Lyle Workman hasn’t just had a successful career – he’s had three. As a versatile sideman and session guitarist, he has toured and recorded with Beck, Sting, Frank Black, Todd Rundgren, Norah Jones, Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan, Jellyfish, Ziggy Marley and Tony Williams; as a film composer, his credits include the blockbusters Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Forgetting Sarah Marshall; and, as a songwriter and solo artist, he has penned hits and earned praise from rock heroes like Steve Vai and Steve Lukather. Workman now unites his various endeavours with ‘Uncommon Measures’, a stunning and stylistically diverse instrumental album featuring a 63-piece orchestra recorded live at Abbey Road.
Bursting at the seams with soaring arrangements and virtuosic performances, ‘Uncommon Measures’ plays like the score to an epic film from another dimension, mixing elements of progressive rock, jazz fusion, classical and choral music with gleeful abandon. Its nine tracks are living, breathing entities, constantly growing and evolving in ways both subtle and drastic. Their production is similarly unpredictable, veering from larger-than-life bombast to whispered intimacy and back, sometimes within the same piece. The result is extraordinary – a captivating, transportive song cycle that manages to scale the heights of joy and sadness, love and friendship, self-discovery and celebration, all without a single word.
“This record ties together all the different threads of who I am as an artist,” explains Workman. “It was four years in the making, but it’s really the culmination of a lifetime in music.”
Grand as the album is, Workman’s eye for detail and gift for melody remains front and centre throughout. Painting vivid, emotional portraits with his evocative guitar and keyboard work, he creates an immersive, cinematic universe drawn entirely from the depths of his subconscious in spontaneous, improvised writing sessions. “I’ve always felt like the muse is much more intuitive and in touch with my emotions than I am,” he continues. “Writing these songs, I tried to just go into this tabula rasa state of mind, a meditative place where I could let the music tell me where to go.”
Born and raised in California, Workman taught himself guitar as a youngster by playing along to songs by The Beatles. His taste would expand over the years (Genesis and Yes brought him to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis, which led him to Ravel and Debussy), but his love of a perfectly crafted pop song saw him co-write the Todd Rundgren produced hit single ‘I Don’t Mind At All’ for the band Bourgeois Tagg, who he had joined after leaving music college, before he began picking up work with an array of star names.
“The great thing about being a sideman is that every gig is an education,” he reflects. “Whoever I’m working with, they’re all worlds unto themselves, but it is a chance to step inside their heads and understand how they create.” In many instances, the influence has flowed in both directions, with Workman co-writing songs for the album ’57th & 9th’ by Sting, as well as composing a track for the final release by late jazz icon Tony Williams. “I was a huge fan of Tony’s playing with Miles Davis and beyond, so it totally blew my mind when he invited me to come to his place and start collaborating,” he enthuses. “When we recorded my track ‘Machu Picchu,’ we had Stanley Clarke and Herbie Hancock playing it with us. It was an incredible experience.”
Having learned what it takes to help bring the vision of other artists to life was a skill set that also made him ideally suited to the world of film and TV, with gigs writing music for commercials and indie films soon opening the door to major studio releases. However, as his sideman and film careers exploded, his own artistic endeavours were placed on the backburner. “I absolutely love all the work I get to do with other artists and filmmakers, but sometimes you need to articulate your own thoughts and feelings as a writer. There’s a singular satisfaction that comes from creating something that’s a pure expression of yourself.”
Embarking on the journey that would become ‘Uncommon Measures,’ Workman shut off his mind and simply let the music flow in his LA studio. He then began shaping his songs, some short but others clocking in at ten minutes and consisting of multiple suites and movements. Assembling a band to help flesh out the core material, he tapped up drummers Vinnie Colaiuta (Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa) and Matt Chamberlain (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen), bassist Tim Lefebvre (David Bowie, Wayne Krantz) and pedal steel wizard Greg Leisz (Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne). Finally, with the intoxicating grooves of his rhythm section in place, he began collaborating on arrangements with John Ashton Thomas, the orchestrator extraordinaire behind films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel. “John and I grew up with the same influences, so there’s a personal and professional kinship between us, along with a deep mutual respect for each other’s musicianship, that made the record such a joy to create.”
When it came time to record the orchestra, 63 of London’s finest players gathered at Abbey Road for what turned out to be a day of pure magic. The session was a ‘pinch me’ moment for Workman, both as a kid who grew up obsessed with The Beatles and as a composer finally seeing his vision come to life. “Being in that studio with the orchestra playing my songs, it was like hearing everything go from black and white to Technicolor. They added a soul and a humanity to everything that was just so beautiful and three dimensional.”
‘Uncommon Measures’ showcases not only Workman’s skilled musicianship, but also his profound empathy and expansive emotional vocabulary. Tracks like the dizzying opener ‘North Star’ and pulse-pounding ‘All The Colors Of The World’ balance breakneck guitar runs and instrumental fireworks with moments of deep calm and poignant reflection, while playful tunes such as the ecstatic ‘Noble Savage’ and funky, horn-fueled ‘Unsung Hero’ revel in the joys of creative freedom. As the album progresses, Workman finds himself looking further inwards, seeing the beauty in melancholy with the meditative ‘Labyrinth Of Love’ and finding hope for the future on the expansive ‘Rise And Shine’. The final track, ‘Our Friendship’, is a Thomas composition inspired by the pair’s working relationship.
As varied as the music is, there is a cohesiveness that binds it, a unified approach rooted in a radical exploration and embrace of the self. “If it’s any one thing, it’s the power of expressing yourself at all costs, of free falling into the music with complete abandon. When I’m working on a film or someone else’s record, there are always parameters to follow and opinions to consider, but here, there were no boundaries at all. I could do anything I wanted.” For an artist like Lyle Workman, when the possibilities are infinite, the infinite becomes possible. ‘Uncommon Measures’ is proof of that.