Whether intentionally or not, Lyle Mays seems to have perpetrated one of jazz’s great disappearing acts. For more than three decades, beginning in the mid-’70s, he was an integral component of the Pat Metheny Group, as keyboardist, composer and arranger; released a handful of well-regarded solo albums; and served as sideman to a number of high-profile artists. But for more than a decade now it’s been radio silence.
Given his below-the-radar status, the emergence of any previously unheard Mays music of significance is a treat. This new set is not newly recorded—it documents a 1993 concert in Germany—but it’s a treasure, described in the liner notes as “the only legal recording of Mays’ acoustic quartet,” that being bassist Marc Johnson, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and drummer Mark Walker, with Mays sticking solely to piano. Its nine tracks are spread over two CDs, all of them Mays compositions save for an expansive reworking of “Au Lait,” composed by Metheny and Mays and originally heard on the PMG’s Offramp album.
The performance begins with “Fictionary,” more than triple the length of the version that served as the title track of the then-current Mays solo outing featuring Johnson and Jack DeJohnette. Here, in sharp, crystalline fidelity, Mays expounds upon the theme solo at first, sumptuously, with quasi-classical flourish. The sudden entrance of the band cracks it wide open, Sheppard blowing hot, Walker grabbing ample solo time and Mays returning for a second round upfront, this time leaving decorum behind. “Lincoln Reviews His Notes” provides Johnson with his first spotlight turn, but it’s the ensemble work throughout—”Are We There Yet,” from PMG’s Letter From Home, is impeccable—that captures the group dynamic at its peak. The finale, “August,” from Mays’ 1988 solo effort, Street Dreams, eschews some of its original widescreen chamber-music boldness for a more subtle approach, but it’s no less touching.