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  • Smooth Jazz Network

Bobby Lyle: Behind the Beats

Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: pianist/organist Bobby Lyle.

The new single “Living In The Flow” is one of my favorite new singles in recent memory… Please tell us how the single came about.

I’m a big observer of people, whether in the airport, at the park while exercising, at the beach, at the art museum, or at a music concert (many of these have become so limited by the covid). This coupled with my love of plants and animals in nature brought me to realize that to all life there is a rhythm and flow. And we as people are living within that flow according to how we choose to live our day to day lives, whether we notice it or not. As an artist, I definitely notice it and allow my writing to be influenced by it, as was the case with “Paradise Cove”, “Aruban Nights”, and my latest, “Living In The Flow”, which opens with the sounds of children playing.

You are one of the few jazz musicians in the world who has the ability to cross the lines between straight ahead jazz and smooth jazz. How do you view the differences between the two, or do you see differences?

Most of the changes in the evolution of jazz have occurred in the interior rhythm section (bass and drums). The beginning of my recording career happened to coincide with the emergence of ‘fusion’ jazz, which is another way of saying that we were writing tunes over more funky beats than swing rhythms. Even the great Miles Davis discarded his swing format in favor of this newer sound. The reaction of the jazz ‘critics’ could sometimes be brutal, but the upside was that a whole new younger audience was drawn in and interested. I was never big on labels because, you’re right, my writing spans everything, always has. So when the frenetic fusion mellowed out some, they called it quiet storm, and various other things all the way up to the present ‘Smooth Jazz’. The common denominator is that guys still improvise over the top even though there is more emphasis on the melodic content of the smooth, and your ideas have to be expressed within a four to five minute window. With straight ahead, the band can move in and out of the swing format and the soloist can expound with as many choruses as he wants.

You celebrated a birthday last week… How did you celebrate?

Unlike my last two birthdays which were celebrated in clubs with friends and musicians jamming, this one was relatively quiet because of course the covid is still imposing on our lives. So a quiet dinner at home with a friend and some good wine was quite sufficient. Can you believe it? 77 years young!

Was piano the first instrument you played? Tell us about how music impacted your childhood.

Yes, piano was my first instrument although I later experimented with the flute and the clarinet in Junior high school band before settling back on the piano. I was very fortunate to grow up in a musical household with a mom who played piano and organ in church, and a dad who introduced us to the great classical composers. My older brother was the first to take piano lessons from a teacher who came to the house, and of course I bugged my mom until I could start lessons as well because it looked like so much fun. My uncle ( a high school band teacher in Memphis) used to visit us in Minneapolis in the summer and bring all the latest jazz LPs and I became hopelessly hooked. By age 16 I actually got my first gig in a private club with some older guys and that pretty much solidified what my destiny would be.

The music business has changed so much in recent years. Do you have some advice for younger, aspiring jazz artists?

Advice for younger musicians? Haha yes, find another profession. No, just kidding. I do teach jazz piano and mentor young aspiring musicians. The main thing I tell them is that your commitment to your craft has to be absolute. The playing field is a lot different now with the demise of many record labels, record stores and radio stations. It’s just as competitive if not more so with more artists fighting for recognition with less outlets. Imagine that. Thank God for the internet, and for the technology that allows us to record at home, send tracks to musicians in other cities to lay their parts for you, and establish our own labels. My label is called New Warrior Music, which my new product ‘Ivory Flow’ will soon be released on. So young artists: master your instrument (or voice), acclimate yourself to the modern technology, and learn about the music BUSINESS! … publishing, copyrights, royalty collection affiliates, etc. And most importantly, establish your own signature sound through your songwriting.

You have recorded and performed with some legendary singers. Maybe you can share a couple of highlights?

After my first label deal with Capitol Records went away because Capitol disbanded the entire jazz division, I was very fortunate to fall into some plum musical director jobs to pick up the slack. Phyliss Hyman, Bette Midler, Al Jarreau and Anita Baker were the great singers I had the privilege of conducting and playing for. All were stylistically totally different, and I learned the art of being a good accompanist no matter who the artist was. Jarreau was very popular in Europe and took me on my first ever tour there. The culmination of that tour is documented on a DVD called Al Jarreau-Live In London. Bette Midler never made it to Europe but we definitely criss-crossed the USA. That experience also culminated in a very entertaining DVD called ‘Diva Las Vegas’, which I am proud to say I received an Emmy nomination for best musical direction.

I went back and re-listened to some tracks from your first album, Bobby Lyle Plays Electone GX707 initially released in Japan. There are some amazing tracks on that album. How did that Japanese release come about for you?

Wow, I didn’t know anyone knew about that GX707 album! That came about when I participated in an International organ contest which started at a local and regional level in the states. I made it all the way to the finals in Tokyo Japan and ended up winning the trophy. Some of the perks of winning were: traveling back to Japan later to do seminars in their young people’s music schools in the various cities, and finally a recording session using the same futuristic looking organ I won the competition with. This instrument, ironically, was the forerunner of the pared down DX7 which became very popular as a recording device in the late seventies and ushered in a whole new era of keyboard synthesizers.

How have you dealt with this past year, the pandemic etc…

As challenging as this past year has been, there have been some blessings. First of all I am thankful every day for staying healthy. Secondly, all of the shut in the house time has allowed me to totally focus on finishing my Ivory Flow project (mission accomplished) and getting deeper into my piano studies and new compositions. I think I can speak for all of my fellow artists when I say the ultimate blessing will be the eradication of covid, re-opening of the live performance venues, and reconnecting with all the music fans who must be as starved for live shows as we are to play them.

Learn more about Bobby Lyle at:

Photos courtesy: Kathleen Tauer, photographer, Houston, TX

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