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In Memoriam: Lyle Mays

Lyle Mays in Concer with the Pat Metheny Group

November 27, 1953 – February 10, 2020

The music world was saddened to learn of the passing of jazz giant and Pat Metheny Group collaborator Lyle Mays, on February 10, 2020.

It is not often that one can speak of a day that changed one's life, but I can tell you that my life was never the same after I saw the Pat Metheny Group perform live at the University of Virginia in 1984. The group was supporting the album 'First Circle', and performed in the close setting of Cabell Hall. My friend Scott Wigton was a big PMG fan, and told me I had to see them live. So based on Scott's recommendation, I showed up early to secure second row seats(!) which I shared with my friends Kate Daniels and Richard Jones.

I had never listened to PMG before, and was completely blown away by the level of musicianship and the breathtaking quality of the music written my Lyle and Pat. This was my first exposure to professional jazz musicians, and it was unforgettable. I was amazed by the way the group could transition from the epic to intimate in a heartbeat. I have a clear memory of the band closing out a raucous tune, with the audience wildly clapping and cheering. Lyle looked over at drummer Paul Wertico and traced a silent four beat count off in the air in the manner of an orchestra conductor. On beat four there were two crisp eighth note beats from the snare drum, and the band segued into 'Are You Going With Me'.

This was unlike any music I had ever heard before, the pulsing Synclavier backing track, complemented with Pedro Anzar's percussion and Wertico's drumming, seemed to be alive. And Lyle's skillful use of pitch bend and modulation showed me that purely electronic instruments could speak to the heart as much as any acoustic instrument. And then, when I thought the music could not be any more passionate or heartfelt, came Pat's soaring Roland GR-300 guitar solo.

I left Cabell Hall that night thinking about music in an entirely different way, wanting to see where the path Pat and Lyle laid out might lead.

Meeting Lyle

Fifteen years later, I had the chance to meet Lyle in person. While I had met Pat before, he being so gregarious to hang out after concerts to meet fans, Lyle was more elusive. KCRW hosted a live on air performance by Lyle Mays, on December 4, 1999. Lyle and his band were promoting an upcoming performance at Rocco's jazz club in Bel Air, on December 9, 1999. I connected my Tascam DA-88 digital tape recorder to our FM receiver to record the performance. I have posted these recordings on YouTube. I do not believe these records have been posted before.

On December 9, 1999, my wife and I showed up early at Rocco's, securing seats in the tiny club right in front of the band. About an hour later, Lyle and some of his friends showed up to have dinner in another section of the club. I could not contain myself, and I wandered over near Lyle and his friends. When I overheard a familiar topic, I leaned over to chime in, hoping to be invited to join them. Lyle would not have this, and looked me straight in the eye and said, "This is a private conversation". I felt so ashamed of myself. Who was I to intrude on Lyle and his friends? I felt like a jerk, and returned to my seat chastened by Lyle's remark.

Once the music started, I was mesmerized. The band was killer, the same as the radio broadcast, except for Peter Erskin, who was replaced by another drummer, maybe Kendall Kay. Afterwards I wanted Lyle to autograph my copy of 'Fictionary', but could hardly approach him after my social faux pas. Well, let me tell you, Lyle was as kind and generous as he could be. It was like the earlier incident never happened. He happily signed my CD, and we spoke briefly about music. I made a note to myself, 'This is what a class act is all about.' Perhaps Lyle knew how desperately I wanted to meet my hero, but also understood the need to set clear boundaries. At the appropriate time he made me feel welcome and warmly engaged me in conversation.

We need more people like Lyle Mays. Both on a musical level, and a human level.

Thank you so much Lyle Mays for your generosity of spirit, and your wonderful music. You will never be forgotten.

Lyle Mays, Bob Sheppard, Peter Eskine and Dave Carpenter - Live - Cafe LA - December 4, 1999