Founded in 1974 by altoist Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra has consistently been one of the commercially successfully pop-jazz groups of the past 20 years. Although originally a studio group, the band became a full-time venture in 1979 and has been touring ever since. Critics love to attack this band’s lightweight and rarely changing music, which combines R&B and elements of pop and Caribbean music with jazz, but its live performances are often stimulating - unlike many of its records, which emphasize the danceable melodies at the expense of improvising.
The roots of Spyro Gyra lay in Buffalo, New York, in the early ‘70s. Beckenstein and his longtime friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, had been leading a group with a revolving membership; every one of the many members in the band were loosely involved in the local jazz and rock scenes. Around 1974, the group was beginning to gel and cultivate a following. A club owner who wanted to advertise an upcoming appearance by the band asked Beckenstein for the group’s name. The saxophonist told him “Spirogira,” a word he learned in a college biology course. The owner misspelled the word as Spyro Gyra, and the band fell into place, featuring Beckenstein, Wall, electric guitarist Chet Catallo, bassist David Wolford, drummer Eli Konikoff and percussionist Gerardo Velez. Not long afterward, the group added keyboardist Tom Schuman.
Spyro Gyra independently funded and recorded their debut album, releasing the record on the local independent label Amherst in 1976. The record slowly became a success and Amherst sold the rights to the band to Infinity Records, a division of MCA. Morning Dance, their first album for Infinity, was released in 1979. The record became a major hit, spawning a Top 40 single with “Morning Dance” and going platinum. In the wake of the record’s success, Wall retired from live performance, leaving Schuman as the group’s main keyboardist; Wall stayed with the band as an assistant producer and occasional composer.
Morning Dance firmly placed Spyro Gyra as one of the most popular artists in contemporary jazz, and throughout the ‘80s, their popularity continued growing. Their albums were consistent best-sellers, and their concerts often sold out. In 1983, vibraphonist/marimba player Dave Samuels, who had played on several of the group’s albums, became a full-fledged member of the band. Over the course of the ‘80s, the membership of Spyro Gyra fluctuated, but Beckenstein and Schuman remained at its core, keeping the group’s signature sound intact.
In 1990, MCA’s jazz roster was absorbed by GRP, so Spyro Gyra switched labels, releasing Fast Forward, their first album for GRP, later that year. In 1993, Samuels left the touring band, but he continued to play in the studio. By the late ‘90s, the band featured Beckenstein, Schuman, Julio Fernandez, Joel Rosenblatt and Scott Ambush, and released Got the Magic in 1999.
Down the Wire (2009) is a set of eleven new songs, all composed by members of the group - Jay Beckenstein, saxophones; Julio Fernandez, guitars; Tom Schuman, keyboards; Scott Ambush, bass; and Bonny “Bonny B” Bonaparte, drums, percussion and vocals. The group has scored several Grammy nominations, but is the perpetual bridesmaid when it comes to actually winning. Taking its early cues from Weather Report and Chick Corea and Return to Forever, its music crosses several genres: straight jazz, funk, fusion, blues, Latin, Brazilian and instrumental pop.
Ambush’s funk-driven bass line opens the title song, which he also wrote; Fernandez, Schuman and Bonny B set the background, with Ambush and Beckenstein leading the way. The bass gets in some rapid-fire action on the bridge; after an alto sax solo and another bass-led bridge, Fernandez goes on a trip of his own. Ambush comes back with another solo before he and Beckenstein resume the melody - through it all, Schuman and Bonny B show that they’re not merely background, but active parts of this tapestry; bass and sax trade turns during the song’s final sequence.
“The Tippin’ Point” is one of those songs that defies those who would pigeonhole this band as a smooth jazz act. Written by Beckenstein and Schuman, this up-tempo piece brings some old-school jazz flavor to the party; Beckenstein leads on tenor while Ambush gives some vintage bass lines and Bonny B taps the hi-hat in the finest jazz tradition. The middle break features Schuman on piano, leading what amounts to an acoustic trio; Beckenstein’s tenor solo ranks among some of his best (e.g. “Whitewater”, “Birks Law” and “East River Blue”).
Bonny B wrote the riveting “Ice Mountain”, a song that shows how easily the group can shift from one style to another; in this case, from straight-ahead to fusion. It’s difficult not to think of Weather Report, with the blending of sax, keyboards, guitar, bass and drums right out of the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius handbook, especially when two or more players strike the same notes at blazing, stop-time speed. And when they all go in different directions, buckle up, because there’s quite a ride ahead.
Gerardo Velez, the group’s full-time percussionist during the middle 1980s, guests on two tracks - Fernandez’s “Unspoken” and Ambush’s “A Flower for Annie Jeanette.” Another Spyro Gyra alum, Marc Quinones, appears on Beckenstein’s “La Zona Rosa”, along with a three-piece horn section. Down the Wire, borrowed from a line by the founder of the Flying Wallendas, is an apt summation of life and music.
Their new album, A Foreign Affair (2011), is ready to take you around the world from the Caribbean to South America, and even to South Africa, India and Japan. Besides the memorable instrumentals, there are also three vocal tunes, one of which features Grammy-winning Keb’ Mo’.