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Lyle Mays, soundpainter

As Falls Wichita

This September it will be 40 years since Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny went into a studio with the producer Manfred Eicher to piece together the 20-minute work that gave its name to an album: “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”. A sidebar to their work together as members of the Pat Metheny Group, it soon became recognised as a remarkable free-standing piece of work.

Crudely put, it functions as the soundtrack to an imaginary film: starting with the babble of voices — a sports crowd? a street market? a political demonstration? — and the thrumming of a bass guitar, evolving into gorgeous tunes built sometimes simply of chords, sometimes of melodies whistled or played on a berimbau (a heartbreaking twang). All sorts of soundscapes are evoked, and all sorts of weather, through textures that are constantly shifting and blending. The sound of Metheny’s various guitars and Mays’s keyboards and synths is of its time, but timeless, too. The berimbau is played by Nana Vasconcelos, who also contributes percussion and is the only other musician present.

It’s a beautiful American tone poem, epic in its sweep but also intimate in its approach to the listener. Later in the decade Metheny’s group would record the great “Last Train Home”, which felt then, and still feels, like a coda to the longer piece.

Lyle Mays died on February 10, aged 66, after a long illness. “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” is likely to live as long as people are still listening to the recorded music of the twentieth century.

* The album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was released in 1981 on the ECM label. The photograph, taken by Klaus Frahm (father of Nils), is from the cover.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mark Astaire #

    Beautifully put. I am always taken by how talented people seem to be able to find each other at a very young age and then go on to forge something special. My favourite solo from Lyle is during “To the End of World” from the We Live Here album. It is the most beautiful piece of piano music I have ever heard. You have to be a beautiful soul to have created something so sublime.

    February 13, 2020
    • roger #

      I’ll second that. I saw them perform it at the Royal Festival Hall upon that album’s release. Sublime.

      February 15, 2020
      • roger #

        February 15, 2020
    • Norman Keane #

      Just found your blog via Twitter. Never heard that Lyle Mays had died from the MSM. Beautiful music, added key ingredients to Metheny’s music before it went Latin.

      March 6, 2020
  2. Mark Kidel #

    Nice to read your relfections on that track! Just a week ago, I came across my vinyl of that great ECM album and listened again to a track that I must have heard a hundered times when it first came out. It had lost none of its magic and had me in tears.
    Nana Vasconcelos, bless his soul, visited me once in Bristol and sang a lullaby very quietly in my youngest daughter Anna’s ear (she must have been 18 months or ). She has never looked back! We filmed Nana doing a workshop with some kids in a Kentish Town primary school: he was playing the ghatam and berimbau, and getting the children to listen to the sound of each other’s hearts, to explore the connection between this essential organ, rhythm and percussion. This was for a film I made that was shown in C4, “The Heart Has Reasons” which explored the way we imagine the heart – as the seat of the soul, love and courage as well as reducing ot to a mere pump.

    February 13, 2020
  3. David Chilver #

    That’s a lovely tribute Richard. Let’s not forget Mr Mays could also play wonderfully “in the tradition” . Around 1974 he was a member of the Woody Herman band and played at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. He must have been around 20. I was there with my father (former guitarist Pete Chilver) and after the concert he got chatting to Lyle Mays backstage and invited him to our house for a drink and snack. He accepted the invitation and I have a vivid memory of him playing the piano in our living room for well over an hour, in particular a marvellous rendition of Jobim’s Chega de Saudade. I also recall him saying he would shortly be leaving the Herman band and was planning to join a new band with a guitarist friend of his. When my Dad asked who the guitarist was, he replied “Oh, you won’t have heard of him–his name is Pat Metheny” And the rest, as the say, is history. RIP Lyle Mays.

    February 13, 2020
    • Mick Steels #

      Great story, Herman had a pretty potent band at that time as shown in this clip

      February 14, 2020
  4. Patrick Hinely #

    The album’s title is an aphorism by Steve Swallow, who is given special thanks on its cover.

    February 13, 2020
    • Thanks, Patrick. Didn’t know that. Always loved the title for itself, never mind the music.

