As Spyro Gyra contemplates upcoming milestones to its storied career, it’s tempting to fall back on the Grateful Dead lyric, "What a long strange trip it’s been" to describe it. During that time, they have performed over five thousand shows, released twenty-nine albums (not counting "Best Of…" compilations) selling over ten million albums while also achieving one platinum and two gold albums. What's more, 2012 marks thirty-five years since their first eponymous album release. 2014, only a couple of years away, will mean forty years as a band. They show little sign of wanting to slow down either, gaining Grammy© nominations for each of their last four albums.
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. Jeremy Wall left the band in 1978 and Tom Schuman is enjoying his 34th year as a full time member.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 of the jazz jam beginnings.
There were several personnel changes in the 1980’s, which slowed down to a crawl over 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. The most recent addition is new drummer Lee Pearson.
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."
"Aside from one of the most amazing live shows in instrumental music and killer, killer songs, Spyro Gyra endures as an audience favorite because they created an original style that sounded like nothing that came before it," remarks Art Good, creator and host of the popular, nationally syndicated Jazz Trax show. "Whatever Jay had inside him, whatever sort of influences led him to this smooth mixture of styles, it came out as an original voice. Not many artists can honestly say they've never copied anyone, but Spyro Gyra can."
"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?"
"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."