by Ian Mann
February 26, 2020
"Rest in Peace". Ian Mann shares his memories of two recently departed musicians closely associated with the ECM record label, American keyboard player Lyle Mays and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen.
REMEMBERING LYLE MAYS and JON CHRISTENSEN
February 2020 brought the sad news of the deaths of two musicians whose playing I have enjoyed listening to for more than forty years.
It was during the late 1970s that I first began my ongoing fascination with the ECM record label, founded in Munich in 1969 by the German record producer Manfred Eicher. With Eicher still at the helm ECM celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, but the passing of two musicians who I will always associate with the label, the American keyboard player Lyle Mays and the Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen represents a sad beginning to this new decade.
LYLE MAYS (Pictured)
Lyle Mays was born in Wisconsin in 1953 and came to prominence as the keyboard player with the hugely successful Pat Metheny Group, led by guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. Mays was a member of the PMG for more than thirty years, and was the co-composer of many of the group’s best loved works.
I first enjoyed his playing on the 1978 ECM release simply titled Pat Metheny Group, for me the other “White Album” and the record that really put the PMG on the map for thousands of listeners worldwide. I also loved the follow up, “American Garage” (1979), which found Metheny and Mays really rocking out on the title track.
Mays is best known as a player of multiple keyboards and his quasi orchestral approach to composing and arranging brought an almost symphonic quality to the music of the PMG. As writers Metheny and Mays continued to develop their craft on albums such as the duo set “As Fall Wichita, So falls Wichita Falls (1980) and the PMG album “Offramp” (1981), both of which saw Mays and Metheny experimenting more and more with musical technology.
The double live set “Travels” (1982) revealed just how dynamic a live act the PMG had become by this point but it wasn’t until 1983 that I finally got to see Metheny and Mays play live when the PMG visited London for a show at the Hammersmith Odeon. This was a brilliant performance that earned a genuine standing ovation, the intensity of which even seemed to catch Pat and Lyle by surprise.
The PMG seemed to visit England every couple of years and a pattern was established where I would try to catch one show on every visit. Occasionally the band would venture out of London and I remember the 1985 show at the Apollo Theatre in Manchester as a particular high point. The focus here was on the material from “First Circle”, the PMG’s most ambitious, and probably best, album to date but their last for ECM.
The scope of Pat and Lyle’s writing by this stage demanded that the music needed a bigger budget behind it than ECM were able to provide and the switch was made to Geffen. I was sorry to see the band leave my beloved ECM but I have to admit that Geffen did give them full creative rein during their tenure there. Pat’s first release for the new label was “Song X”, a challenging collaboration with Ornette Coleman that nevertheless reached the ears of a large audience with the might of a major label behind it.
Meanwhile Mays was able to release two solo albums for Geffen, “Lyle Mays” (1986) and “Street Dreams” (1988), which highlighted his writing as a solo composer, and which helped to reveal just how much he brought to the sound of the PMG. The music was similar to that of the Metheny group but Pat distanced himself and didn’t appear on either record. Guitarist Bill Frisell was part of an extensive list of contributors that also included bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Alejandro Acuma. Mays even deployed a full orchestra at one juncture on “Street Dreams”. From his début solo album his enchanting composition “Close To Home” also found its way into the PMG repertoire.
At PMG live shows Mays was always surrounded by banks of keyboards, rather like a jazz version of Rick Wakeman, but emphatically less flamboyant. Indeed Mays always seemed a slightly reluctant stage performer, a professorial figure lurking in the shadows with something of the air of the mad scientist about him. Mays’ obsession with technology eventually led to him becoming an innovative software developer as he took a step back from the music scene during the last decade of his life.
Mays’ reputation as a player of multiple keyboards could sometimes detract from his very real capabilities as an acoustic piano soloist. Lyle played some blinding acoustic piano solos with the PMG on tunes like “Phase Dance”, “San Lorenzo” and “Song for Bilbao” and in 1993 released the piano trio album “Fictionary” for Geffen. Recorded with a stellar rhythm section featuring bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Jack DeJohnette this featured Mays on acoustic piano throughout and was a welcome reminder of his ability on this instrument. The sad news of his death prompted me to revisit this work, alongside several PMG classics, and it still sounds remarkably fresh and stands up really well in 2020. Indeed “Fictionary” is probably better than I gave it credit for back in the day.
The early PMG records for ECM all seemed to generate a major step forward with each release but as Metheny and Mays finally found exactly what it was that they were looking for the Group’s albums for Geffen, and later for Warner’s did come to sound increasingly homogeneous.
