Lyle Mays: Solo Improvisations for Expanded Piano

Posted by: fred simon on 02 September 2000

I believe Solo Improvisations for Expanded Piano by Lyle Mays to be nothing short of a ground breaking masterpiece, and each time I listen the plot thickens.

What has really delighted me is Lyle's concept of orchestration: there are no overt references to conventional orchestral instruments -- all sounds are organically tied to the sound of the piano (in fact, the very notes of the orchestration are entirely derived from the notes of his original improvisations). All synth sounds and the processed sampled "prepared" piano sounds (not in the sense of John Cage's prepared piano, but sometimes referring to Henry Cowell's string scrapes and reverberant clouds) seem to emanate from the initial piano performance. Often the synth sounds are extensions of the sustained piano notes, functioning as "pitched reverb." To be sure, this is territory Lyle has been exploring for years, but represents a pinnacle of accomplishment.

Of course, none of this sonic palette would mean much if the initial piano performances weren't so magnificent. These are truly improvised compositions, with all the organic and cohesive formal integrity that good composition should have, and with deep melodic and harmonic inspiration.

Listening again last night it occurred to me that the title Solo can be taken two ways: obviously it was all done by one person, it's a solo performance, but also in that the resultant composite sound really is a singular voice, one instrument: the "expanded" piano.

This is such an apt description, because the synths/samples do not comprise a second discreet voice playing material other than what was played on the original piano track -- all counterlines, inner voices, etc. are born of the original piano performance -- and these sounds realize the implications of the sonic possibilities of that performance like sunlight glinting on water or the play of the aurora borealis. The piano has been expanded.

I hope people realize the depth and significance of Lyle's achievement, because I really think it's monumental. Lyle is such an essential element of the Pat Metheny Group world; in fact, there would be no PMG as we know it without Lyle.

This is Lyle's world, and it's profound.

[This message was edited by fred simon on SUNDAY 03 September 2000 at 06:17.]

Posted on: 03 September 2000 by Mike Hanson
Your description of Lyle Mays' work is extremely enticing. I've long been of a fan of PMG, and I have always recognized Lyle's integral contribution to those works. I'll pick up his album and give it a listen. Thanks for the heads up, and I'll report back when I've had a chance to experience it. Catch you later!

-=> Mike Hanson <=-

Smilies do not a forum make.

Posted on: 09 September 2000 by Paul Stephenson
Yes Fred a grounding breaking piece, I must say when I first gave it a spin I realised that this really needed some time to be devoted to this music.
The more I play it the more I find, I was fortunate to meet Lyle in London some years ago, he impressed me alot, you could tell something was brewing with this guy.I would love to have Lyle record something for us.
Posted on: 12 September 2000 by fred simon
Yes, Paul, having known Lyle for some time now, and having worked together in the Paul McCandless band, I agree that there is quite a lot brewing in him, much more than many realize. I think he is vastly under-appreciated ... one of the truly great composer/musicians of our time.

It certainly couldn't hurt to sound him on doing something for the label ... you never know.

Posted on: 12 September 2000 by Paul Stephenson
"one of the truly great composer/musicians of our time."
Agreed Fred.

Posted on: 14 September 2000 by fred simon
Hi, David.

Each to his own, of course, but I've loved the recent PMG records, especially We Live Here and Imaginary Day, both of which delivered very satisfying changes of direction from the PMG sound of Still Life (Talking) and Letter From Home.

I especially loved Something To Remind You from We Live Here, PMG's Earth, Wind and Fire "tribute" song on which they venture into even richer harmonic/melodic territory than EWF might have, as evidenced by the ever-modulating and ever-building vamp at the end of the tune, for instance. I also dug the cool funk intelligence of many of the tracks, and, as always, a masterful sense of organic cohesion in composition overall, with particular emphasis on an expanded harmonic/melodic/rhythmic vocabulary within the confines of a genre (pop-jazz) not usually acknowledged for same.

Imaginary Day was a whole new chapter, introducing Metheny's exquisite use of fretless guitar (both acoustic and electric), Lyle's leap forward into a much more nuanced and detailed use of synth orchestration, the overall "Near and Far Eastern" flavor of much of the album, and the ground breaking track Roots Of Coincidence which managed to meld the core PMG sensibility with that of Nine Inch Nails, as unlikely as that seems on paper. The harmonic structure of this tune alone is new territory for PMG (almost Wagnerian), not to mention the sonic component. And the song Across the Sky is as lush and heart-breakingly gorgeous as any on a PMG album.

So I feel quite a lot of spark in recent PMG, as much as ever, in fact; there seems to be no end in sight to their creative reign. Metheny has frequently said that in spite of assumptions to the contrary, it is his work with PMG that for him is his most experimental, rather than, say, his trio stuff or other excursions like Zero Tolerance For Silence or Song X. Listening to both We Live Here and Imaginary Day I know exactly what he means.

Posted on: 14 September 2000 by Mike Hanson
This is also my favourite album from PMG (of the 10 or so that I have). I love the bombastic arrangements and complex rhythms. It also seems to have the most consistency, start to finish. Other albums from PMG tend to falter at some point in the song list.

I like the track Heat of the Day most. It's like a exhilerating journey on a high-speed magic carpet. It's also a great test for auditioning audio gear. Catch you later!

-=> Mike Hanson <=-

Smilies do not a forum make.

Posted on: 14 September 2000 by Geoff C
For me Imaginary Day wasn't as consistent as his earlier output on Geffen, but nevertheless a good cd.

Still Life Talking and Letter From Home are full of surprises, light and shade, and good music, as is We Live Here.

Another recent cd is Secret Story which includes an orchestra interlaced into some parts (I think it was written for a ballet!), and is well worth checking out.