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  • Writer's pictureDean De Benedictis

A Long and Passionate Tribute

This is Dean De Benedictis. I suppose it’s time I finally post on this site about one of my heroes who recently passed—Lyle Mays. I did manage to post about him on a couple of my Facebook walls the day he died, but it was very raw and emotional at the time so I only considered it a test, of sorts. I have since modified and edited this eulogy, although not by much, because who has the time for that? So, I must warn any readers that it is still a bit opinionated and passionate. I was upset about the news at the time, and that can be felt. I also want to assure anyone reading this that I do not intend to offend any beliefs or sensibilities, and I don’t claim to know anything for certain either. These are merely strong-minded speculations regarding aspects of my profession, which Lyle Mays was also a part of even if indirectly. The original FB post (about Lyle Mays) reads below.


Please excuse my little conniption on here yesterday. The news about Lyle just caught me off guard at a bad moment. I’m trying to focus on catching up to my own life and these heavy deaths are kind of really distracting. Lyle was a massive influence on me, as he was on many others, and like so many of my heroes, I was hoping to at least exchange ideas with him someday before he left the planet. I was right about how caring really sucks sometimes, especially when you are a musician yourself, one who has let himself be influenced profoundly by so many other musicians throughout life. I’ve really gotten carried away with how many people I’ve let influence me deeply. If I made a list of them for you, you would probably think it was a joke. This is probably why I haven’t made a list for you.  But they are still there, many of them, and I don’t believe this has been nearly as much of a crutch as it has been a huge cause for the enhancement of my own musical abilities, tenfold. I’ve simply become a better artist by allowing myself to be influenced by as many artists as possible. In a way, you could say I have an extended family out there, many of whom I’ve never met, even though I feel no less close to them.

And of my particular family of musical heroes, Lyle was among the closest. I was a Pat Metheny fan as well, but being a keyboardist, it was Lyle who influenced me more by far.

I first learned classical piano as a child before anything else. Eventually, I bought my first synthesizer, got into rock and hip hop and electronic music, and for a while, didn’t look back. It wasn’t until I discovered Lyle’s piano playing, at age 18, that I decided to keep playing piano myself. I was discovering a lot of music at that time, tons, everything from progressive rock to progressive jazz to Berlin School to ambient to hip hop to fusion, but for piano playing, Lyle stood out in an unavoidable way. My father was a great pianist also, and he taught me a lot at that time, but I would never have decided to keep playing piano if it weren’t for Lyle. Any merit I might show at that instrument, I’d have to credit both my father and Lyle Mays for.

Coming from a place of as much objectivity as I have to offer, Lyle Mays was the greatest jazz pianist in the world, while he was still playing. I know that’s quite a bold statement to make, because I’m skipping over people who are true legends at the top of that game, and might have ascended Lyle beyond my knowing in some way, but I doubt it. I know plenty, and I am fairly certain it came down to Lyle. Of course what I’m saying would indeed be rendered null and void if one considers how Lyle skipped using many of the techniques that we typically associate with jazz piano playing. In that way, Lyle could never be considered the best, sure; he rarely doubled his octaves, doubled his time, jumped wide intervals while riffing, soloed with the left hand or even got all agro on the keys, among other impulses. Indeed that leaves a lot to be desired, to folks who expect the typical staples of jazz technique. However, I base true musicianship on a person’s ability to reconcile emotional depth with complexity and graceful fluidity. That’s it. That’s my main formula for the best: 1 +1 + 1 = a truly holy trinity. I’m sure there are plenty of other music specialists out there who share the same opinion, even if we are in the shadows. Mays had that complex grace even over Jarret and Corea and Hancock, regardless of what they still had over Lyle. This was a thing to behold—total and absolute grace. Every note intended and accounted for in the most graceful canopy possible. Of course, comparing Lyle’s complex grace to Jarret’s is risky business and a close call, but when all was said and done, Mays always came across more flawless, intentional and in-control, over just about anyone.