I still continued to attend the band’s live shows whenever they visited the UK and remember return visits to Hammersmith and Manchester plus Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1995 (the group album “We Live Here”), Shepherds Bush Empire in 1998 (“Imaginary Day”) and the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole in 2002 (“Speaking of Now”). Group personnel came and went but Pat and Lyle were always constants and regardless of the other faces on board the performances were universally brilliant. The only gig I didn’t really enjoy was the one at Shepherds Bush, where I elected to stand rather than sit. I had enjoyed doing this at Cambridge and had got really close to the stage but at a hot and sweaty Empire I could hardly see a thing. I had prime seats for the Poole show though, which more than made up for it.
The Metheny / Mays compositional approach reached its apotheosis with 2005’s “The Way Up”, a long form suite comprised of four contiguous movements. At their 2005 concert at Hammersmith, with the venue by then known as the Carling Apollo, the PMG kicked off the show by playing the whole of the new work in its entirety, earning a standing ovation. This was longer than an entire set from some rock bands, but for the PMG it was just the beginning. This tour de force was followed by ninety minutes of the PMG’s ‘greatest hits’, and this was without the band taking an interval. It was one of the most remarkable gigs I’ve ever seen and the best PMG show since Manchester in ‘85.
As a solo artist Mays was sparsely documented on record. “Lyle Mays”, “Street Dreams” and “Fictionary” were followed in 2000 by “Solo”, which was recorded for Warner Bros. Subtitled “Improvisations for Expanded Piano” it included subtle electronic orchestrations, sourced from the Yamaha Disclavier system. This allowed information from Mays’ acoustic piano improvisations to be recorded on computer and used as the basis for synthesised orchestrations. Essentially it’s a solo piano record but these subtle embellishments work well and add depth, colour and texture to music that is frequently very beautiful. It still stands up well twenty years on and in a sense is the ultimate Lyle Mays record with its discrete merging of acoustic and electric elements and of old and new technology.
May’s only other solo release, and the only one I haven’t actually heard, was released in 2016 but was recorded back in 1993. “The Ludwigsburg Concert” was documented at a German festival and featured Mays leading a quartet comprised of Marc Johnson (bass), Bob Sheppard (reeds) and Mark Walker (drums). The majority of the material was sourced from “Fictionary” but the repertoire also included pieces from other solo albums, plus the Metheny / Mays composition “Au Lait” from the PMG’s “Offramp” album.
It should also be remembered that Mays also co-wrote and appeared on a hit single, “This Is Not America”, the PMG’s collaboration with David Bowie on the soundtrack of the 1985 film “The Falcon and the Snowman”. Bowie’s voice and lyrics were added to a melody written by Metheny and Mays as the PMG enjoyed a brief flirtation with the musical mainstream.
I’m aware that the above reminiscences don’t constitute a complete overview of Mays’ musical career and don’t address his many other sideman appearances, but they are memories that are very personal to me and I felt a great sense of loss when I heard of Lyle’s passing. The PMG shows of which he was a part represent some of the best live music experiences of my life and those early records for ECM evoke such intense memories of their time, a time when I was first discovering this wonderful music we call jazz. The distinctiveness of Metheny’s guitar sound was equally matched by Mays on keyboards, even now hearing the sound of his Oberheim synth just takes me right back.
Pat Metheny scribbled a couple of autographs for me after the Wolverhampton gig on the “Secret Story” tour in 1993, which remain treasured possessions, but I never actually got to meet Lyle Mays. I guess it’s the nature of music fandom to be so saddened by the death of somebody you didn’t actually know personally, but I felt genuine grief at the news of Lyle’s passing, his music has been a part of my life for so long. The fact that he was only sixty six, a comparatively young age these days, and only five years older than me, made it all the more poignant and shocking. I gather that he had been ill for some time and I hope that he didn’t suffer too much.
Rest in Peace Lyle, and thank you for the music and the memories.
A few days after hearing of the death of Lyle Mays I was saddened once again on hearing news of the passing of the great Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen.
I’ll admit that it didn’t have quite as great an impact on me as Lyle’s passing had done, but that doesn’t make it any the less regrettable.
And when I came to think about it I started to recall what great pleasure I had derived from hearing Christensen’s playing on classic ECM records by such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner, Eberhard Weber, Bobo Stenson, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal, Ketil Bjornstad and more.
Born in Oslo in 1943 Christensen was ten years older than Mays and first came to prominence in his home city backing visiting American jazz musicians in Oslo’s jazz clubs. It was here that saxophonist Dexter Gordon advised the young Christensen to play in his own style rather than trying to copy the mannerisms of American drummers.
An association with the composer George Russell then led to Christensen meeting with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and other emerging stars of an increasingly fertile and distinctive Norwegian jazz scene. Many of these young musicians, among them saxophonist Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal and bassist Arild Andersen came to the attention of Manfred Eicher who signed them to his then fledgling ECM label.
