Obituary: We Remember Lyle Mays from Pat Metheny Group

Pianist Lyle Mays Takes the Last Train, Dead at 66.

Tonight on Echoes, we remember Lyle Mays

Lyle Mays left the planet this past Monday, February 10, 2020.  He was the original and only keyboard player for The Pat Metheny Group and co-wrote almost all of their compositions. He also recorded several wonderful solo albums.  His collaboration with Metheny, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, is an ambient classic. We remember him tonight on Echoes with an hour’s worth of his music.  Read John Diliberto’s remembrance here.

Behind most great figures are usually another, lesser known unsung hero.  Duke Ellington had Billy Strayhorn, Captain Kirk had Mr. Spock and guitarist Pat Metheny had Keyboardist Lyle Mays.  Lyle Mays began working with Pat Metheny on the solo album, Watercolors in 1977 and was right there on the first eponymous Pat Metheny Group album through to the last one, in 2005.

Mays co-wrote almost all the songs for the group with Metheny as well as arranging them. But he also released several solo albums and performed with artists like Joni Mitchell, Bobby McFerrin and Rickie Lee Jones. On the soundtrack for the Falcon and the Snowman, which he co-wrote with Metheny, he worked with David Bowie. Now, Lyle Mays has taken the last train home, passing on Monday, February 10, 2020 at the age of 66.

The Original Pat Metheny Group: Mark Egan, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Danny Gottlieb

Mays was born on November 27, 1953 in Wausaukee, Wisconsin. He studied music in college, got turned on to jazz and went off to playing with Woody Herman’s Big Band. He met Pat Metheny in 1974 and they began working together almost right away. He appeared on Metheny’s 3rd solo album, Watercolors and then formed the Pat Metheny Group, recording with Mark Egan on bass and Danny Gottlieb on drums.

Right away, Metheny, recording on the jazz ECM label, had a more orchestral dynamic and that came from Mays who not only brought a more classical sensibility, but an increasing array of electronic keyboards to orchestrate the group’s sound.

Mays also had several solo albums, many in an electric jazz context but with that same orchestral sensibility. His album, Solo (Improvisations for Expanded Piano) is an ambient piano delight that revealed the well of deep melody that Mays had in him as well as an expanded approach to the piano with electronic enhancements.

Lyle Mays’ 1981 album with Pat Metheny, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, is an iconic work in many circles with its side-long title track that moved through fantasy orchestrations, atmospheric moods, found sound and some imagistic percussion by the late Nana Vasconcelos. It had little to do with jazz and everything to do with ambient orchestration.

Strangely, Mays has been mostly out of music for the last several years.  His last recording was a straight jazz session The Ludwigsburg Concert, released in 2015. Instead of music, he’d been working as a software programming manager which seems an odd way for a career to end for someone who won 11 Grammy awards and seemed so omnipresent to people like me in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  I got to talk to Lyle Mays twice, once in the 80s for the radio series Totally Wired and once in the 90s for Echoes. He was always a candid and cerebral interview. I’ll miss the sight of him on-stage, his straw-like waist-length hair flying as he hunched over his keyboards.

Lyle Mays November 27, 1953 – February 10, 2020