Q&A: Lyle Mays

Q&A: Lyle Mays

February 27, 2020 Off By Jazz Online

In 1998 during the Pat Metheny Group’s Imaginary Day tour, we caught up with Lyle Mays and asked him a handful of questions. Lyle was always a down to earth person willing to talk and on this Q&A, he shares in some personal insights about his musical make up.

Who would you consider to be one of your major musical influences? Would you consider their influence to be on a compositional, performance, recording, or other level? How do you see that artist influencing your own performance/recording/composition?

(Lyle Mays) I have been influenced by so many people from so many styles and eras that singling out any one might be misleading. Also, influences change over time. I listened to a lot of Zappa and Blood Sweat and Tears in my youth, currently it’s Berg’s orchestral music and Bartok’s string quartets. Still, there is a short list that has remained fairly constant that would include Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Miles, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. As for the way they’ve influenced me, I don’t make much of a distinction between composing, performing and recording. They are all just aspects of realizing musical thought. Therefore, I would say the great improvisers have influenced my writing as much as the great composers have influenced my improvising, etc. As for specifics, there really aren’t any. All musical output contains, in some way, the totality of our influences. I will say that I try to focus on a broad, abstract understanding of those who have affected me as opposed to learning licks, figures, or passages. For instance, I might think of Bill’s clarity and logic (or Beethoven’s for that matter), when I’m working on an issue of harmonic motion.

Looking at the current state of the jazz genre (1998), what state do you feel the art form to be in? Would you consider it to be growing in new directions under the jazz umbrella or in a state of flux where new jazz styles are rare?

This could probably be better answered by a critic. I’m not sure I know enough of what’s being done currently to address the issue. I would guess that we won’t know what to make of this era until it’s past. I do worry a little about certain branches of jazz inadvertently becoming “museum music” due to too much attention placed on authenticity. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a kind of “jazz lite” that seems determined to evaporate all the substance out of the music. Fortunately, there will probably be enough restless souls, somewhere between those two extremes, to carry on an inventive tradition. Also, a key issue for me is improvisation. “Styles” will come and go, but as long as improvisation remains a core ingredient, jazz will be a viable genre. As for a new “style” emerging, I’m not sure the word has much meaning in a post-modern world. I think we’ll be seeing more and more people using style itself as a musical element that can be improvised on.

Who are you trying to reach with your music?

I’m trying to reach people who speak the language. I assume a certain fluency in the imagined audience. If the listeners have never heard Brahms, or the Beatles, or Bird, they may not understand large chunks of my music, (even though they may enjoy the experience). I’m really aiming at the most well-listened and broad-minded listeners.

Having toured and performed all over the world, is there one particular place or venue that you feel is your personal favorite?

If the acoustics are good and the audience is paying attention, I’m happy. I’ve had great times in some wide ranging places (Philly, Montreal, Warsaw, among others). I have no idea where the next “new favorite” venue will be. The audience has everything to do with that experience.

What first turned your ears to jazz? Was it a particular recording or performance you saw? A period in your life where you first heard more jazz artists and began to feed your curiosity?

As a child, I started improvising before I even knew jazz existed, (thanks to parents that encouraged musical exploration), so my ears were primed. Technically, the first jazz recording I heard was “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. But I would say that hearing the music of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, combined with attending some summer jazz camps, (around age 13), really got me going.

Which pianists do you feel are your favorites? Any particular style or is it across the board?

In a way, Fictionary is a sort of tribute album to the pianists that have had the greatest impact on my playing, (Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Paul Bley were singled out). I guess they are my favorites because they move me (first and foremost), but also because of the level of conception and execution. Again, style has nothing to do with it.

What would be your 5 recommendations to a new jazz fan for “must haves” in their record collection?

It’s probably impossible to pick a “one size fits all” list, but I can suggest an approach that might get you started. Of course, the easiest way to find out what you like is to have a friend who has a great collection. But if this is not the case, start with a Miles Davis record, (Kind of Blue would be perfect), and pay attention to the sidemen. If you like what you hear, pick up one of their records and repeat the process. I realize you could quickly end up with a lot of records and not all of them would be “favorites”, but the journey could be rewarding and the collection would be more personal.

What other musical styles do you enjoy? Any in particular that you feel are a source of inspiration in your own music?

The first thing I tend to hear in a piece of music is the composition, so I listen mostly to orchestral and chamber music (more than jazz). I’ve mentioned my favorite composers earlier, but I’ll listen to anything from Bach on. Of course I also listen to a lot of jazz, but mostly from the late sixties and early seventies – that seemed to be a very fruitful period of exploration and discovery. Beyond that, I have enjoyed a lot of Brazilian music (esp. from Egberto Gismonti). There are occasional standouts in other styles (like Astor Piazzolla). I don’t listen too much vocal music but I have enjoyed certain records by Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire.

Other than something of your own, what is the last recording you listened to?

Well, I seldom listen to my own recordings once they’re released. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that there’s nothing left for me to discover in the music at that point. The last record I had the pleasure of listening to was a “sneak preview” of the new Oregon project (Oregon in Moscow). I can highly recommend it.

You have written and performed many soundtracks. What are some of the factors when composing soundtracks that differ from when you are writing material for yourself and the Pat Metheny Group?

The number one difference is that a score is just a small part of the whole project – the music needs to be incomplete and supportive. It doesn’t need to tell the story, set the scene, conjure up images, etc. It’s a big challenge for me since I’m usually trying to make the music as complete as possible. Also in a score, the structure comes from the film not the music. That usually means lots of shorter segments of music that may not stand on their own. It’s a special skill and I really admire the people who do it well (like Jerry Goldsmith or Mark Isham, for example).