Young Los Angeles Jazz Maestro Will Lyle Discusses Debut Album ‘L.A. Source Codes’, Notable Mentors, & Much More

Young, talented, and accomplished; these three words perfectly describe jazz bassist Will Lyle.

At just 24, the California native has already worked with bgi names in the jazz scene, including drummers Billy Kilson and Roy McCurdy, and hard-bop pianist Jon Mayer. Fresh out of his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Lyle went on his first tour with Kilson’s quartet in Japan. Now based in L.A., Lyle is freelancing in addition to composing and releasing his own music.

On May 21st, Lyle’s debut album L.A. Source Codes was share with the world. With eight jazz standards and four of the bassist’s original compositions, the album is well-rounded and full of color and textures. His incorporation of notable works by composers like Henry Mancini and George Gershwin complement his originals while also highlighting just how talented the young musician is. The influence of bossa and samba styles is clear throughout the album; combined with the overall contemporary vibe, the final product blends into a beautifully curated selection of songs sure to make a statement in the modern jazz world. 

Lyle’s musical expertise is apparent on the album’s lead single, “Forasteira”. Released earlier this year, his debut composition features frequent collaborators: Bob Sheppard on alto saxophone, Mahesh Balasooriya on piano, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. A thrilling, upbeat contemporary piece, “Forasteira” is a momentous debut, but such is to be expected by a gifted musician and composer.

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Prior to the release of L.A. Source Codes, I got to chat with Lyle about the upcoming album, his accomplishments, and what’s next for him.

Growing up in Orange County, what kind of jazz scene is there that initially got you interested in playing/composing it?

To be honest, as a youth I wasn’t solely interested in jazz. I loved electronic music, funk, and R&B because of my music teachers, family members, and friends. I played in the high school jazz band on electric bass as a way for me to be accepted to college because you had to play an instrument to audition. At the time, I was making dubstep, drum and bass and house music constantly. One of my friends’ favorite memories was when I made an 8-bit version of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, now known as the “Rick Roll” meme.

Then, I heard Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro in my first year of Berklee. I changed the course of my career to switch to bass full-time. I had my biggest discoveries with jazz when I went to college in Boston and started playing with really talented younger players, listening to more records, and studying with the right teachers.

However, in Orange County there is a small community of devoted jazz listeners and players. It’s heavy on the traditional side of things, which I love. The NAMM show is in Anaheim every year and many of the heaviest musicians in the world come to meet. Disneyland has always had very good musicians in their various bands. Our greatest jazz club was Steamers in Fullerton which has since closed down. I saw Barbara Morrison and many talented up-and-coming acts.

In summer, I used to go frequent the Bayside Jazz Jam on Friday nights where I started learning Sinatra tunes and old standards. People in Orange County, like San Diego, love their jazz standards and they’ll definitely give you “the look” if you don’t know their favorite one! I used to sit in with fantastic Orange County-based musicians like Ron Kobayashi, Andrea Miller, and Elena and George Gilliam. They were so kind and tolerated me. We still talk and play together and they taught me a lot of what I know now. Later, I met Luther Hughes, Ron Escheté and Paul Kreibich who are active in the OC and SoCal areas and are also huge inspirations to me.

Being a jazz musician, I’m sure you can cite a lot of artists as influences – if you had to narrow it down to a top three, who might you choose?

I love this question. Most likely it would be Wayne Shorter, Paul Chambers, and James Williams. Wayne for his compositional mind and true “abandon”, or freedom, when he plays a solo. His songs have the most beautiful harmony and are so ahead of their time. He has an amazing sound and lyrical approach. He’s fearless and strange and esoteric, and is a player I think we could all benefit from observing and cherishing.

PC was just pure bebop and blues. He was always so lyrical, musical, rhythmic, swinging, and soulful when he walked or took a solo. He had an amazing forward momentum when he plays, while never feeling stiff or rushed. To this day I have no idea how he did it. I’ve read that Miles had chills sometimes when PC and Philly Joe played and I totally get what he meant.

