, well, thank you. I've been afraid at times that it was was a bit too musical and might've distracted at times from...

AAJ: That's a strange thing to say.

LM: Too complete, maybe, musically.

AAJ: Did you think distracting? is that what you're saying?

LM: I was afraid...people haven't really said that but, you know, we tried to make every little cue also have, tell a musical story, as well as fit with the film.

AAJ: I think that's a big point of film scoring.

LM: Well, there's also a time for music that doesn't really tell a story, its just part of the story being told.

AAJ: You don't want to give something away in advance, sure.

LM: Or tell a conflicting story. There is a danger there but in general it is a fascinating experience. The first (laughs) thing I did on my old Apple computer when we started work was to write a program that converted musical tempos into SMPTE duration's and frames so I could, you know, we could figure out how long a cue had to be. Now there's commercial software that does it.

AAJ: Of course. And you developed, just kidding (laughs).

LM: No (laughs). I'm not Al Gore...I didn't invent the internet.

AAJ: (laughs) Does that mean you're not a Democrat?

LM: (laughs). I leave politics completely out of music.

AAJ: I do too. I'd just rather not be involved.

LM: But to complete the answer to your question: it was really hard work, really stimulating work. And an opportunity to use some forces that, up until then I hadn't really been able to use. Writing for that boys choir was a really interesting experience.

AAJ: I mean stylistically you guys have really gotten around now.

LM: Well, you know, we have wide ranging interests.

AAJ: I think that's real important to get what you've gotten, really. Why do you think you were approached for that project, having not done something that large of that nature...up to that point?

LM: Well, I would just say hats off to Schelsinger for having the courage to hire these two kids. Unproven.

AAJ: I'm sure he saw something.

LM: He's very smart about using music in films. Like 'Cowboys', who can forget that haunting theme, you know?

AAJ: Absolutely. I think what's really rare and impressive in what you do is something that many soloists in jazz don't do, which (for them) is sublimate the ego, where you sometimes say you will not go for the second solo, in lieu of new musical material.

LM: Well, I guess my motivation for it is concern for the listener. It makes for a more interesting musical experience...not a string of solos. My one criticism of traditional Jazz, these days. I guess when it was first developed it made sense, you know, people had things to say and you wanted to hear what each person had to say. But now, yeah, forty, fifty (laughs) years, you know, down the road, its like, let's find some new models, folks. That was then, this is now.

AAJ: Right. No, I think it makes a lot of sense and I'm surprised more people aren't doing it. I mean, I've heard Michael Brecker do it and very few others. Mike Stern, those kind of guys, you know, where they'll actually add some material between soloists, change the key, just actually put more thought into the structure (and journey).

LM: Yeah. I mean, when you think about a piece like, "Are You Going with Me?", you know, it has nothing to do with the traditional Jazz form.

AAJ: Right.

LM: If you tried to play that tune with a jazz band it would sound ridiculous (laughs). You know, the whole point is its Bolero-like build, you know? So, anyway, I've always been interested in putting some different kinds of forms into the jazz environment. And I think on "Imaginary Day" its kind of the pinnacle of that. Its fairly ambitious.

AAJ: On your own record, "Fictionary" you did "Falling Grace". I thought that was such a great choice. Besides the strong melody and emotional impact of a tune like this, are you attracted to the circular, through composition aspect? Did that have anything to do with it?

LM: Well, I'm a huge fan of Steve Swallow.

AAJ: Of course. Apparently that's the first tune he ever wrote. That's what I've heard. (Note: Steve Swallow confirmed "Falling Grace" was his second tune)

LM: Really? Hmm... I've never heard that. If that's true, that's incredible! I remember my first tune (laughs). No one else will!

AAJ: Well, I try not to remember my first one (laughs)...first ten or twenty.

LM: But, I love the form of "Falling Grace". But also the internal logic of the chord changes. I mean, there's references ... its almost like there's development within just the piece itself. Ideas get developed just in the flow of the chord changes. I find that very stimulating. That and the fact that its an attempt to be a modern tune. Its not a throwback tune, its not trying to be like early jazz, it is what it is. As a matter of fact, the whole record of "Fictionary" I was trying to say that this is not retro, this is not be-bop, this is trying to write modern tunes in a straight-eighth style to be played in the traditional trio...format. But I don't want to make a traditional trio record.

