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Paul Wertico Remembers Lyle Mays

The drummer and bandleader pays tribute to his 18-year partner in the Pat Metheny Group (11/27/53 – 2/10/20)

Lyle Mays with Steve Rodby and Pat Metheny
Lyle Mays with Steve Rodby (left) and Pat Metheny, 1981 (photo: Ralph Quinke/ECM Records)

The first time I saw Lyle was at a place called Harry Hope’s in Cary, Illinois—the same town where I went to high school, actually. He was playing with Pat [Metheny], and it was just the quartet at that time. Lyle blew me away. He had this thing; his synthesizer playing, his piano playing, and everything was just incredible. I saw them again at the Bottom Line in New York and at the College of DuPage in Illinois.

One reason I guess I got the gig [with the Pat Metheny Group in 1983] was because I made Lyle real comfortable when he soloed. When [I auditioned for the band in December ’82], we ended up jamming as a quartet—Pat, Lyle, Steve [Rodby], and me—for … God, it must have been 10 or 12 hours. It was a totally natural thing.

The word “genius” seems to be used for everybody now. If you can play at 300 beats per minute, you’re a genius, you know? But Lyle was one. And not only musically. I mean, the guy could literally hear anything and write it out. But he was also one of those guys that, you know, you’d give him a Rubik’s Cube and in like a minute, he’d give it back to you completely solved. And then he got into chess, and I think he beat the Montana state champion or something. Then he starts getting into Legos, and all of a sudden he’s an architect. We’d be on tour in the ’80s and he was teaching himself C++—next thing you know, he’s showing us all these software programs he’d created.

He was also really athletic. He was a thin guy, but his hand-to-eye coordination was amazing. And when we were doing that More Travels video [released in 1993], it was in the Cyclorama Building in Boston. They’d rented a circus, bears and jugglers and all that stuff, and at one point this juggler gives his stuff to Lyle and Lyle’s juggling five balls at once. And the guy looks at him like, “What?” He was just that way. Everything came easy to him.

A lot of people would think he wasn’t that friendly. Sometimes after a gig, if he was going somewhere and someone approached him, he might not have time to speak to them. But it was never out of rudeness. It was just that … you know, he was on a mission. He had so much going on in his mind.

In a lot of ways, Lyle never got his due. And I don’t know if it bothered him. His contributions were major, but it was called the Pat Metheny Group and it’s easy to get sort of overwhelmed when it’s one name and one image. But he and Pat always had a good relationship, as far as I know.

Over this pandemic I’ve been going through all these CDs, stuff that I’ve never released. There’s a weekend at the Green Mill [in Chicago] with my quintet with Lyle playing piano from June of ’92, and it’s unbelievable. With his ears, he could play anything.

The last time I was in touch with him was by text in the summer of 2019. I said, “Man, let’s talk!” And he goes, “Well, you know, my mouth is sore, something’s up with my tongue, let’s just text.” I had no idea what was going on. I still can’t believe he’s dead.

When Lyle died, I posted an old picture of him with my little daughter at the piano on my Facebook page. She was two-and-a-half, three years old. He could be so kind.

[as told to Mac Randall]

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