Spyro Gyra

You might think that Spyro Gyra’s leader and saxophonist Jay Beckenstein might welcome a break in its 45+ years of non-stop, year round performances. After all, much of his adult life has been centered around the recording and performing activities of this now legendary group. Renowned bass player Will Lee once referred to the ensemble as a “well oiled road machine” as a tribute to their daunting schedule, bringing their music to fans around the globe. So what has it been like to have this well oiled road machine in the garage due to the pandemic? “Good!” Beckenstein laughingly replies, “A little more oil couldn’t hurt. But you know, it’s too long now. The first few months of it, after over 45 years of touring without really having a break, it felt good to not be touring. Even if it was to realize how much I love being out there. But now, It’s been too long.”

Fans of the band are familiar with the group’s rise to international prominence from humble beginnings in Buffalo, New York. That’s when a few area working musicians arranged for a weekly gig of playing less commercial music in a local club on everyone’s night off. So humble a beginning, there was no name for the band so they were only known as “Tuesday Night Jazz Jam”. Soon the word got around and the core group was joined by many of the city’s musicians to come and have some fun. And customers started showing up, too, prompting the club owner to press Beckenstein for a band name for the club’s new sign. Beckenstein offered up this late night, tipsy answer, “You can call it ‘spirogyra’”, an algae that he had studied once. The next week, he came back and there it was, misspelling and all, and so it began in 1974.

Fast forward to the band having logged over 10,000 shows on six continents, having released 35 albums garnering platinum and gold records along the way and here they are, once again looking forward. Speaking of the band’s return to live audiences, Beckenstein admits, “It’s been a long time since we played. We’ll do some fan favorites but we’re a bunch of wanderers by nature. We have a relatively short attention span as a band and we always will want to be doing our favorites too. That’s all I know right now. But it will be happy. We will be happy.”

Regarding the pandemic that forced this hiatus, Beckenstein admits, “It made me appreciate my previous social world. So much of my previous social world was the band. Because we’re geographically distant from each other, it has been a very hard time being apart. If the pandemic has done anything, it’s made me appreciate how much the band had become my family.”

Prompted to capsulize this musical family, guitarist Julio Fernandez is “Mr. Esprit”, the guy who brings spirit to the band, the guy who imbues just about every note he plays with pure emotion. When he plays, I really feel it.” Bassist Scott Ambush is “an amazing musician and technician. He is the person in the band who is always encouraging us to push the envelope.” Drummer Lionel Cordew “is the engine that always works. Lionel is the backbone of the band as we all rely on him providing us rock solid structure for us to play on.Chris Fischer is the guy that who just joined the band and we were lucky to find him. He’s so talented and we look forward to his contributions.”

2019 provided the latest release from the band, Vinyl Tap, a collection of mostly Classic Rock covers, the promotion of which was cut short by the COVID health crisis. “I see Vinyl Tap as being a bit of a one off,” Beckenstein observed. “I’m very proud of Vinyl Tap. I think we did a really nice job on interpretations. Everybody played great but as I said I think it’s a one off. It was really great fun doing other peoples’ material but that ultimately is not how I identify Spyro Gyra. Ultimately, we’re a band that writes its own material.” Beckenstein further describes their approach, “First of all, it’s instrumental. That covers a lot of ground right there. The music has elements of Jazz, rhythm and blues, Latin music and world music. It’s instrumental, it’s improvisational, there’s a lot of teamwork in the band and the music is really honest and coming from us and what we want to say. Jazz is a chain of generations, where one generation goes to the next generation and goes to the next generation. That’s really all a Jazz musician can aspire to, to be a link in that chain of the Jazz tradition and that people after him used that as a link for their link.  We came along imbuing Jazz with other musical styles, one of the first but not the first. But it wasn’t that new. Dizzy Gillespie had done Latin music and Brazilian music was being done by Stan Getz. The idea of getting away from traditional mainstream Jazz by combining it with other things was already alive and well. I believe we were very much in the tradition.”

With respect to the long term future for a band with a 50th anniversary not too far off, Beckenstein allows, “As long as I can perform at a high-level, I would never think of retiring. But I can’t tell you what it would be like if I was to have to continue as a lesser version of myself. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet. So all I am thinking about right now is that I can’t wait to see the people again.”

As Spyro Gyra looks forward to 2016 and beyond, they show no sign of slowing down. Over the last 40+ years, they have performed over five thousand shows, released thirty-one albums (not counting “Best Of…” compilations) selling over ten million albums while also achieving one platinum and two gold albums. Although few acts have accomplished this type of record, they have done it by constantly challenging themselves as is evidenced by their last studio release “The Rhinebeck Sessions” which was written and recorded over three days in the studio.