Finally, James Williams represented all the great traditional pianists rolled into one. He was an amazing extension of Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn, and McCoy Tyner, and was steeped in the gospel tradition too. He was a member of the Memphis family tree of piano players along with Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown. Brown, Williams, and Miller were all Phineas disciples and yet brought their own personalities to jazz even while having similar influences. I pretty much become elated and amazed whenever I listen to Wayne, James Williams or PC. They are truly able to connect with the listener beyond the notes.

What was the writing process like for your original compositions for L.A. Source Codes?

They were all created for different reasons. “Forasteira” was written when I sat down on the piano one day coming up with a certain voicing for a sharp 5 chord, and then around the same week discovered the “baiao” groove. Then I wanted to write a melody that contrasted with the vamp section, sort of like Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia”, and then I have a section that is influenced by “Hindsight” where the bass and piano play an answer to the melody. The melodic content is influenced by the tune “Nathan Jones” by OTB (which the late Ralph Peterson was a member), “Estate” by Bruno Martino, and just some flat out atonal content which is pretty “in the cracks”, so to speak. The original intro/second half of the solo section was actually a vamp on some altered chords. But, it was harmonically awkward, so I made it suspended.

“Above the Clouds” was a “straight eighths” modern/ECM tune. The melody is influenced by Geri Allen’s album “The Life of a Song”, as well as various canonic pieces by Bach and later composers. My friend Bijan Taghavi also wrote an amazing tune called “New Reality” which definitely got me thinking in the realm of writing a tune with the entire instrumentation (bass and piano parts that don’t involve an ostinato) in mind, rather than just a melody and chords.

“La Cumbia de MacArthur Park” was made because I wanted to paint a picture of a cumbia with jazz harmony. I wanted to make something that told the experience of refugees and immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and other areas of Central America, where “cumbia” is the popular folk music. I used to hang out around MacArthur Park when I lived near USC some years ago. It’s an amazing cultural hub and people who live there represent the soul and history of LA, at least to me. The traditional part of the tune is actually influenced by traditional Latin artists like Buena Vista Social Club (Cuban music, not cumbia), and then cumbia artists such Aniceto Molina (Colombia), and La Chanchona de Arcadio, who play a particular style of cumbia from eastern El Salvador.

I contrasted the groove with jazz harmony which is meant to reflect the changes that the neighborhood has undergone societally in the past decade, with social issues like gentrification and displacement. For better or worse, it’s meant to paint a picture. It’s important to me that historic neighborhoods like that retain their cultural identity and history, and their residents can coexist peacefully with changes that happen without having to move elsewhere.

“Rains of Change” was meant to reflect the various societal, political, and economic tensions humanity experienced as a whole in 2020. Regardless of how you felt about things, I felt like we were often experiencing a major societal shift and a lot of pain came with the territory. The social unrest and issues with the pandemic made me feel like we were in a rainy season for months that we couldn’t leave, so I made the tune to acknowledge and express that. It’s loosely influenced by various classical and jazz composers. Schoenberg and Fred Hersch come to mind, at least their more avant-garde experiments.

Speaking of the new album, could you talk about the inspiration and/or influence behind it? Any overarching themes or motifs?

To me, the ideal art is a snapshot of society as a whole. I hoped to achieve that with the title “LA Source Codes”, because it’s a reference to computer programming and we are in the age of information.

A source code is a piece of computer language that is readable by a human programmer, and to me bebop and jazz language represent certain kinds of source codes. The keepers of the source code (Jon and Roy) and the interpreters of the source code (me and the rest of the musicians) influence one another to keep jazz alive and move the genre forward. We can interpret a source code and use it to make new variants of information, a common practice for computer and software programmers. “LA” is a homage to my current city and its musical history, as well as the scene we’re all a part of.

With the tunes I described, I meant to convey and depict various emotional, societal, and cultural concepts. It’s meant to express the truly fascinating times in which we have found ourselves.

Where was the album recorded and who helped bring it to life?

This album was recorded at Nolan Shaheed’s studio in Pasadena and The Lodge Studio in Granada Hills, ran by Malte “Nikolas” Willms. Nolan has fantastic ears and is a fellow jazz musician, who has an amazing list of performing and recording credits in his own right, so he’s always a joy and easy to work with. Malte is my friend from Berklee and did the mixing and mastering too. He did a great job making it sound like a unified record. He is not primarily a jazz mixer, but I love his mixes because they have edge and direction.

