Switch on your favorite top 40 station in the late summer of 1979 and there was a decent chance you picked up a warm, jazzy instrumental. The song’s title was straightforward enough: “Morning Dance.” But what about the band’s name, Spyro Gyra? Sounds like something you’d find at the bottom of Petri dish.
Thirty-three years later, that hit’s performers are recognized as one of jazz’s top touring and recording acts. Indeed, Spyro Gyra and Yellowjackets remain the last bands standing among the jazz fusion groups that in essence created a new category of jazz in the ‘70s, saw it blossom artistically in the ‘80s and commercially in the ‘90s in the form of a smooth jazz.
Through those decades, saxophonist Jay Beckenstein has been Spyro Gyra’s guiding light, receiving essential assistance all along from keyboardist Tom Schuman. Julio Fernandez (guitar), Scott Ambush (bass) and Bonny Bonaparte (drums) round out the current lineup. Spyro Gyra returns to the Bay Area for dates Wednesday and Thursday at Yoshi’s in Oakland and Friday at the Carriage House Theatre in Saratoga.
The group is touring in support of its most recent release, “A Foreign Affair.” As with many another veteran act, Spyro Gyra faces a significant challenge each time it enters the studio: That of bringing a fresh perspective to a time- and audience-honored sound.
“The reason that the band retains its signature sound is that the lead voices – Tom Schuman, Julio Fernandez and I – have been consistent for over 25 years and they are exclusive to us,” Beckenstein told me in an interview a few years back. “So, when you hear them, that’s Spyro Gyra.
“However, in the course of making nearly 30 CDs, we have been ultra-conscious of trying to not have the CD that we’re working on sound like the CD that preceded it,” he added. “In the course of doing this, we have searched out different ways of triggering new ideas – different instrumentation, different approaches to the writing (writing together, writing apart), different approaches to the production. And I hear a lot of progress on the CDs.”
When the band broke nationally in the late ‘70s, they were labeled a fusion outlet. Within a decade, that genre have given way to the more commercial sounds of smooth jazz. While some of the fusion groups tend to knock smooth jazz, Beckenstein takes a more philosophical approach.
“As far as smooth jazz is concerned, I can’t dismiss it all,” he said. “There are some artists making some nice music. And, if you go see them live, many of them are high-energy R&B artists and I’ve got nothing against high-energy R&B.
“What happened with the music is that through homogenizing, stultifying testing methods, they rendered out a version of what had been essentially an instrumental pop and R&B movement down to the most saccharine and banal of concoctions. That, unfortunately, came to define smooth jazz and not what many of the artists were doing in every other facet of their work other than the cut that ‘made the radio.’”
Spyro Gyra has persevered in part because it has resisted industry efforts to alter its sound. It helps, too, that the group is truly a collection of players who respect each other’s talents and opinions.
“One of the big reasons for our stability is that (we) offer everyone in the band a place at the creative table and a lot of opportunity to showcase yourself and what you do,” Beckenstein said. “Most bands are backup musicians around a star and we are very much not about that. Everybody in the band really does get a chance to shine on stage. I think that really makes everyone feel like it belongs to them.”
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