 

Born in Brooklyn, bandleader Jay Beckenstein grew up listening to the music of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and started playing the saxophone at age seven. Beckenstein attended the University at Buffalo, starting out as a biology major before changing to music performance (read classical and avant garde). During summer breaks, he and an old high school friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, played gigs together back on Long Island. Wall attended college in California, and after both graduated, Beckenstein stayed in Buffalo’s thriving music scene, where Wall eventually joined him.

“Not many people know it, but Buffalo was like a mini Chicago back then, with a smoking blues, soul, jazz, even rockabilly scene, of all things,” Beckenstein muses. “After being confined to classical music for so long, it was heaven. I was in the horn sections around town, backing some great vocalists.”

Spyro Gyra, whose odd name has since become world famous, was first known simply as “Tuesday Night Jazz Jams,” a forum wherein Beckenstein and Wall were joined by a rotating cast of characters. Tuesday just happened to be the night when most musicians weren’t playing other gigs to pay their bills. Around this time, a young keyboardist named Tom Schuman began sitting in when he was only sixteen years old. This young man, of course, remains a member to this day.

“Don’t forget the interminable Dead-like solos we were taking,” Beckenstein cracks. “We were the kings of self-indulgence, but eventually we earned our right to charge a quarter at the door. It was a complete shock when word of our psychosis got out and we started packing them in!”

The group’s increasing popularity – combined with the purchase of a new sign for the club – prompted the owner to insist that Beckenstein come up with a name for his band. “It began as a joke. I said ‘spirogyra,’ he misspelled it, and here we are thirty years later. In retrospect, it’s okay. In a way, it sounds like what we do. It sounds like motion and energy.”

In their earliest days, Spyro Gyra took their cues from Weather Report and Return to Forever – bands whose creative flights were fueled by a willingness to do things that had never been done before. “I believed that we were springing from what Weather Report did,” says Beckenstein. “I never thought in commercial terms. I just thought they were the next step in the evolution of jazz, and that we would be part of it.”

The first few years saw the group’s identity split into a dynamic live act and a producer centric recording process, borne out of the rotating cast of characters in the jazz jam beginnings. These albums were the product of the band and a great number of the top session players in New York. In 1983, Beckenstein made the decision to make the albums the work of the band members he shared the stage with night after night, only supplementing with occasional guests.

There were several personnel changes in the 1980’s, which slowed down about twenty years ago. Julio Fernandez became the group’s guitarist in 1984 and, except for a short hiatus at the end of that decade, has continued in that position. Scott Ambush became the band’s bass player in 1991 making this the beginning of his third decade in the band. Bonny Bonaparte joined the band in 2006 making him the “new guy” at five years.

“When we first started,” Beckenstein recalls, “a lot of the jazz purists got on our case about calling what we did jazz and now it’s funny to hear us getting respect from the same people. Like, wow, what you guys did was so much more intriguing than some of the stuff they hear today… Art manifests itself in a multitude of styles and contexts. Isn’t that why we started to play in the first place?”

In 1977, they foreshadowed the DIY movement of the punks of the 1970’s by self-releasing their eponymous debut album. Spyro Gyra was picked up by Amherst Records, a local label who then made a deal for subsequent albums to go to Infinity Records, a label owned by MCA Records. After gaining Infinity its only gold (soon to be platinum) record with Morning Dance, Infinity folded and the group was picked up by MCA Records. There they stayed until MCA acquired noted contemporary jazz label GRP Records. Spyro Gyra moved to GRP in 1990 and put out all but one of their 1990’s output on that label. In 1999, they released a single album, Got The Magic on Windham Hill Jazz. The “aughts” had them returning to an indie mode, licensing their albums to Heads Up International. Most of those Heads Up albums have since returned to the band as self released independent releases. 2011 sees them returning to Amherst Records in Buffalo with A Foreign Affair.

“My hope is that our music has the same effect on the audience that it does on me,” says Beckenstein. “I’ve always felt that music, and particularly instrumental music, has this non-literal quality that lets people travel to a place where there are no words. Whether it’s touching their emotions or connecting them to something that reminds them of something much bigger than themselves, there’s this beauty in music that’s not connected to sentences. It’s very transportive. I would hope that when people hear our music or come to see us, they’re able to share that with us. That’s the truly glorious part of being a musician.”

A Historic Reflection of Spyro Gyra
– by Jonathan Widran, Jazziz Magazine