Gentle Jazz Giants

Spyro Gyra's Jay Beckenstein reflects on three decades of resolve, radio, and the band's edgy approach to smooth jazz

Jay Beckenstein makes it a point to be prompt. Maybe too prompt. Phoning from his home in upstate New York, the leader and sax player for the jazz band Spyro Gyra duly checks in for an interview scheduled for 9:30. Only problem is, the call's on tap for 9:30 p.m., and here it's 9:30 a.m. Given that he's helmed his band more than 30 years, you'd think timing would be his strong suit.

Regardless, surviving three decades in a business swayed by ever-changing trends is no small accomplishment, especially for an outfit whose stock in trade is articulate instrumentals that pop radio tends to shun. Considering that the group has garnered nine Grammy nominations and sales of roughly 11 million albums — including one platinum and two gold records — Beckenstein has ample reason to be proud of Spyro Gyra's brand-name durability.

Despite the cheeseball photo, Spyro Gyra can still jam.
Despite the cheeseball photo, Spyro Gyra can still jam.

"Who would have thought it could last so long?" Beckenstein asks playfully. "Or that it would have so much vitality? I had grown up as a kid with the world of jazz, so I always had this idea that musical artists had these very long careers... so that part of it didn't surprise me. But the idea that any band or organization could manage to stay together that long — it's pretty remarkable."

In fact, Spyro Gyra was an ongoing entity well before it topped the pop charts in 1979, when its sprightly "Morning Dance" attained the rare distinction of becoming an instrumental hit. "When we had hits, radio was a very diverse world," Beckenstein muses. "Lots of stations were run by — how would you describe it? — quirky people with personal taste. So the possibility of getting on the radio with something as offbeat as an instrumental calypso tune — which was sort of what "Morning Dance" was — was possible back then. That's impossible today. Radio is run by huge conglomerates, and... very rarely at any radio station does somebody get to go, 'Oh, wow, I really like that — I want to play that!' So instrumental hits like we had back in the early '80s couldn't happen today, and it's sort of a shame."

In Spyro Gyra's case, the key to longevity was to find a new niche — specifically in the smooth-jazz radio format. Since it's a genre that's sometimes scorned by purists, the group also had to walk a tightrope between strict jazz discipline and an innocuous instrumental sound more akin to easy listening. In the process, the group has often raised the hackles of critics who have derided their willingness to compromise. It's a dichotomy Beckenstein knows all too well.

"At its best, what smooth jazz is isn't necessarily jazz; it's instrumental rhythm and blues," he observes. "The approach, the lack of soloing, the focus on hooks... it sort of has jazz inflections, and many of the instrumentalists that play it are fine jazz musicians, but the actual music that gets on the radio is jazz-inflected, instrumental R&B. But is it jazz? It's a kind of jazz flavor. We've always approached the music we do with the attitude we can play any style we want, and there are elements we absolutely want to present in the jazz world. There are other times we're kind of in a world-music mode [or a] pop/R&B mode. We're far more diverse, we're far more adventurous, we're far more improvisatory, and we're far more angular than what is generally presented on smooth-jazz radio."

No such distinctions were necessary in 1974 when Beckenstein formed his house band to play a Buffalo, New York, nightclub. When another local promoter contacted them for a booking and asked for their name, Beckenstein suggested Spirogira, a word he borrowed from a biology class because he felt it more or less described the group's boundless template. The promoter listed it incorrectly as "Spyro Gyra," and the handle stuck. Keyboardist Tom Schuman joined shortly thereafter; he and Beckenstein are the only two members remaining from the original ensemble.

Although not as adventurous as the fusion outfits of that earlier era — Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra among them — the band, with its spirited melodies and vibrant delivery, provided ample crossover potential. Various shifts in personnel occurred over the ensuing decades, but with the addition of guitarist Julio Fernandez in the early '80s, bassist Scott Ambush a decade later, and drummer, percussionist and vocalist Bonnie B just last year, the lineup has finally stabilized. A series of albums for the Telarc jazz label, commencing with Heads Up in 1999 and culminating with the most recent effort, Good to Go-Go, helped reignite and revitalize them for the new millennium.

Despite the band's renewed success, its leader isn't so optimistic about the future of his beloved genre.

"Jazz presented this idea that one could work one's entire life toward the perfection of one's craft," Beckenstein says. "And you know, what is the craft now? And who's trying to perfect anything? I think there's some kind of thing where... the idea of abstraction has kind of gotten lost. People want everything kind of handed to them. To me, the original beauty of music was that it was this entirely abstract entity. It wasn't about words; it was something that bordered on the divine."

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