Spyro Gyra Plays some of the Best Jazz Ever!
Spyro Gyra could be the fusion between jazz and pop
Spyro Gyra has always been hard to classify. Generally stuffed into the capacious bag of contemporary jazz, Spyro Gyra’s music expresses numerous genres such as funk, calypso, reggae, R&B, fusion, Latin, samba and pop, though jazz purists would probably paint them with the broad brush of smooth jazz, cool jazz, or dare I call say - commercial jazz. Whoa, cowboy! Whatever label you stick on their music, it’s certainly uplifting, lively and filled with anticipation.
For reference, other artists have a similar sound – The Brecker Brothers, Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, the Yellowjackets, George Benson and Weather Report, so it appears lots of folks really dig those hybrid jazzy riffs.
Or could Spyro Gyra simply be a pop band? If pop denotes simplicity and/or radio popularity, then Spyro Gyra probably wouldn’t qualify, as their music is complex and certainly beyond the scope of most three-chord pop stars; and the band’s notoriety is largely unknown outside of their avid fan base, though that certainly stretches worldwide. But if you must call them pop, but please don’t disrespect them; after all, wasn’t George Gershwin the King of Pop way before Michael Jackson came along?
Formation of Spyro Gyra
The group of musicians that came to be known as Spyro Gyra started jamming in and around Buffalo, New York in the middle 1970s. Led by sax player Jay Beckenstein, the ensemble formed a synergistic unit of many styles. Self-financed, their first album, Spyro Gyra, came out in 1976, its big hit, “Shaker Song,” is definitely a signature tune.
According to a quote from the Web site Spyro Gyra.com, group spokesman Jay Beckenstein states, "Spyro Gyra played clubs for two years before we put out a record. But once we put out our first album (Spyro Gyra - 1976), things progressed really quickly for us. Our second album (Morning Dance - 1979) was a platinum seller and suddenly we were playing in some of the biggest venues around. Since then, my life has been a very long, amazing and satisfying journey, playing for thousands of people every year."
In 1979, the band released the album, Morning Dance, spawning a Top 40 hit of the same name and certainly another signature cut of the group.
Glory Days in the Eighties
During the 1980s, Spyro Gyra produced some of their best albums; in fact, this could have been their classic period – in terms of history rather than content, that is. Freetime, released in 1981, is a winner on every track, especially “Pacific Sunrise” and “Freetime.” Then in 1985 the band produced Alternating Currents, another success story, particularly the tunes “Heartbeat” and “Sunflurry,” both of which emphasize the nimble artistry of keyboardist Tom Shuman.
Generally a quintet – bass, drums, saxophone, keyboard and guitar (often adding vibes or marimba) - the band is comprised of middle-aged family guys with nary a messy divorce or drug bust to be found among them. These exemplary musicians haven’t had their heads turned with genre stardom; they simply play what people want to hear without regard to CD sales, their live shows so good they sound like studio sessions.
These days . . .
Spyro Gyra continues to record and perform all over the world. One of their greatest recent albums is Good to Go-Go, released in 2007. The album climbed to number three on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Released in 2011, Spyro Gyra’s latest album, A Foreign Affair, is considered one of their best efforts in a long time. Billed as a return to their global roots, A Foreign Affair features the band’s current lineup of Beckenstein (alto saxophone), Schuman (keyboards), Fernandez (guitar), Ambush (bass) and Lee Pearson replacing Bonny Bonaparte on the drums. The CD has the flavor of many different locales – the Caribbean, Japan, Africa, Chile and many other exotic places. Having more vocals than many fans may remember than on their previous 28 albums, this cut debuted at number two on Billboard’s jazz charts.
“We’ve always had this belief that the thing we’re doing in any given moment is the best we’ve ever done,”says band spokesman Jay Beckenstein. “And we always want to maintain that philosophy, because that’s what drives us forward. We haven’t succumbed to the mentality of ‘Let’s just play the hits and collect the check.’ We never saw ourselves as a pop band. We’ve always seen ourselves as a forward thinking creative outfit. After 30 years, it still feels very interesting and exciting.”
Spyro Gyra has come a long ways, and they appear to be ready to keep going for the foreseeable future. Along the way, the personnel may change, but one thing remains certain. Spyro Gyra comprises some of the best jazz musicians on the planet. Hey, they can flat out rip!
Call them jazz or pop or a little bit of both, but don't call them "no better than pop."
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