Later piano legends who began emerging in the 90’s seemed more pop than any of the previous guys, so I don’t really include them in the conversation. And previous mega legends such as Oscar Peterson and Lennie Tristano were from a different time also, with a different type of approach, so I don’t include them either. Incorporating the graceful motion and approach of classical impressionistic music into jazz didn’t seem as much of a priority during their time, even when Bill Evens finally came along. No, not to the degree it did once Lyle emerged. Lyle’s effortless technique matched the complexity of his thought processes, as he performed, to a fairly unparalleled level in the world of jazz piano, as far as I’m concerned. But what really makes Lyle the anomaly and the fairly revolutionary artist he was, in addition to his piano playing, was that oddly enough, he was an extremely cutting edge electronic musician and composer, at a time when that musical form was still new and still frowned on. Herby Hondcock was the only other known jazz pianist of that ilk in the mainstream who was innovating electronically to the degree that Lyle Mays was. Pianists like Rainer Bruninghaus had done a lot with synth, but not to the degree of full blown compositions with drum rhythms, the way the few artists like Lyle Mays were, and definitely no one with the poetic inference and emotional gesture of Lyle and his sound designing mood. He defied the odds, for all of it. His electronic music programming and performing was so good, at that time, that it won he and Pat Matheny extremely memorable Grammys. I mean, these albums weren’t just Grammy winners, they were iconic landmarks in the world of jazz, because no one had merged jazz with electronic music in quite the way those two had before those albums. I speak of “Offramp,” and others of that time, along with non-nominated iconic albums like “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls,” in there.

But don't get me wrong, Lyle's genius for composing was good, but it still didn't quite match up to some of the other modern jazz giants of the 70s, 80s and 90s in my opinion. I actually thought Billy Childs was more innovative as far as composing, as well as John McLaughlin and others. But composing isn't what I'm calling Lyle out into the limelight for, as much as his piano playing and his synth work, and even though he was still a genius composer. Again, not to knock his composing at all, on the contrary, I worshiped the few pieces that I worshiped, and the rest was the rest. And when one takes the time to get to know Lyle's solo work, it becomes fairly apparent that a good chunk of Pat Metheny's glory came from working with Lyle. Lucky man... lucky amazing and cutting-edge guitar player.

Indeed most people don’t know this but, Pat Matheny was kind of a duo, not a guy. Of course that was Pat’s real name and he used that name to play with others and collaborate all over the world, but from the mid 70s to the late 90s, when he made his own music, that was a band, and more specifically, a duo. Most of the time it was a band with 4 members, but pretty much all of the time, the composers of those four were 2 people, Lyle and Pat. In a few of cases, Lyle even composed most of the piece, if not all. Lyle was apparently so humble and so close to Pat that he insisted on always being seen as Pat’s side man, for most of his career. This is why he didn’t get as much of a limelight as Pat Matheny did. I think that’s actually a beautiful and honorable thing for him to have done. Pat was one of the greatest guitarist in the world, and Lyle was one of the greatest pianists and composers in the world, so obviously they worked well together. I can see how this union meant a lot more to them than a mere addiction to certain workmates. It was a profound bond they shared, and ending or changing that bond was not attractive, for well over 20 years. It didn’t matter that Lyle was the greatest pianist in the world, he had a bond that was strong enough that it made all of his musical endeavors fulfilling and ascendant. What more could a humble and low key artist want? To aspire to play like Lyle Mays was what propelled me, because aspiring to play as well as the best, or better, will inevitably propel anyone, whether or not you ever reach that level. In truth, I never did, but the night is still young. I have a long way to go and a lot of improving and work to do, and I feel like I’m just starting out, because I get more and more focused and serious as time goes by. This is probably what makes me so angry sometimes whenever a hero like Lyle passes away so young. I’m sorry man but 66 is young. People die at well over 100 years old sometimes, and that’s becoming more and more frequent. Lyle had plenty more to go. Upon getting the news, one of my first thoughts was “I’m alive and well and looking and feeling young and fit, and I’m not that much younger than Lyle was. Why the heck isn’t he also?” We tend to feel a little bit robbed and cheated, if you know what I mean. In the back of our minds, there’s always plenty of time to at least meet the person and talk. We are innocent, until they’re gone. On my ambient jazz FB group, I’m going to start posting more links to the work of Lyle Mays and his work with Pat Matheny as well. I might keep that going there for weeks. Please go to that group and join it if you’d like to receive more of these link posts about Lyle Mays. The group is called Ambient/Jazz and Progressive Ensembles. Just click the link, join, and then you can even do a search in that group for some of my previous posts about Lyle. Most of my posts about his piano playing will be there also. In the meantime, I will leave these two links here in honor of him, for this one post about him on my personal pages.

On my ambient jazz FB group, I’m going to start posting more links to the work of Lyle Mays and his work with Pat Matheny as well. I might keep that going there for weeks. Please go to that group and join it if you’d like to receive more of these link posts about Lyle Mays. The group is called Ambient/Jazz and Progressive Ensembles. Just click the link, join, and then you can even do a search in that group for some of my previous posts about Lyle. Most of my posts about his piano playing will be there also. In the meantime, I will leave these two links here in honor of him, for this one post about him on my personal pages.

