Spyro Gyra is an American jazz fusion band that was originally formed in the mid-1970s in Buffalo, New York, USA. With over 25 albums released and 10 million copies sold, they are among the most prolific as well as commercially successful groups of the scene. Among their most successful hit singles are "Shaker Song" and "Morning Dance". which received significant play on popular music radio stations, and are still frequently heard nearly 30 years later on jazz and easy listening stations.
Their music, which has been influential in the development of the smooth jazz, combines jazz with elements of R&B, funk and pop music. Although generally considered to be more "jazz" than "smooth". Syro Gyra have been praised as skilled instrumentalists and for their live performances, which average nearly 100 per year.
With the exeption of alto saxophonist, song writer and founding bandleader Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Tom Schuman the personnel has changed somewhat over time as well as between the studio and the live stage.
Appearance on the Buffalo club sceneAppearance on the Buffalo club scene
Spyro Gyra emerged around Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Jeremy Wall, who had met and formed a band during their high school years. Although they headed in different directions during college—Beckenstein to the State University of New York in Buffalo and Wall to Cal Arts—they spent summers together playing outdoor concerts, and Wall moved to Buffalo soon after graduating.
Beckenstein had been working in clubs in Buffalo since his junior year of college, backing various vocalists. Wall teamed up with Beckenstein, and the two started playing instrumental music—mostly covers of R&B songs—together. The other two musicians who were part of the nucleus were Buffalo natives Jim Kurzdorfer on bass and Tom Walsh on drums, although many people played in those early jam gatherings. An early regular on the Tuesday Night Jazz Jam scene was Buffalo percussionist Umbopha Emile Latimer. In Beckenstein's description of the Buffalo club scene of the time:
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.
Over a year, their work evolved into Spyro Gyra. Wall has commented that their sound was a "gutbucket of rhythmic tradition. We did simple music and esoteric stuff. It all came together, this oddball mix, until we found a middle ground, our own groove".
The name Spyro Gyra is a misspelling of Spirogyra, a genus of green algae on which Beckenstein had written a college biology paper years earlier. He recalls:
Before a gig in a Buffalo club that was called Jack Daniels, the owner twisted my arm for a band name. As a joke, I remembered the paper and said, 'Spirogyra'. He misspelled it 'Spyro Gyra,' advertised it that way, and it stuck.
Breaking out of Buffalo
As the popularity of the group increased, the band played more places around town, becoming a regular at the Tralfamadore Cafe in its original location, in a basement under a non-descript storefront on Main Street. That led to more opening slots for national acts and performances in nearby cities, Rochester and Cleveland.
There were two main guitar players who appeared as part of the band around this time, Alfred "Fast Freddy" Rapillo (who would later go on to play for Rick James) and Rick Strauss. Tom Walsh had moved to California and the drum chair was alternately taken by Tom Duffy, Ted Reinhardt and others. Tom Schuman, who had been sitting in with the band since almost the beginning, when he was only sixteen, became a fixture in 1977 and the group had two keyboard players for a brief period until Jeremy Wall left the performing band in 1978.
The first eponymous album, self released in late 1977, reflected these personnel as well as some guests like Dave Samuels and Rubens Bassini, who would be part of Spyro Gyra recordings for years to come. That album attracted the attention of locally based Amherst Records, who then re-released the first album with new artwork. This debut album would go on to become one of Billboard's Top 40 Jazz Albums of 1978.
Bronx-born Gerardo Velez, who started his career with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and would go on to play with many other artists and most recently as a member of Chic, became a regular around this time. He would gain fame with the early fans as Spyro Gyra's "dancing percussionist".
The follow-up recording, Morning Dance, financed by Amherst, made it possible to record part of the album in New York City and include more notable guests like John Tropea, Will Lee, Steve Jordan, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker and Suzanne Ciani. In the course of recording Morning Dance Eli Konikoff replaced Ted Reinhardt on drums and Freddy Rapillo returned to the group to replace Rick Strauss.
Late in 1978, prior to the release of the album, Rochester guitarist Chet Catallo replaced Freddy Rapillo in the band. The musical chairs of the revolving band membership, borne out of the jam scene beginnings of the band along with the appearance of guest musicians, set the template for the next few albums. The performing band became a standardized unit while the early recordings remained more of a collaboration of Jay Beckenstein, co-producer Richard Calandra and Jeremy Wall accompanied by some of the biggest names in the NYC jazz world.