Christensen was ‘first call’ drummer for many of these musicians and in this way he began a long and productive association with ECM, ultimately appearing on some seventy albums for the label. As far as European artists were concerned he was essentially the ECM ‘house drummer’,
a supremely adaptable and sympathetic musician with a sensitive approach to the drums that frequently led to him being described as a ‘colourist’.
Christensen’s rolling, flowing, polyrhythmic style tended to emphasise pulses rather than straight beats and his attention to detail, particularly with regard to his deft and colourful cymbal work was particularly distinctive.
It was Christensen who was the drummer on such ECM classics as Keith Jarrett’s “Belonging” and “My Song”, Garbarek and Stenson’s “Witchi Tai To”, Ralph Towner’s “Solstice” and Eberhard Weber’s “Yellow Fields”. I first heard these albums at around the same time as those early Metheny Group records, and all hold a similar place in my affections.
Of Christensen’s later work I’m particularly fond of “Remembrance”, a 2010 session for ECM led by the pianist and composer Ketil Bjornstad and featuring saxophonist Tore Brunborg. His last recording for ECM was 2018’s “Returnings” when he was part of a quartet led by the Norwegian guitarist Jakob Bro.
The ultimate collaborator and team player Christensen was even more sparsely documented than Mays as a solo artist. In 1976 he released “No Time for Time”, a collaboration with fellow drummer Pal Thowsen for the Pan record label and co-credited to both. The recording also features contributions from bassist Arild Andersen and guitarist Terje Rypdal. It’s an album that I’ve never seen, let alone heard, and is presumably long deleted.
For ECM the only album under his own name came in the retrospective “Selected Recordings” or “Rarum” series from a few years ago. With tracks chosen by Christensen himself this documents his performances on the recordings of others, notably Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, Terje Rypdal and Ralph Towner.
If the title of “No Time for Time” sounds something like a mission statement then how about Christensen’s gnomic liner notes for the “Rarum” collection, in which he outlines four diktats that seem to encapsulate his unique approach to the art of drumming
Band feeling is more important than bravura .
Less is more .
How fast can you play slower ?
A beat is not always what you think it is .
So good luck!
I only got to see Christensen perform live once, way back in 1986 in Birmingham when he appeared with Arild Andersen’s quintet Masqualero. The bassist and drummer were the ‘old heads’ in a group that also included Jon Balke on piano and keyboards and two rising stars in the shapes of Nils Petter Molvaer on trumpet and Tore Brunborg on tenor sax, both very youthful in those days and who have both gone on to enjoy successful solo careers. The date was early on in the tour and in truth was a little disappointing. The group hadn’t really gelled at that point and later gigs were probably more successful. I do recall that is was a Contemporary Music Network tour and on the whole I remember CMN tours with considerable affection. They often featured ECM artists and I remember tours featuring Garbarek, Don Cherry and Oregon among others.
In the days following Christensen’s death I’ve discovered some youtube footage from 1978 which features him playing with Ralph Towner’s ‘Solstice’ quartet alongside Eberhard Weber and a scarily young looking Jan Garbarek, presumably at a concert or festival somewhere in Germany. Together with the records it’s been a great way of reminding myself of Christensen’s unique talent and I’ve really enjoyed seeing this old footage. It also makes one appreciate the brilliance of Towner, Garbarek and Weber.
So farewell too to Jon Christensen, a musician whose influence on younger players will surely be felt for many years to come. In the meantime he leaves behind an archive of highly important recordings. Many of the albums featuring Christensen’s drumming have become absolute classics of the genre.
Rest in Peace, Jon, and again thank you for the music and the memories.
From Chris Weavers via email;
I make a point of looking at your website and have read the piece about the now sadly departed Lyle Mays. An excellent keyboard player.
I have attended a number of PMG concerts in London and was at one of those at the Shepherds Bush Empire in May 1998 you mentioned. I still have the ticket for the Sunday 10th concert at level 3, sitting in the “gods” I seem to remember with a somewhat distant view of the concert. One of these was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 which I recorded and put onto CD ( for personal use only I hasten to add ).
You mention the Secret Story tour which I saw, I think at the Hammersmith Odeon, Lyle, allegedly, did not want to be on the tour and was replaced by Jim Beard.
The Ludwigsburg concert CD is well worth getting by the way.
Very sad news about Lyle Mays. A beautifully gifted player and composer who has contributed so brilliantly to so many great nights and provided much of the soundtrack to my life. Very sad news indeed!
MARK ALBINI via email
Good to see Lyle Mays being remembered.
That’s a beautifully written piece Ian and brought back so many great memories. I was there in Manchester with you on the First Circle tour.