This is a scene from a poetic coming-of-age comedy called Fandango, made in the late 80s, actually 1990 I think. It features Pat and Lyle’s music from their 1980 album As Falls Wichita. This is the last scene of the movie. It’s a wedding scene that was so moving I always imagined my own eventual wedding being at least the same style. You have to see the whole movie to get the full story, although it’s not rocket science to figure out. But you will likely understand the sentiment in there. It’s unavoidable. It still chokes me up every time, right down to the last moment of the film.

But also, what I find most notable about this scene, is that it’s one of the first times I’d ever seen filmmakers edit the movie to an entire piece of music that was not composed for that film. The filmmakers were obviously so taken by this music that they simply cut the whole end of the film to it. I think that is so boss and utterly pimp of Pat and Lyle. (For lack of a more tastefully aggressive term.) They never sacrificed making the type of music that fulfilled them so that they could take up soundtrack work. For my own reasons, I just find Soundtrack music to be a line of work that is lucrative but artistically overrated. That’s just my opinion, after having scored a little myself. It serves a basic purpose yes, but filmmakers could do it so much better than just hiring out composers all the time. A long time ago I decided I didn’t like the idea of composing a work for someone else’s work, so that it’s meaning is dictated by a story that is separate from the music itself. I feel as though filmmakers should simply take music that musicians have already composed and recorded, and released on albums, and use that! This looks and sounds better to me, and it’s SO much more honorable to musicians out there who make this work their lives. This is what early electronic artists like Tangerine Dream and Wendy Carlos did, as well as Pat Matheny and Lyle Mays, and some others. They were hired to write a customized soundtrack, but in many cases, they simply incorporated work from their albums, and called that a custom-made soundtrack. I think that was super cool, because it’s kind of like our way of saying “Hey, our music is obviously good enough that lots of people make it the soundtrack to their own lives. Are you saying that the story of your movie is more important than the story of people’s lives? I don’t think so. If our music is good enough for their lives, it should be good enough for your movie.” I love that!!! I mean sure, many of these musicians weren’t demanding anything, they just moved film makers enough that those film makers used their work, but that’s still pretty much the same thing. And sure, these musicians did compose cues for these films, but they tried to do that as little as possible, to conserve on time. They didn’t want these movies to interfere with their ACTUAL MUSIC careers. Pat Matheny and Lyle Mays made music for the joy of music, not for the joy of helping to tell a story that someone else wrote. Of course I don’t mean to completely dameen or devalue the soundtrack composing field, but I just think it’s a little overrated, both by fans and filmmakers. We need to get over that. I’ve seen too many friends, colleagues and acquaintances who were truly great musicians and performers give up their miraculous talent for soundtrack work. They get Hollywood status for it and they make a good living, but to me, and I’m sure plenty of unspoken others, that just seems like nothing more than a seductive trap. If they have families, then sure, but otherwise I think it’s just a cop out, and I still think soundtracks should be made by filmmakers using pre-existing work. It’s the filmmakers who are the problem, not the musicians. A little bit of research, and film makers would have the perfect soundtrack. I think it’s cultural convention and laziness that locks filmmakers into this pattern. I’ve gotten involved with filmmaking myself enough to see this and realize it. But I digress and perhaps I’ll get more into all of that at a later time, and in a more forgiving and patient way (lol).

For now, my heart and mind are still obviously with... well... I guess the timeless ghost known as Lyle Mays. We haunt each other while alive, and we haunt each other while dead. Life is just haunting. May he rest in peace and be destined for greater existence of some kind. Please watch this extremely moving and inspirational scene that uses he and Pat Matheny’s music. All guitar is by Pat Matheny, but almost everything else is by Lyle Mays, synths and all. He was such a true innovator, in more ways than just music. Look him up. This was a serious yet unobtrusive loss to the world.

Also, underneath this link is a link to both Lyle and Pat performing this same piece that was used in the movie scene. It’s that same piece from As Falls Wichita, and the performance is right around the time that the album came out. They are a pair from that time. Quite an eternal and bittersweet legacy to leave behind. Rest In Peace, Lyle. The Travels continue, regardless, as does the longing, as does your presence.


Performing that same music live:

Also, here is the Lyle Mays piano solo that sold me on piano when I first heard it. In truth it was a combination of this piece and a piece from the Eberhard Webber album Later That Evening, where Lyle absolutely kills that piano. But this piece, entitled Mirror Of The Heart, contains some of May’s most heartfelt playing, in all of its graceful and glorious complexity.

Mirror Of The Heart (one of Lyle’s piano solos)

-Dean De Benedictis


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