Lyle Mays
Lyle Mays Ralph Quinke

Lyle Mays, the jazz keyboardist best known for his membership in the Pat Metheny Group, passed away on February 10 after what his niece has called "a long battle with a recurring illness." He was 66.

Mays was essential to the PMG's sound and their success. He co-wrote much of the ensemble's material with Metheny, and his thoughtful, intuitive use of synthesizers allowed the group to explore moods and ideas that pushed beyond the jazz traditions. He may have had a keyboard arsenal that rivaled prog titans like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, but he never got flashy or dare to overplay. Every chord and sound was well-considered and perfect. Combined with Metheny's love of melody that came close to pop, the PMG became a huge success, with their albums charting in the Billboard Top 50 and winning multiple Grammys.

Mays showed the breadth of his talent as a composer and arranger in his slim but equally great solo discography. His first two albums—a 1986 self-titled effort and Street Life from 1988—were beautiful, textured works that layered synth tones atop Bill Evans-inspired piano, atmospheric guitar and sax work, and, on the latter LP, the hum of a symphony.

His later work was often in a more acoustic vein, like 1993's Fictionary and a live recording released in 2016, that put the spotlight on his ability to play around a melody with an almost angular attack. While his own recorded output slowed in the decade since he left the PMG, his influence remains profound and can be heard in the work of fellow musical seekers like John Medeski, Jason Lindner, and Rachel Z Hakim.

Someone that knew Mays well is Steven Cantor, the Portlander who works as a musical consultant for the theater community when he's not producing his XRAY radio show The Darkest Hour or his regular webcast Beats & Pieces in the Cloud. While he was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Cantor shared an apartment with Metheny and got to know Mays as the PMG was first forming. Cantor ended up co-producing Mays' first two solo albums and working with the PMG in the studio. We asked him to share his thoughts on Mays' music and passing.

Want to save The Portland Mercury? Contribute here.

Lyle had an amazing intellect. Incredibly brilliant and super acquisitive. Very into problem solving, where everything is a puzzle to be solved. The things that Lyle was doing at that time were legitimately way ahead of the curve at that point in so many ways. Particularly in integrating technology. He might as well have been writing for an orchestra, except the instruments he was writing for were a bunch of different synths.

He called me up one day and said, “Hi Steven. Why don’t you come over? I’ve been listening to Mozart symphonies a lot.” Now, I’m not a huge Mozart lover, but I can listen to Mozart symphonies. So I go over, and he was talking about how he had been listening to them and enjoyed them. I'm pretty certain that prior to the week in question, Lyle had spent little if any time listening to Mozart symphonies. And he sat down at his piano and improvised, on the spot, the first movement of a Mozart symphony. It was sonata-allegro form. There were two themes and then there was a development and a recapitulation. He would call out instruments for particular lines as he went, a la "Here's the flutes," or "This is the clarinet!" It was seven minutes of music. That’s what I mean by the acquisitive thing. He just absorbed it.