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Bobby Lyle: In the Moment

Gigi Brooks talks with the keyboardist about his career as a bandleader and musical director

Bobby Lyle

Throughout my career I have conducted numerous interviews with some of the most influential jazz legends and artists of our time. The musical artistry of Emmy-nominated, pianist, keyboardist and composer, Bobby Lyle has fascinated me to the point that I made it a priority to reach out to him and speak with him about who he is as an artist and his life experience in the industry for over forty years.

His latest release, The Way I Feel, is a heartfelt tribute to his late, great friend and mentor, Hammond B-3 organ player, Jimmy Smith and the late, great guitarist, Wes Montgomery. On this recording, Bobby Lyle takes on the Hammond B-3 with fire and brimstone, grooving throughout each session with precise purpose and a uniqueness all his own. The personnel choice is a one-of-a-kind selection, which iced the cake with Brennan Nase on guitar; Patrick Williams, Mark Simmons, and Mark Prince on drums, Keith Vivens on bass, and Milton Comeaux on percussion.

I had to admit to him that I have been a fan of his since the late 1970’s and that I was elated to have the opportunity to learn and speak with this vastly, multi-talented, veteran artist…Bobby Lyle.

Gigi Brooks: I would like to talk about your life and career. It has been over forty years that we have had your music in our lives. I read that you took music lessons from your mother, who was the church organist. Take me back to that time.

Bobby Lyle: Yes, this is true. I had an older brother who was already taking lessons and it really looked like something fun to do, so I begged my mom to give me lessons. She started me out and became my first teacher and then passed me onto a private teacher. I wanted to follow through with it and it seemed that the more that I learned, the more I was intrigued to want to learn; especially when it came to jazz music, it seemed that I was gifted with an ear for that early on and probably because my mom was a collector and she had the big band stuff like Count Basie, Billy Eckstine and Duke Ellington. So I was listening to a lot of stuff at a very early age I didn’t know what genre it was, it just sounded good.

Gigi: I learned that Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Errol Garner, Art Tatum and Ahmad Jamal had a profound influence on your early years and also for your ear and I wondered if their skillful use of loudness changes and playing chords slightly after the beat have any effect on the way you approach the piano today?

Bobby: Yes. I mean that’s really one of the big differences between jazz music that swings and European classical music that’s pretty regimented to the exactness of the beat. Jazz musicians learned early on that taking the liberty to come just a little bit behind the beat lent to the overall feel of what you were trying to establish groove-wise, and then when you add the harmonics on top of that, which is what the players would improvise and solo on, their solos would also be influenced by that interpretation of the beat. The combination of these things is what really gives jazz its total uniqueness .

Gigi: Then you’ll be able to expand on it yourself with what you done on the different types of keys, because they weren’t using Fender Rhodes and Hammond B-3.

Bobby: Yes, that’s true I mean, the instrumentation and the technology will probably continue to evolve, but the basic principle has pretty much and will stay like they are, but still be flexible enough. The rhythm section can change with the times, because I always say that jazz purists and people who write about jazz have a concept that jazz is just locked into the swing, big band or the Dixieland era or whatever… I don’t know. I’ve always felt that they’re trying to make jazz a museum piece and jazz is anything but that. The fact that it’s flexible and that it transcends eras and the different ways that the bass players and trumpeters are interpreting jazz music… to me that keeps it alive and organic and expanding.

Gigi: Not only that, jazz is a living thing.

Bobby: It’s a living thing and it’s created in the moment, and whether that moment happens to be in 1945 or 2015, each moment is going to speak to what’s going on at that point in time and younger players coming in to participate… and that’s the other thing; when Miles Davis embraced the fact that it was okay to not always be locked into swing, but to bring in some funkier beats and Go-Go and all of that …when he embraced it then, it sort of opened up the floodgates for everybody to know that it’s okay to do that and to incorporate things that are going to bring in younger listeners you know, its just that way. The music is assured. It will have longevity.

Gigi: That is so true. When you’re composing and writing your music, how do you decide whether to use the piano, Fender Rhodes or Hammond B-3 organ?

Bobby: Well, I still consider myself a pianist, but since it has been so many years… back in my younger days growing up learning how to play the B-3, I think it was almost a mistake that I went so many years of recording without including that sound in my recordings. Perhaps, it was the influence of the record companies, who had fully embraced the idea of the smooth jazz sound and that being pretty much piano, guitar and saxophone driven and I’m sure that contributed to it, but now I’m more concerned with the legacy of honoring the heroes of the past and if it takes this B-3 organ CD, which is the first one in my career, to let folks know how I feel about Jimmy and his influence, then so be it. My next CD will probably be back on the piano, but this is a project that just had to be done.

