An incredibly luscious, stirring song whose ambience is delicate and nuanced, all 13 minutes of the new song “Eberhard” from recently passed pianist/composer Lyle Mays are like a much-anticipated train excursion through picture-perfect landscapes. The breadth of instrumentation adds to the journey as the listener is treated lovingly with a softly intricate sax solo, flavorful notes from the marimba and vibes, and multiple meandering textural contributions from cello, bass clarinet, flute and more.
Vocalist Aubrey Johnson is featured on the song, Lyle Mays having been her uncle and musical mentor. He wrote her part, she said, to specifically fit her voice, which it does like a hand in a glove. Mays died in 2020, and Johnson (who is in charge of his estate’s intellectual property) says that every bit of what he taught her, including the intangibles, have been woven into the fabric of the music.
Mays, who was a member of the Pat Metheny Group, wrote the song as a “humble tribute” to bassist Eberhard Weber.
When did you become interested in jazz?
Aubrey Johnson: I first became seriously interested in jazz when I heard Dianne Reeves perform live in Green Bay, WI (my hometown) while I was in high school. I had fallen in love with her singing after listening to her album “The Calling”, a tribute to Sarah Vaughan with orchestral arrangements by Billy Childs. Though I had been playing (on piano) and singing jazz for several years at that point, hearing a jazz singer of Dianne’s mastery for the first time was life-altering; it made me realize I wanted to be a jazz vocalist.
What was your first public performance as a vocalist?
I performed a solo piece in front of my church congregation when I was six years old.
Major takeaways from your formal music education?
My time studying music in school greatly expanded my idea of what is possible as a vocalist. Being around other musicians who were better than I was and who had more experience and knowledge inspired me in ways I’d never imagined.
I learned the value of collaboration in music through the jazz choirs, classical choirs and jazz combos I was a part of, and grew as a musician through the wide variety of repertoire and genres I was exposed to. Classes in composition, arranging, improvisation, theory, history, ear training as well as classical and jazz voice lessons helped make me a well-informed and versatile musician.
After receiving a solid foundational education in music as an undergraduate student at Western Michigan University, I was able to develop my artistry and personal style and sound in a deeper way in graduate school at the New England Conservatory.
How do you take care of your voice?
I warm up and work on vocal technique most days, and make sure I spend enough time singing some kind of repertoire (whether it’s my own music, music for someone else’s project, jazz standards, pop, or Brazilian music) to keep my voice in shape. I also exercise regularly, generally eat well, and *try* to get enough sleep in order to care for my body, which of course affects my voice. I also study intermittently with an excellent opera teacher in New York City, Tami Petty, and with an amazing jazz singer who teaches at the University of North Texas (and who also sings on “Eberhard”), Rosana Eckert.
What do you like about the music of Jobim and other Brazilian artists?
I love the grooves, harmony, and melodic construction of Brazilian music, as well as the joyfulness and soulfulness of the compositions and the artists who perform them. I also love the unique sounds of the Portuguese language and how those sounds fit together with and accentuate the rhythms inherent in the music. I enjoy the frequent dichotomy between the lyrical meaning of a song and the grooves and harmonies. Often a song will sound very happy and fun but the lyrics will be incredibly sad. I love the idea that music can be joyful while also expressing darker emotions. It makes sense to me that the two can exist together, though I don’t hear it very often in other kinds of music.
What was it like working with Lyle Mays? How did you come to be involved in “Eberhard”?
My experiences performing and recording with Lyle will always be among the highlights of my career, and of my life. Lyle was an incredibly generous and incredibly exacting bandleader. His standards were other-worldly, but his music is so good and he knew so clearly what he wanted that he inspired everyone to be their best and to enjoy doing it. The way he worked with me showed me that I was capable of much more than I had imagined.
I became involved in “Eberhard” in 2009 when Lyle wrote the piece for the Zeltsman Marimba Festival. The parts that I sang on that concert, and later on the recording, were written specifically for my voice. Lyle was excellent at writing for individual instruments and for individual players/singers. He took the time to ask me in-depth questions about my singing and listened to a wide variety of my recordings, so that what he wrote for me both showcased my capabilities and challenged me but also felt good and easy in my voice.
What is involved in handling your mentor’s musical estate?
Managing Lyle’s musical estate is a tremendous honor that I take very seriously. All of my attention is on the release of “Eberhard” at the moment–I have self-released the album, which is quite a time-consuming process. Moving forward I’ll be working on other ways to further Lyle’s legacy and to keep his memory alive.
How would you characterize his creative process?
Lyle spoke often of the composition process having two distinct phases. The first phase consisted of a lot of improvisation and creative exploration. Then, once he was happy with a particular melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic cell or motif, he would move to the second phase which he liked to call “mining your material”–taking the idea or ideas and studying them and experimenting with them like a scientist. He imparted to me how important it is to develop new material based on the original material, as opposed to trying to generate a bunch of different ideas.
How would you describe your creative process?
My own process is very much the same (albeit considerably less advanced), due to my time studying with him. I usually sit down at the piano and play and sing until I find some good ideas that feel interesting and inspired, and then move to work on exploration and exploitation of the material. Some parts of the process occur very quickly and some are painstaking, but together I think the resulting music feels organic and interesting, as well as logical and connected.
Explain “singing wordlessly” – are you talking about scatting or something else?
Singing wordlessly could include scatting, but generally it’s singing a melody (or counterline, soli, background part, etc.) without lyrics that’s already been composed. Scatting typically refers to improvisation.
How did you keep musically busy during lockdown?
My circumstances as a teacher during the pandemic necessitated learning new technology; I was leading a few different vocal jazz ensembles online and I realized quickly that the best way to work with those ensembles online was through remote video and audio recordings. I would record demos of myself singing all of the vocal parts of the arrangements we worked on, they’d record, and then I would mix and edit their audio in Logic and assemble and sync the videos in Adobe Premiere Pro (both programs I knew little about prior to the pandemic). I also performed solo concerts for several concert series and organizations from home, sang at a few outdoor live-streamed concerts in the warmer months, and collaborated virtually with several different artists/ensembles.
What venues are opening back up and what is gigging like now?
Many of the venues in New York City are open again, though there are several important ones that are either permanently closed or haven’t yet reopened. I just found out the Village Vanguard is reopening in September, which is very exciting. Gigging feels fairly normal at this point–people generally don’t wear masks on stage or inside the venues, which have become quite packed again (because most places have a vaccine requirement to enter), though it’s becoming clear that we might be shifting back to more precautions in the coming months.
Lyle gave every last bit of the time and energy he had during the last months of his life to the completion of Eberhard. I’m extremely excited for the world to hear the music and to enjoy this incredible final gift that he left for us. Thank you for taking the time to listen!
For more information visit www.lylemays.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mr. Mays’ estate. Top photo (c) Beth Herzhaft.
© 2021 Debbie Burke