AAJ: Right. And looking at it...DeJohnette, and all, it looks like a traditional trio format ...but not the way you treated it.

LM: I think part of that was the compositional framework.

AAJ: Right. And your conception of what you've described before in that you're thinking: larger compositions, more extended type things and that came across I think in that record where it wouldn't in a lot of trios, where they're just blowin' changes.

LM: Yeah, I think take for example a piece like, "Lincoln Reviews his Notes". Its a very different kind of ensemble playing...rubato interspersed with a steady beat and very interactive playing. I mean, you can follow the form but its a very free interpretation of it. I was trying to stretch things a little bit, I guess.

AAJ: I think one of my favorite recordings period is actually your first one, with Bill Frisell. From the very first piece you get a sense of freedom and expansiveness in the way the pieces unfold. You get a sense that they can go anywhere and that they're timeless. I don't know how to better describe it.

LM: Those are very kind words.

AAJ: Thank you. Its very inspiring to listen to.

LM: Its a sentimental favorite of mine, too. There's an element of luck, I think, in that album in that that particular ensemble came together as a band very quickly; very little rehearsal. And still to this day, it sounds like a band, not just some guys that got together to make a record. And I can only thank the stars for that, 'cause that doesn't happen (laughs) very often

AAJ: Was there much rehearsal?

LM: There was enough for me to really get my ideas across about the dynamic shape of the piece and the stylistic areas that I wanted to explore, but those are very talented people. It took very little time (laughs) to get those ideas across. So, I guess they were pretty specific rehearsals and not really overly long.

AAJ: You really seem to have an affinity for guitarists. Frisell and Pat, especially, I guess. Is it the blend with strings that makes it work for you?

LM: I would say that Pat and Bill are two of the most non-guitarlike guitar players. They really transcend their instruments. What I'm drawn to is that they're not guitar players. They're much more than that. They can color music. Their sonorities are so different than the average guitar, so I guess, I'm not putting down guitar, I'm just saying, its not so much the nature of guitar its what individuals do with it.

AAJ: They happen to play guitar...

LM: And, yeah, they're great musicians; they happen to play guitar.

AAJ: That's true. How did you pick the players for that record? I mean, did you say to yourself, 'this has to be Bill Frisell's or it has to be someone who can get these sounds that are in my head?

LM: Well, I knew I wanted to use Frisell because I was just such a fan and I thought that his sensibilities would be perfect for the music. But after that Steve Cantor who's listed as the producer on the record did a lot of great things and talked a lot over the music, suggested a bunch of them. Of course I wanted to use my friend, Marc Johnson who I've been playing with since North Texas, and who I think has played everything I've ever written (laughs), at some point or another. Except the stuff with Pat, but I mean stuff I've written on my own. So, Steve Cantor really put that ensemble together. He has real gift a for envisioning what people would sound interesting with...together.

AAJ: Yeah, its amazing when you get a team behind the scenes and in the studio all working together so well to produce something like that. I mean, they had to, I would say. The new record, the 'Solo' record: you mentioned its the most honest thing you've done?

LM: Yes, I have said that and I'm not sure how people interpret it (laughs).

AAJ: Yeah, I was just going to say what is the importance of honesty to you, musically and personally. How does it manifest in your life and music?

LM: I don't think it has a big part. I mean, the actual root of the word 'art', is 'artifice'.You know, at times you want to make something that's isn't you...something that's beyond you. And I don't know if that's dishonest but I'm not a big fan of just raw honesty. I'm not really bragging about the record being honest, you know (laughs). I don't think its necessarily a virtue. It just happened to ...strike me - when I listened to it - as almost biographical. So, I'm probably getting more of that honesty out of it than other people. From another angle its very honest in that its what I was thinking at the time. There's no additional musical material, other than the overdubbed solo on the last piece, but again, that was what I was thinking at the time. And its also honest in that its a solo project but its really using the instrument as I've come to see it, which is the acoustic piano combined with the synth world. But I felt it was me performing on my instrument and along those lines a solo piano record wouldn't have been as honest, because I'm not really just a piano player. I don't devote my time to that.