Gigi: He was also your friend and mentor as well. What did you learn from him during those years?

Bobby: Well, yes. Jimmy and I did have a relationship that kind of expanded over the years. I learned the dedication that he had to just being excellent in his presentation and just bringing a certain kind of energy to it every time he performed and making a connection with your audience, because we don’t just do this so that we can provide some candy for your ears, we also want to touch you at a heart level and a soul level. I really got some clarity on that by being with Jimmy and watching him perform and a lot of that has to do with… I’m sure with the organ coming from the church where people are dealing with spirituality and soul from this light in that environment. Jimmy brought that over into the jazz venue which kind of tied it all together, so at some point during my performances you’re probably going to hear me make a lot of references to church and incorporate that into the whole performance side by side with the be-bop, swing and the modern funk. It all ties together in my mind… it all comes from the same spirit.

Gigi: I want to ask you about the moment that was supposed to happen, which didn’t happen with Jimi Hendrix, which is a real tragedy. What would that have been like? What do you think would have been between you and Jimi Hendrix had he lived?

Bobby: You know… it is hard to say in a definitive sort of way, but just looking at it in a general way, I know that we had elements that we were going to bring to him and he already had elements in place that made him a legendary rock player… so it would have been right during that time that so-called fusion music was big and blossoming and Jimi himself had started listening to Miles and different jazz musicians. So it would have been some kind of combination of the two elements of jazz and rock and it would have definitely been in a way where we could have gotten a lot of interplay and groove and just really have been influential to each other and not to mention the fact that you know, we weren’t really into drugs. Hopefully, that would have had a positive influence on Jimi, because obviously that’s ultimately what took his life. There’s no way to rewrite history, but it’s always good food for thought when I see a picture of him or listen to a song of his… you know? Jimi and artists like Miles Davis made bold statements. He went his own direction, regardless of what everybody else thought or what was going on around him.

Gigi: Miles actually was going to do some work with him as well, and then he said he suddenly passed away. I’m sitting here just wondering what would have been…

Bobby : Yes, it is something that I’ll always play with mentally. You can’t rewrite history, but it would have definitely been a golden era for all of us involved.

Gigi: Yes, it would have been. You’ve played with Sly and the Family Stone, Ronnie Laws, Wayne Henderson and the Jazz Crusaders, George Benson and so many other great musicians and legends, which took you to another level in music where you became a music director, directing for stars like Bette Midler. How did that come about?

Bobby: Well, the Bette Midler gig actually came about, because of her guitarist, a guy named Buzzy Feiten at the time. She was going to start performing on stage again and she didn’t have a musical director, because her original one was Barry Manilow, he had moved into a successful solo career and so the chair was open and Buzzy Feiten, whom I had known for a few years from studio sessions just kind of threw my name in the hat as someone who should be considered and bless his heart… I got a call from her to come and audition. It was a very unusual audition, because most of the time we just sat and talked about music and our respective backgrounds and right before was time to leave she was like ‘Oh! I guess I should hear you play something!’

Bobby : [laughs]

Gigi: [laughs]

Bobby: So, I think it was because I came highly recommended, so I’m sure she knew that I could play, but you know a part of any audition has to include some kind of playing.

Gigi: She already knew she had the Gold right there!

Bobby: Yeah, she probably went through everybody that was on her list, I guess just to make sure. She interviewed everybody. Needless to say, I was on pins and needles waiting for that call , but it took more than a week before they finally called, but it all worked out and we had some very successful tours together.

Gigi: That’s wonderful! I want to make a mention of the Emmy nomination that you received for your musical direction on her HBO special, “Diva Las Vegas,” that is pretty impressive.

Bobby: Yes, I was very happy and proud about that whole thing. It culminated our whole relationship and is quite gratifying to have received.

Gigi: That is tremendous! You have also done music direction for Al Jarreau, Anita Baker and many other people correct?

Bobby: That is true. When I look back on that whole period most of this happened after I was signed with Capitol Records and after my third album with Capitol, they sort of disbanded their whole jazz division. I guess they figured it wasn’t profitable enough and so we were all kind of cast adrift. I figured the best way to keep going was to hire out as a musical director; there was a lot of “being at the right place at the right time” that happened throughout that period in the 80’s, which led all the way up to my signing with Atlantic Jazz and beyond. I still maintained a relationship with Bette Midler, even after I got the deal at Atlantic, but that whole musical director period covered Bette, Al, Anita Baker and little bit of Phyllis Hyman. It gave me an education in another direction, which is being a vocal accompanist and that’s an art form that is different. Being the lead player in a group requires another kind of listening and empathy towards what’s going on, so you can become more of a facilitator for the person who is up front. I learned a lot during that period that I can pass on to some of my piano students and make them aware of the difference between the two idioms. When someone’s singing you don’t just solo and play all over them, you learn to operate in spaces that they need when they take a breath and you learn to color around them as they present the song.

