Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Number 9/September: September Fifteenth

Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays: September Fifteenth

In 1981, after my junior year in college, I went to Europe with my two roommates, Jon, who was also a junior, and Neal, who had just graduated. We flew into Brussels and had open tickets home from London, and a Eurailpass. We had very little pre-planned, in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, so every day was an adventure as we had to figure out what we were going to do, where we were going to stay, where we were going to eat and how and where we were going to travel. As best I can recall, our major information source was a book called “Let’s Go: Europe,” which was at the time, considered to be the best source for student (read: “cheap”) travel, and we used it, despite its Harvard roots. (In researching this article, I found out that the Let’s Go organization was founded by Oliver Koppell, who became a well-known New York politician and lawyer, and an early business manager was Andrew Tobias, who became a prominent writer.)

This lack of planning and lack of options like Google and Yelp resulted in lots of serendipity. We stumbled upon a rustic street fair in Lucerne, fireworks in Paris, a free Gil Evans Orchestra concert in, I believe, Florence, and had many other adventures. We mostly stayed in cheap hotels, filled with other students who wanted a bit more privacy and flexibility than youth hostels, although we did stay in one very nice hostel in Switzerland.

Another vestige of the era was that wherever we went, there were actual record stores, and I would occasionally break away from my friends, who were not nearly as obsessed with music as I was, to paw through their wares, looking for things I couldn’t find in the U.S. I did bring back one LP, Sky’s debut, which somehow survived the trip. But one thing that was somewhat strange to me was that many record stores allowed you to listen to new records to sample them before, the store presumably hoped, you would buy them. I remember walking into a store, I think in Switzerland, and seeing the new Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays album, with the unusual title, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. I had no idea what to expect—I was familiar with Metheny’s solo work, and his great albums with the Pat Metheny Group, which featured Mays on keyboards—but why was this album credited only to the two of them?

Luckily, I was able to ask to hear the album. The title track is a long, side-length piece that was at times atmospheric, and at others it was filled with driving percussion—sort of a mix between jazz, rock, Latin and ambient music. Of course, I didn’t get to hear the whole thing—they skipped ahead to move things along. I don’t specifically recall my reaction to our featured song, "September Fifteenth," but I know that I got the album after I returned home from our trip (which was shortened by the air traffic controller’s strike that led to President Reagan destroying the union, and which forced us to scramble to get ourselves home), and I listened to it often.  I got the chance to hear The Pat Metheny Group at Princeton later that year, and while I do not recall whether they played this song (they probably didn't, based on setlists from other shows from the same time), I do still remember being embarrassed by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos when I asked him a dumb question between sets.

"September Fifteenth" is, simply, a beautiful song. It is dedicated to Bill Evans, the great piano player, who died on that date while the album was being recorded.  Evans, who cut his teeth playing with Miles Davis before beginning a distinguished career as a leader of his own groups, was an influence on both Metheny and Mays. For the most part, the song is a guitar and piano duet, with some synthesizer, mostly at the beginning. You can hear how Metheny and Mays pay tribute to Evans, if you compare "September Fifteenth" to Evans’ own work with guitarist Jim Hall, who was also a huge influence on (and ultimately a collaborator with) Metheny:

Pat Metheny is one of the biggest stars in jazz—he tours and records often, with various groups, exploring different styles of music, both inside and outside the jazz world. As I was writing this piece, I started to wonder, where the hell was Lyle Mays? And to be honest, it isn’t easy to find out much about his recent life. His last album with Metheny was released back in 2005 and his last solo album was released five years before that. The most recent thing that I was able to locate from Mays is this video from 2011, recorded at the TEDxCaltech conference.

It appears to be an attempt to meld three of Mays’ loves—music, technology and math. As Mays says in this article:

What do you get when the IT Department is the band? Jimmy Branly (drums) is a recording engineer. Andrew Pask (woodwinds) is a programmer who works for Cycling 74 (the company which makes the brilliant MAX software), Bob Rice (guitar and sounds) is a sound designer/engineer/synth programmer, Tom Warrington (bass) is a math wiz, Jon 9 (visualizations) designs, builds, and provides content for video installations, and Rich Breen could build (and nearly has built) recording studios MacGyver style. And what kind of music should one make when Stephen Hawking is in the audience at CalTech? Jazz alone doesn’t cut it.

Read the article if you want to know more, because I cannot even attempt to summarize what is going on. But the music still sounds good, and it is therefore a bit sad that Mays isn’t out there more, playing and recording music.

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