Were there any particularly challenging steps in the process of recording or releasing this album?

The fact that I had a large amount of things I wanted to finish with three different bands was an organizational fiasco (for me), and we were also pressed for time on the first day. However, the music moved forward because everyone who worked on the album with me did such an amazing job. I had to keep up with them! Playing on the street and on Huntington Beach Pier as one of my many fundraisers was also entertaining and labor-intensive.

I see that the album is dedicated to your mentor, Ralph Peterson Jr. – what influence did he have on you as an artist and/or a composer?

Ralph was one of the greatest musicians and educators in jazz. A protégé of Art Blakey, he was a pivotal figure in the 1980s jazz renaissance. He influenced me with his intensity, commitment, knowledge, honesty, authenticity, and dedication to jazz music. He strongly emphasized knowing as much music as possible, knowing records inside and out (all the melodies, tunes, and solos), and knowing stylistic nuances between different jazz players. One time, he put McCoy Tyner’s record Super Trios on the speakers in class and played all of Tony Williams’s “comping” (accompanying), obviously a completely spontaneous feat. He had clearly studied the record so many times that the music was ingrained in him and he was able to play it like he was there as it was being recorded, without preparing it specifically for the lesson beforehand.

I wasn’t the strongest bass player when I first started his class, at least in a jazz context. However, he saw that I truly wanted to learn from him so he pointed me in the right direction of certain music and ideas, while still making me work to earn his approval (which I’m thankful for).

He never paid compliments unless you truly wowed him. He played unbelievable force, emotion, and expression. Ralph’s music and playing always had reasons behind them. He also inspired me to want to practice as much as possible, and to learn his music so I would one day get to play with him. I ended up getting to play with the Fo’Tet on their West Coast Tour in 2018, before my 24th birthday. We had various issues with scheduling so the tour got scaled down to a gig in San Diego at the Saville Theater. I’ll never forget it! I spent quite a while practicing and learning his music. He was very encouraging to me during that time.

What does success as a composer/band leader mean to you?

In short, it’s saying what you mean and meaning what you say. We obviously have ideas of who we are which may or may not line up with who we want to be. I believe a successful composer and bandleader is one who is constantly moving forward, and studying themselves. The studying should not come as a hindrance to what they hope to achieve, but rather informs on how to improve. The music and honesty of the material to me is number one. If that is in harmony with itself, perceived commercial or artistic successes or failures are far less relevant. However, I realize I’m just one perspective.

You have so much on your resumé for being so young! What are one or two pinnacle moments for you as an artist?

I would say the tour with Billy Kilson in Japan in 2017 was a pinnacle moment for me, just because I had worked for awhile to achieve the vision of playing with Mr. K and loved the experience of being in Japan as a jazz artist and playing for such amazing audiences. I also saw old friends who lived there and some came to the shows. I also met the love of my life, Kana, there on one of the last nights!

Ralph’s tour was definitely a pinnacle, considering how I developed under him. If I could add a third, it would be when Jon Mayer called me to be in his band with Roy McCurdy. I felt like it was too good to be true that Roy, who told me how much he loved playing with my heroes like Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Sam Jones, Bob Cranshaw and Ron Carter, all of a sudden recommended me for this gig after I played a gig with him at the Lighthouse with Jacques Lesure’s band. I remember where I was when I got the call. I really hope Jon, Roy, and I can do a full-length album just as a trio, but whether or not that happens, I’m so grateful for the patience both have given me and their care for the nuances and subtleties of this music.

What might summer and fall have in store for Will Lyle?

Summer is going to be spent getting my album out to everyone, scheduling a release show, and playing my gigs as a sideman! I’m playing at a jazz festival with Bijan Taghavi and the great guitarist Randy Napoleon (Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Freddy Cole, and others) in July in Michigan. On August 8th, I’m playing at the Merc Theater in Temecula with Jon’s Trio. In September, I’m planning to move to New York City to finish my second year of studies at Manhattan School of Music with maestro Ron Carter.

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