Gigi: Are you still doing any music direction for anyone today ?

Bobby: I am not. These recent years have been pretty much dedicated to just trying to establish and maintain myself as a solo artist and you know, get some bookings with the festivals and clubs. This current CD, The Way I Feel, is actually a milestone in another direction. It’s the first time that I have created my own record label and put some gradus down on it…I sort of look at it as my freedom, autonomy…my independence, whatever you want to call it. I may not sell as many copies, but I definitely will get a much larger proportion of each sale than what I would get if I were signed with a label.

Gigi: Absolutely ! That is very true! Well, right before we touch on that I want to say that I have just about every recording you have made. I have a stack of your music, but I want to tell you one of my favorites is New Warrior from 1978 and that’s when you really you incorporated your funk, fusion- jazz, it was just beautiful and my favorite song was “Good Inside” and this time you were singing! Your voice is remarkable!

Bobby: Well, I felt very adventurous back in that day and I presented as many different flavors of jazz as I could and some vocal stuff you know. I was just bold enough to try anything and I think the only reason that I stopped with the vocals on the records was because I had really started to listening to people like Luther Vandross and Jeffrey Osborne and I was like why am I trying to do this? [laughs]

Gigi: [Laughs] The singing was great! You were using strings on this particular recording and I really love strings!

Bobby: Well, there’s another explanation for that as well. That was at a time when jazz artists were really able to get decent budgets and it was when the budgets started being widdled away that you hear people not doing as many string sections or using synthesizers for strings… you’re right! It’s a shame! There’s nothing more beautiful than that element on top of the other music and when we could no longer afford to do it I really hated that, but it was just a sign of the times I guess…

Gigi: That album like I said is one of my favorites! I can listen to that album all day long. I can play that one song over and over again, because it has so many changes and is so funky, but yet silky and its moving… it’s wonderful!

Bobby: Well, I don’t know. I had actually almost forgotten about that project and somebody posted up on my Facebook page the tune on there I think of “Believe” which is another vocal tune which was done in 5/4 meter and I was like ‘Oh my goodness!’ Man, I forgot all about this stuff! [laughs]

I’m such an “in-the-moment,” “always looking ahead” kind of person that I guess I don’t have time to keep reviewing that which is already done and passed, but it’s nice every once in a while to revisit those things and be able to listen to them without thinking as a producer… it takes a long time to be able to hear your own stuff and not be critiquing it and all of that and just listen to the music and enjoy it.

Gigi: Yeah, well I can’t really listen to myself on the air still to this day.

Bobby: Yes, you know a lot of people are like that and I guess that’s surprising to some folks who are fans of yours and they just don’t understand, but after some years have gone by then I can sit back and enjoy some of my work and I’m really appreciative of that even though again I’m still focused on what I’m doing now and what I’m getting ready to do.

Gigi: When you were discussing your new release, The Way I Feel, you mentioned that this is your first recording with you playing the Hammond B-3 organ in honor of Jimmy Smith and also Wes Montgomery . You’ve got some great musicians on this project. Brennan Nase on guitar…

Bobby: Yes, he’s a very, very fine guitarist. Probably the best guitarist no one’s ever heard of, because he lives in Houston and has never really ventured outside of this local bubble here, but I’m going to make him one of my future products on my label just to try to help him get out there because he is so talented.

Gigi: We’re going to have to do an interview on him and get him really out there.

Bobby: Definitely.

Gigi: Patrick Williams, Mark Simmons and Mark Prince on drums; Keith Vivens on bass and Milton Comeaux on percussion. The album is a remarkable work! Tell me about the project.

Bobby: It was one of my longest running projects. I think the initial seeds were planted in 2010. We were working here in Houston over at Texas Southern University. They have the radio station which has a recording studio. We were invited to do the project there to help us get it done and to also give their studio a little notoriety for having done a national project there, but the flip side of that coin was we were subject to wait for the engineer and the studio to be available, so sometimes they were booked up for weeks and we just had to wait before we could get back in there. Also, because I was financing the project myself, sometimes I’d have to wait to accumulate enough funds to continue going forward, so the combination of these things made the project take much longer than it probably would have ordinarily.

Gigi: Well, that’s understandable.

Bobby: Believe me we toasted a glass of wine when it was finally done and mastered. [laughs] I was like a ‘whew at last!’ It seems like it was just going to go on forever, but we got it done and for that I am grateful.

Originally Published