Hailing from Buffalo, New York, Spyro Gyra brought its own instrumental jazz hybrid to the forefront, combining jazz, R&B, Latin, and Brazilian music. Over the years, many critics and radio stations would try to classify their style and fit them into a category, none of which met the group’s satisfaction. Their trademark hit “Morning Dance” was released in 1979. By 2001, Spyro Gyra had released 23 albums in 25 years with no signs of slowing down.
The group’s formation started in 1974 when bandleader and saxophone player Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Jeremy Wall began jamming together. Beck-enstein and Wall had first met in high school and discovered a common interest in music. They reconnected after college when they were both playing in clubs around Buffalo with other blues and R&B bands. Their instrumental sessions evolved over the next year, eventually including guitarist Chet Catallo, bassist David Wolford, drummer Eli Konikoff, and percussionist Gerardo Velez. Another keyboardist named Tom Schuman joined the band later and played along with Wall.
The evolving group performed every week at a club named Jack Daniel’s in Buffalo. Since they didn’t have a name yet, the club’s marquee simply said,” Tuesday Night—Jazz Jam.” One night, the club’s owner asked Beckenstein if they had decided on a name yet. Jokingly, Beckenstein said the name was “spirogyra,” a type of algae that he had remembered from biology class (also known as “pond scum”). The club owner took him seriously, and the next week, the name was on the sign, incorrectly spelled as “Spyro Gyra.”
In 1976, Beckenstein and a local drummer named Richard Calandra decided to form their own production company. They would use the proceeds from the company to help fund Spyro Gyra’s recordings. When they had enough money, Beckenstein decided to capitalize on the fan base that they had built in their live performances by pressing 500 records himself. He sold all of them out of the trunk of his car. “When I listen to that recording, I hear seeds of the music that made us popular,” Beckenstein told Jonathan Widran in Down Beat.” It was pretty innovative at the time, I guess, a strange but accessible blend of jazz, R&B, and even Caribbean music. It’s funny how people didn’t know what to make of it then, and now it’s so ubiquitous.”
As Spyro Gyra’s popularity continued to build in the Buffalo area, they met Lenny Silver, who owned a local record store chain and the Amherst record label. Silver offered the group a distribution deal, and their first album, Spyro Gyra, sold 70,000 copies. After the release, Silver transferred his deal with the band to MCA Records. Before they recorded their first major label release, Wall decided to leave the band. Although he took on the role of assistant producer for Spyro Gyra and wrote songs for nearly all of their albums, his departure became the first of what would become a revolving door of Spyro Gyra members. With Wall out of the group, Tom Schuman took over as the sole keyboardist.
Spyro Gyra released their first album with MCA, Morning Dance, in 1979. The single “Morning Dance” rocketed to the number one spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts. The album ended up selling more than one million copies. Up to that point, the members of Spyro Gyra had looked at the group as more of a side project. But with the success of Morning Dance, they all committed to the project full-time. They released Catching the Sun and Carnaval in 1980, and moved the group’s base of operations to the suburbs of New York City.
After the release of Freetime in 1981, Spyro Gyra’s brand of music became known as “smooth jazz.” Because they had broken the barriers of musical genres, music critics and radio stations found it difficult to fit them into a specific category, and even the “smooth jazz” definition didn’t work for the band members themselves. “Radio represents 10 percent of what we do, and we’re fortunate that they have found 10 percent of our music good for their format,” Beckenstein told David Todoran at the Whatzup.com website. “But the band has such a high-energy side to it, and contemporary jazz radio is more about the relaxing kind of vibe. We are delighted that they play us, but we certainly don’t define ourselves by it.”
Members include Scott Ambush (born in Frederick, MD; son of Webster and Jeanette Ambush), bass; Jay Beckenstein (born on May 14, 1951, in Brooklyn, NY; married Jennifer Johnson, 1984; children: Claire, Alexandra, Isabel), saxophone; Julio Fernandez (born on August 29, 1954, in Havana, Cuba), guitar; Joel Rosenblatt, drums; Tom Schuman (born on January 31, 1958, in Buffalo, NY; son of Wally and Marion Schuman), keyboards. Former members include Monolo Badrena, percussion; Oscar Cartaya, bass; Chet Catallo , guitar; Eli Konikoff drums; Richie Morales, drums; Dave Samuels, vibraphone/marimba; Kim Stone, bass; Gerardo Velez, percussion; Jeremy Wall, keyboards; David Wolford , bass.
