One of my favorite reissues/historical albums of 2016, and which I expect to see on several year end critics poll ballots (including mine), is the Lyle Mays Quartet’s The Ludwigsburg Concert (SWR Jazz Haus JAH-453). I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to like this set—which was recorded live in Germany in 1993—nearly as much as I did. It’s not because Lyle Mays, Marc Johnson, Bob Sheppard, and Mark Walker aren’t killer players—it’s just that stylistically this isn’t the kind of thing that I usually get excited for.
E.g.: Sheppard’s playing often resides on the too pop-ish side of things for me. And I never quite fell in love with Mays’ extensive work with Metheny—too pretty or pastoral for me, perhaps. But that’s on me, not the players.
While there’s a little bit of the pop elements in Sheppard’s playing and in the tunes themselves, it doesn’t bother me in the least. Why? Because Mays and company absolutely crushed this concert. So much so that their performance transcends any personal taste hangups of mine.
In the liner notes Mays recalls that when he heard the tapes he was “almost shocked. How was it possible? We seemed to have played flawlessly and full of energy! That was a magical night!” Mays’ observation—that his quartet played flawlessly and full of energy—are absolutely spot on. Sometimes flawlessness can imply a kind of canned, or practiced, or rote quality. This is not the case here, as the band seems to be pushing as opposed to keeping things safe. Mays’ tunes are tricky and intricate, yet the members of the quartet doesn’t so much as hiccup. And his arrangements provide a lot of room to stretch out, as six of the nine tunes are in excess of eleven minutes.
The impeccably recorded concert opens up with the twenty-four minute workout “Fictionary.” It begins with a long solo from Mays, in which he mixes quieter rubato sections with tumbling runs, bluesy phrases, and classically inflected sequences, all while foreshadowing parts of the composition. Sheppard takes the first solo following the statement of the head, playing long, winding post-bop lines with brief moments reminiscent of Michael Brecker. Mays takes a quite different approach on his solo than the intro by using a greater amount of single note runs. Mark Walker contributes a highly creative solo and manages to play parts of the tune on his kit, to great effect. The infectious “Chorinho” glides over a mix of gently driving Brazilian grooves. It does, however, exhibit one of the recording’s oddities in that it almost sounds like the group is a trio and Sheppard is a guest, as he doesn’t enter until nearly eight minutes in. Sheppard isn’t quite an afterthought, but the focus is largely on Mays throughout both discs. The gospel and blues tinged “Lincoln Reviews His Notes”—which closes the first disc—opens with a lengthy bass solo from Johnson before Mays takes over with an introspective solo that slowly builds, but doesn’t quite reach a simmer.
Beneath the tuneful and pop-ish exterior lies some seriously meaty, and almost dark stuff. On the relatively brief “Disbelief” Sheppard and Mays alternate sparse and teasing statements before presenting the somewhat foreboding and imposing theme. The piece is more evocation than full statement and it almost serves as an introduction to the confident, brash swagger of “Are We There Yet?”, on which Sheppard is menacing, snarly, and potent. Mays and Pat Metheny’s tune “Au Lait” features a captivating, rhapsodic, swaying melody before Sheppard, Johnson, and Walker give way to a capacious and expansive solo from Mays, which has the virtuosity and feeling of a jazz version of a Chopin or Liszt etude.
A thoroughly entertaining and evocative album, The Ludwigsberg Concert reveals a group operating with great power and creativity. Over these nine cuts, Mays and company remind me not to dismiss out of hand catchy melodies and pop-inflected phrasing, for these things do not foreclose the possibility for entertaining and rigorous music. Performing memorable compositions with virtuosity, emotional depth, and fire, Mays’ quartet proves this fact without a doubt. I think Mays is right, it was indeed a “magical night.”