Untangling 35 Years Of Connections, One Song At A Time

This started as a tribute to Lyle Mays, and took a left turn somewhere around a weekend in Boston.

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The former Tower Records of Boston, down the street from Berklee College, within sights of Fenway Park

The summer of 1984 was a magical confluence of commencements. First Summer Olympics (in my short life) in the United States, first car, my first apartment, first time living in the city and taking the subway, all a few months removed from my own Princeton commencement. Days expired working in my first job, weekends extruded exploring used record stores and small clubs in Boston and writing letters — real paper letters that had be weighed before being sent airmail — to a distant friend.

A friend’s mom gave me some good advice about life in a new city: “Find things that are familiar.” The things were familiar and their exact instantiations grew on me. In a short summer I discovered more music than I knew existed, and bought about half of it. Familiar bands tied me back to WPRB and my first wave of vinyl exploration — the Talking Heads released “Stop Making Sense” and David Byrne’s literally larger than life suit took over the silver screen. I attended shows by Stan Getz, Tower of Power, Santana and Pat Metheny; I remember every one of those performances vividly but none more than Pat Metheny’s concert on the Boston Common.

Released late that same year, the fourth Pat Metheny Group album “First Circle” downshifted and accelerated away from the familiar output of a modern jazz combo toward the future of improvisational music. While Pat Metheny’s guitar work retains the texture and feel of an expensive suit, it’s Lyle Mays on keyboards — and trumpet! — that make the album an absolute favorite, a sweatshirt you want to wear for mental comfort, from the dissonant opening of “Forward, March” to the grace coupled with grandeur of the the title track. I’m reminded of Sebastian, Ryan Gosling’s character in “La La Land” who wants to breathe new live into jazz, and “First Circle” is the album he would have recorded — with Lyle Mays seated at the grand piano — if there was truth in Hollywood.

Lyle Mays re-emerged into the musical foreground in the last two weeks, sadly, passing away after a long illness. It wasn’t the sole same-era memory to come full circle as my fascination with the Talking Heads and “Stop Making Sense” was re-energized by David Byrne’s “American Utopia” on Broadway. Sporting a grey suit, silver hair, and equal parts then and now, Byrne’s show posits — and cajoles us into seeing — that over time, our personal, mental and emotional connections shift from the purely internal to the external; from within our minds to people, buildings and food and ideas. Live music has always been that mental router for me, passing ideas from one domain to another. I am thrilled when Phish covers the Talking Heads because those new connections re-illuminate some truly fun years; they are old wine in new bottles.

The Pat Metheny connection was initiated by that distant friend, discovering a joint love of jazz that led me buy the above-average priced ECM vinyl releases. We took in a Pat Metheny Group concert at Princeton’s Alexander Hall, my friend capturing the opening “Phase Dance” with his Instamatic, igniting the same degenerate joy I got from my next door neighbor Brett’s pictures of Yes in concert shown furtively to me while waiting for a school bus. Along with “First Circle,” “Phase Dance” is a favorite Metheny song, connected to that first Pat Metheny show — I think I can name the opener of nearly half of the concerts I’ve attended. Lyle Mays covered a lot of ground with Pat Metheny, sometimes taking the lead, often taking remarkable, lilting solos; whether it’s the southern B3-infused blues, stride piano, and interpreted bebop of “American Garage,” or the breadth of the first Group album. The Mays-Metheny combination powered a band where multiple leads share the spotlight; good ideas are explored and turned over and respected; you hear fifty years of improvisational heritage translated forward in time.

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Fan boy squee, 1982 style

Maybe a year after that Metheny show, I got a call while on-air at WPRB from bassist Mark Egan. He and drummer Danny Gottlieb were taking their backline connection out on their own in a new group called Elements. They drove from NYC to the station, where I recorded an interview with them about their upcoming new album, discussing ideas for the songs and the feelings they wanted to convey. After we finished, Mark and Danny needed college level sustenance to face the return trip on the New Jersey Turnpike, so I called my less-distant friend’s dorm room and told him “Come meet me at Victor’s, now, don’t ask questions.” He did; we shared a complete fan boy moment and got some autographs. A week later I received a hand written thank you note from Mark Egan, purple pen on nice paper (bass players….), which I still have mounted in a scrapbook. It was my first brush with musical stardom, just a few friendly connections away from deciding I’d spend $14 on a vinyl record instead of two pizzas, and happier for the decision.

My first year of true adult life wrapped in Boston with that Pat Metheny concert on the Common. Fuzzy memory is that they opened with “First Circle” and all of us went slack-jawed, not really sure how to process the slow building piano solo, the crashing drums that led back to the final chorus, the stupendous, wordless vocal crescendo. The musical high — “a peak builder” to fans of a Phish persuasion — in that song is one of which I never, ever tire. It was a magical moment, one that sparkled and reflected, then sedimented slowly over the ensuring years with other shiny peaks to lay the bedrock of my live music foundation. Life and Lyle Mays and the Pat Metheny group continued to intertwine in a double helix of places and buildings and roads to nowhere in particular. “Pat Metheny Group” was the first CD I played in my own car with such a facility; when “Road to You” was released in 1993, I bought it at the Tower Records in Boston before departing on a long drive. When I picked up my own bass a few years ago, I transcribed the fretless bottom on “Phase Dance” to find that Mark Egan connects us to 110 decibels of emotions with just four notes.

This is how I ended the week in which we lost another musical great: I’m in a Boston hotel room offering me dual views of the former Tower Records building and the Berklee College of Music; I revisited the building housing the first nice restaurant I enjoyed in Boston that first year (now a much nicer restaurant); I’m thinking about the Talking Heads “More Songs About Buildings and Food;” I’m realizing it’s been a year and a half of distance traveled since my distant friend and I spoke.

I’m coming to rest more on “celebration” than “sadness,” net of connections new and old, and perhaps that is the Lyle Mays tribute I wanted to find.

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By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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