AAJ: Well, at least in the sense that you didn't pre-compose a lot of material and then re-create it. I guess in that sense...being in the moment...that anything in the moment would be considered more honest, I suppose.

LM: Yeah, there's a number of ways of looking at it.

AAJ: Yeah. Why's it been so long since your previous release...just other projects?

LM: Well, I personally need lots of time between these grueling PMG records and world tours.

AAJ: (laughs) Yeah.

LM: There's times when I get done with a tour and I'm just exhausted. Plus, I don't quite see the virtue in just being busy all the time. I've a lot of other interests and I guess I don't feel a particular pressure to have a career. I'm just interested in exploring music. And I'm not gonna do it at the pace that maybe some people expect.

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

LM: Well, certainly a lot of can be satisfied within the PMG because there's so much variety (laughs) and 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. Also, there's the potential for reaching far more people playing with the PMG than if I would tour on my own.

AAJ: Absolutely. Have you done that much?

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

AAJ: Who was on that?

LM: 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. A very smart drummer. He's the kind of drummer that can call out the chord changes to a tune.

AAJ: (laughs).

LM: If the bass player or the piano player doesn't know (laughs).

AAJ: Well, that's annoying.

LM: (laughs) But its a demonstration of his musical knowledge.

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

LM: 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.

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

LM: There wasn't plans to record it. It was really, you know, just to go out and play some jazz, yeah.

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

LM: 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 (laughs) solo piano. Its 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. And I also liked the two-part nature of the title. It almost reminded me of an academic work; they all seem to have two titles (laughs), you know. And I like that it kind of tipped the listener off that maybe this wasn't just a lark.

AAJ: There's a Jarrett piece that Ive always liked. Im sure youve probably played this tune: 'Memories of Tomorrow' (Part 2c on 'Koln Concert')? That I can really hear you doing something like that. Aside from "Falling Grace", do you ever consider doing more contemporary standards like that?

LM: 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 a 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, you know. I just love composition.

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

LM: 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. But there are times when I'll use, you know, (a) commercial patch on a synth. But I usually alter it in some way.

AAJ: But no one else is actually making any for you.

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

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

LM: I think Pat has finally given up on the Synclavier (laughs).

AAJ: Really.

LM: I would work with Pat's for those records. For instance, on my first record there's no Synclavier. I guess, its 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.

AAJ: Why dont we do that.

LM: Ok. The whole system is run by, you know, an Apple computer; Studio Vision . And that's gonna 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. And I also use a Kurzweil 2000. A Roland JX-10 and an old dinosaur, the Korg DW-8000.

AAJ: You're kidding.

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

AAJ: (laughs).

LM: 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.

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

LM: What time period are you talking about here?

AAJ: Mid 80's.

LM: Well, in the early 80's we 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 evolved as we played it.

AAJ: 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.

LM: That would've been before 'Letter from Home'.

AAJ: Yeah, that's right.

LM: 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).

AAJ: Absolutely.

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

AAJ: 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?

LM: Not as much as I would like. Maybe its just something personal to me. I don't know.

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

LM: Yeah, there are a few people that have been affected by that. And 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's arguments on both sides.

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 with percussion and different things.

LM: Mmhm. 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? Its 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 that that was what jazz is pretty much all about. If it loses its (element of) surprise its 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, I still have 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 its 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 its a small group.

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

LM: Its 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'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 its also an attitude. We want it to sound big. And that may have evolved from just playing big venues where being intimate wasnt, 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, 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.

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 its 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 its 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.

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: Its a very guitar player 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...I actually know...I dont know a brain surgeon. 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 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 awhile, 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. Its just that he did re-invent 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 that all the highest art really that can be said about it.

LM: Well, detail is important. And it may be an 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 its also got an abstract element, as well. So it sounds new.

LM: Well that may be can I say this, speaking of what makes something 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 arent individually, but very effective together.

LM: Well, getting back to the original question of endless tweaking. Its a real problem for me. I'm not satisfied with the current level of technology. I dont think synths a very sophisticated instrument, but yet, I'm in an era where I cant imagine ignoring them. They're here. I feel obligated to see what kind os musical use I can get out of them, but I cant 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 its just very intuitive, that its 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: Its more immediate (laughs) and its 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 its direct. its 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 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'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 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).

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.

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Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2006 by All About Jazz and Mike Brannon

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