      February 13, 2020
  5. Michael Stopps #

    A lovely tribute Richard and it has prompted me to get out the album again. Thank you. Michael

    February 13, 2020
  6. Tim Adkin #

    Lovely tribute. I love Side 2 (in old money terms) of the ‘Wichita…’ album especially ” ‘Just For You’ “. I always felt that Mays was as much responsible for the unique sound of the PMG as the great man himself. RIP.

    February 13, 2020
  7. So sad to hear this. First saw the Pat Metheny Group at the Camden Jazz Festival (Shaw Theatre I think) in 1978. So struck by the freshness of their performance and the PMG album released at the time. A fan ever since.

    February 13, 2020
  8. Sedat Nemli #

    With Don Alias, Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker and now Lyle Mays gone and with herself reportedly in poor health, it’s sad to think that only Pat Metheny remains from Joni Mitchell’s amazing “Shadows and Light” live group from 1980. Mays’s contributions to that recording were invariably delicate but precise, especially on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. R.I.P.

    February 14, 2020
    • Yes a superb concert that, from the Santa Barbara Bowl. Mays and Metheny might have felt a bit superfluous but their contributions were no less essential. Joni Mitchell’s performance that night puts to rest, should it be necessary, any remaining contention that she was out of place in a jazz setting.

      Lyle Mays was never far from my speakers over thirty years, September Fifteenth especially a regular on playlists, also the beautiful solo piano piece Mirror Of The Heart from 1986. I didn’t knew he’d gone but for Richard’s reporting. Thanks, and for this welcome tribute. Respect.

      February 14, 2020
  9. Ned Boulting #

    Tall skies. Huge horizons. Mays and Metheny worked magic together.

    February 14, 2020
  10. saverio pechini #

    The Wendersian cover photo is perfectly attuned to the album’s music.I miss those seventies’ ECM sleeves .

    February 14, 2020
  11. A fitting tribute Richard. One of the notable musical inventions of the 60s and 70s was the synthesiser. The instrument has been much abused and well under-exploited. Lyle Mays was one of the very few, along with Joe Zawinul and Rainer Bruninghaus to harness its huge sonic potential in a jazz context. His gentle ‘carpets of sound approach’ was such an essential part of the Pat Metheny Group’s success. However my abiding memory of Lyle is of seeing the original Pat Metheny Quartet (with Dan Gottlieb and Mark Egan) playing the main marquee at The Bracknell Jazz Festival one sunny Saturday afternoon in the mid-70s. As well as their richly orchestral compositions, they played a flawless and beautiful version of ‘All The Things You Are’. It was perfect in every way.

    February 14, 2020
  12. GuitarSlinger #

    Be it with Pat Metheny , solo , Eberhard Weber , Joni Mitchel [ ” Shadows & Light ” tour … saw them at Red Rocks CO , a concert I’ll never forget ] etc , et al … everything Lyle touched immediately became better by his presence and extreme talent .

    And then there was his almost mystical unearthly ability to make any synthesizer he touched sound almost human .

    Add to that the fact that Lyle was by all definitions a genuine mensch

    But the sad fact that the music industry all but shoved Lyle aside … ( Lyle famously said the music industry had ” left him behind ” ) with the majority of critics all but ignoring his solo albums and no label willing to move forward with him is perhaps one of the worst condemnations of what the the music industry has become .

    Suffice it to say for those of us who knew him … we lost Lyle twice …once when he ( justifiably ) left music … and now that his lingering health problems caught up with him .

    R.I.P. Lyle ………….. sigh ……………………

    February 14, 2020
  13. Just learnt of Mays’ death and now playing his very beautiful eponymous debut, a recording I first bought from a Cambridge market stall 33 years ago. A year or two earlier I’d been given a TDK D90 with Wichita on one side and Offramp on the other by Brian, an American kibutznik while I lived as a volunteer on En Gedi by the Dead Sea. The music made for a delightful soundtrack to my stay. Since then I’ve been gifted with a huge amount of pleasure by the PMG recordings. I’m feeling very sad now and also very grateful.

    February 14, 2020

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