To fans of the Pat Metheny Group, he was the quiet, long-haired dude behind racks of keyboards. And while Metheny in his striped shirts and unruly mane was always the frontman, fans often added a crucial “and” to the PMG equation: Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.
Mays was a huge part of the PMG sound. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s heyday of the Pat Metheny Group, spanning album masterpieces such as Pat Metheny Group, Offramp, and American Garage. Outside of PMG, Mays and Metheny shared equal billing on another masterpiece, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, which hit #1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart in 1981, the year of its release. Lyle Mays was the supreme texturalist, the mad keyboard wrangler, seen onstage but rarely heard off. A shy guy (or mysterious genius) who preferred to let Pat do the talking, Mays was a musician’s musician, a serious composer, a private man with little interest in fame who preferred to let his music speak for itself.
In February, 2020, Mays died after a long battle with illness. His final work, Eberhard, a tribute to jazz bassist Eberhard Weber, whose sound was a major influence on the PMG, was released in August, 2021. A month later, Pat Metheny released Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV), one of a series of sessions where Metheny generously brings in a young player, in this case, keyboardist James Fancies. Finally, to complete this trio of related projects, Mays’s niece, jazz singer Aubrey Johnson who, along with Mays, is the executive producer of Eberhard, has finally seen the proper release of her pandemic-delayed album, Unraveled.
Fortunately, before his passing, Mays was able to hear and tweak the final mixes of Eberhard, which is available on www.lylemays.com. With a group that includes heavyweights like bassist Steve Rodby, percussionist Alex Acuña, and guitarist Bill Frisell, the piece is classic Mays, a haunting theme made even more potent by 16 players who sweep in and out, adding marimba, keyboard, woodwinds, and cello among other instrumental voices. The project’s wordless vocals are the province of Johnson. A fan of Mays’s music, Johnson eventually had a mentor-to-musician relationship with her uncle and played with him several times—once during the 2009 premiere of Eberhard. She doesn’t hesitate when asked in a recent interview about the Mays-Metheny partnership:
“They were both such lovers of sound, and they brought out the best in each other. They were interested in what each other was interested in but had different strengths as well,” she says. “Lyle brought orchestration, genius orchestration. Obviously, Pat can do that too, but that was something that Lyle was especially interested in. He studied classical composers and he applied those concepts to jazz. And then all those amazing sounds and textures that he created on synthesizers and keyboards.”
A 13-minute modern tone poem of sorts, the piece “Eberhard,” whose theme was composed in the 1980’s for a television special, opens with quiet marimba murmuring, before a very defined, bittersweet melody played on piano enters, one very reminiscent of Mays’s work with Metheny. As rainsticks trickle in the background, a bass guitar enters, followed by Johnson’s wordless vocals. “Eberhard” increases in tempo and dynamics until a tenor sax solo by Bob Sheppard leads to its rumbling climax of voice, drums, and sax, followed by a descending coda of marimbas, rainsticks, and piano. Along the way are flecks of many of Mays’s musical touchstones: Philip Glass’s minimalism, Indonesian Gamelan ensemble, Brazilian music, and, even, the blues. As posthumous releases go, it is a fittingly inventive and artistic finale to a distinguished career in music. Produced by Mays with associate producers Steve Rodby (a longtime Mays friend from PMG days) and Bob Rice, Eberhard was beautifully recorded and mixed by engineer Rich Breen from August 2019 to January 2020 at a quintet of studios including Sphere Studios L.A., East West Studios, Henson Recording Studios, The Village Studios, and Autumn Studio.
To color in the portrait of a man who kept mostly to himself, Mays was a university-schooled Wisconsin native who went on to tour with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd before meeting Metheny in 1975. He co-wrote and arranged substantial portions of 11-time Grammy Award winning albums for the PMG. He also received four Grammy nominations for his solo work. He described his style as “a way to explore the many dichotomies in my life”: composition versus improvisation, acoustic versus electronic, old versus new. Later in life, he composed for off Broadway theater, created film scores, and composed music for a series of children’s records, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit narrated by Meryl Streep. He even dabbled in classical music with The Debussy Trio recording his “Twelve Days in the Shadow of a Miracle”.
Aubrey Johnson, whose soaring vocals, along with Bob Sheppard’s solo on tenor sax, are one of Eberhard’s most distinguishing features, is a jazz singer and professor. Educated at the New England Conservatory, she currently teaches in the voice department of Berklee College of Music and the Jazz Masters Program at Queens College in New York City, where she also leads a working band. Throughout all of it, she’s traveling a similar musical path as her uncle.
“He gave me compositional advice as in once you find something great, take the material you have and mine it. How it can be turned around or utilized as a counter line? Or as a bass line? Or as part of a harmonic theme? I love the way he taught me. Having a family connection, and having listened to his music my whole life, composing was already instinctual. I feel like I can showcase my voice better than anyone else. And I’ve always had a penchant for things that felt like a journey.”
Eberhard by Lyle Mays: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1vjYc4o3yQ