Formed group, 1974; financed first recording, distributed by Amherst, 1976; distribution transferred to MCA Records, released Morning Dance album and “Morning Dance” single, 1979; released eleven albums on Amherst/MCA, 1980–89; transferred to GRP Records, 1990; released six albums on GRP, 1990–97; released Got the Magic on Windham Hill Records, 1999; released In Modern Times on Heads Up International, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Heads Up International, 23309 Commerce Park Road, Cleveland, OH 44122; website: http://www.headsup.com. Management —Cross Eyed Bear Productions, P.O. Box 239, Tallman, NY 10930. Website —Spyro Gyra Official Website: http://www.spyrogyra.com.
In 1983, vibraphonist/marimba player Dave Samuels officially joined the band. Samuels had previously contributed to several of the band’s albums, but hadn’t become a full-fledged member. Spyro Gyra released Access All Areas and City Kids that same year. In 1984, Julio Fernandez joined the group on guitar. Around this time, Spyro Gyra centered on Beckenstein with other musicians working for short periods of time.
At the end of 1987, Beckenstein decided to try to form more of a permanent lineup. Bassist Oscar Cartaya auditioned at that time and joined the band. “I was fortunate to come in at a time when Jay Beckenstein wanted to create more of a group identity instead of taking musicians on the road, and then recording with studio players,” Cartaya told Chris Jisi in Guitar Player. But Spyro Gyra’s personnel changes hadn’t stopped yet. After the release of 1988’s Rites of Summer and 1989’s Point of View, Joel Rosenblatt joined the group on drums.
In 1990, the GRP record label took over MCA’s jazz artists, and as a result, Spyro Gyra had changed labels. Their next effort, Fast Forward, was released on GRP. After the release of Three Wishes in 1992, Spyro Gyra recruited Scott Ambush on bass. The following year, Dave Samuels decided to leave the band, although he periodically contributed to subsequent studio recordings. In 1997, Spyro Gyra celebrated their twentieth album release in 20 years with 20/20.Despite the ever-changing lineup, Beckenstein remained committed to the project over the years, as did their audiences.
Spyro Gyra changed labels once again in 1999 with the release of Got the Magic on Windham Hill Records. The following year, Beckenstein released his first solo CD called Eye Contact. However, the recording of a solo project didn’t interfere with his dedication to the success of Spyro Gyra. “Though I occasionally have recorded on records other than Spyro Gyra and have done other productions, Spyro Gyra has been my main focus and has fulfilled most of my musical dreams,” Beckenstein wrote on the group’s official website.
The following year, Spyro Gyra celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary with the album In Modern Times on Heads Up International. After 23 albums in a quarter of a century, Spyro Gyra had no intentions of slowing their pace. “The bottom line is after 25 years, we’re just not going away,” Beckenstein said in the group’s record company press release. “With each recording, I feel like I’m playing with a whole new band. I think that In Modern Times is one of our strongest albums to date. We’ve remained open to new ideas while keeping our identity.”
By 2001, Spyro Gyra’s members included Beckenstein, bassist Scott Ambush, guitarist Julio Fernandez, drummer Joel Rosenblatt, and keyboardist Tom Schuman. With what appeared to be a solid lineup in place, Spyro Gyra continued to play their own brand of hybrid instrumental music without any barriers. “What could be better than this?” Beckenstein asked Jonathan Widran for an article in Jazziz magazine, available at the group’s website. “We still get to play music that are hearts are involved in, untainted by the world around us.”
Spyro Gyra, Amherst, 1976.
Morning Dance, MCA, 1979.
Catching the Sun, Amherst, 1980.
Carnaval, MCA, 1980.
Freetime, MCA, 1981.
Incognito, Amherst, 1981.
Access All Areas, Amherst, 1983.
City Kids, Amherst, 1983.
Alternating Currents, Amherst, 1985.
Breakout, Amherst, 1986.
Stories Without Words, MCA, 1987.
Rites of Summer, MCA, 1988.
Point of View, MCA, 1989.
Fast Forward, GRP, 1990.
Three Wishes, GRP, 1992.
Dreams Beyond Control, GRP, 1993.
Love & Other Obsessions, GRP, 1995.
Heart of the Night, GRP, 1996.
20/20, GRP, 1997.
Road Scholars, GRP, 1997.
Got the Magic, Windham Hill, 1999.
In Modern Times, Heads Up International, 2001.
Eye Contact, Windham Hill Jazz, 2000.
Down Beat, September 1986; January 1988; September 1990; September 1997.
Guitar Player, September 1990.
“Downtown Revival,” Whatzup.com, http://www.whatzup.com (June 17, 2001).
“Interview with Jay Beckenstein,” Contemporary Jazz.com, http://www.contemporaryjazz.com (June 17, 2001).
“Spyro Gyra,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 17, 2001).
“Spyro Gyra Make Their Magic on the Road in 2000,” EMOL, http://www.emol.org (June 17, 2001).
Spyro Gyra Official Website, http://www.spyrogyra.com (June 17, 2001).
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