The early albums
The March 1979 release of Morning Dance provided the group their breakthrough on the national and international scene. Through the efforts of Infinity Records, a New York City based start-up label owned by MCA Records, the group appeared in most major cities in the United States and many jazz festivals in Europe in 1979. That album would become a platinum seller due to the Top 40 pop hit of the same name, which would be a # 1 adult contemporary (AC) single, Billboard's #6 AC single of 1979.
Infinity Records folded by the end of the year and Spyro Gyra's follow-up record, Catching The Sun was released on MCA Records in February 1980 to similar success. Morning Dance became Billboard's #3 Jazz Album of 1980 and Catching the Sun was the #4 Jazz Album of 1980. Bass player Jim Kurzdorfer left the group in 1980 and was replaced by David Wofford. They released their next album Carnaval in late 1980. Both Catching The Sun and Carnaval were gold selling albums. Carnaval would become Billboard's # 7 Jazz Album of 1981.
Freetime, the group's fifth album, was released in 1981 and became the # 8 Jazz Album of 1982 as well as beginning their tradition of releasing a new album every year. 1982's Incognito represented a stylistic change in their artwork and featured Marcus Miller, Steve Gadd, Tom Scott, Richard Tee, Toots Thielemans and Jorge D'Alto as guests and would be Billboard's # 8 Jazz Album of 1983.
1983's City Kids, would be the last album using this producer centric approach, calling on famous session musicians to play in place of the full time band members. City Kids incorporated bass player Kim Stone, who would later go on to a long career with the Rippingtons.
1984 saw the release of the live Access All Areas, which would become Billboard's # 11 Jazz Album of 1984. AAA was the first album of Jay Beckenstein's new "band centric" approach to Spyro Gyra. It also introduced Dave Samuels as a full time member of the band. Eli Konikoff and Chet Catallo left the band just prior to its release to be replaced by Richie Morales and Julio Fernandez, respectively. It was this core unit that recorded 1985's Alternating Currents, which spurred the group's mid-80's resurgence with the hit "Shakedown".
Breakout, the 1986 follow-up, would be the first with Manolo Badrena as a full time member, replacing Gerardo Velez. Badrena was a veteran of Fusion titans Weather Report and a previous guest musician on Spyro Gyra's albums. Alternating Currents and Breakout would be among the top 15 Jazz Albums in Billboard in 1986. Longtime co-producer Richard Calandra passed away in October 1986 of pancreatic cancer.
1987 would see another personnel change within the band as Kim Stone left the band and the bass position was taken by Roberto Vally for the Stories Without Words album. Vally would go on to play with people like Michael Franks, Bobby Caldwell, Boney James, Boz Scaggs, Arturo Sandoval and Randy Crawford.
1988's Rites Of Summer album would be the first of the band's history without a percussionist, other than the drummer. It would also be the introduction of Oscar Cartaya, later to play with Herb Albert, Jennifer Lopez, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Tito Puente, Robbie Robertson and Willie Colon. Both Stories Without Words and Rites Of Summer would be among Billboard's top 15 Contemporary Jazz Albums of 1988.
Point Of View would provide another turning point in 1989 for the band as Julio Fernandez left the band and was replaced by Jay Azzolina. It was also the first album in five years to have a guest musician, Roger Squitero on percussion. Julio Fernandez was also listed as a guest musician for one song.
Fast Forward would bring another new face into the band in 1990. Marc Quiñones would be with the band for two years and then go on to greater fame with The Allman Brothers Band. Fast Forward would be another #1 Contemporary Jazz Album for the band and one of Billboard's top 10 Contemporary Jazz Albums of 1990. Spyro Gyra would end the decade as Billboard's most successful jazz artist of the 1980s.
The 1990s provided the band with new challenges and a stable line-up for most of the decade. Guitarist Julio Fernandez rejoined the band for their 1991 Collection CD, a Best Of... which also featured two new songs. These two new songs on Collection marked the debut of drummer Joel Rosenblatt who had previously played with artists ranging from Michel Camilo to Pure Prairie League. The next CD, 1992's Three Wishes marked the debut of bassist Scott Ambush and completed what was to become the most long lived version of the band's core lineup in its history. Three Wishes was notable for its stripped down, more acoustic approach to the majority of the songs. The next CD, Dreams Beyond Control, was another about-face in the production approach which featured a large cast of supporting players and singers. Alex Ligertwood, of the Santana band, provided lead vocals, a "first" on a Spyro Gyra album. Also featured on this CD were the Tower Of Power horns, Howard Levy of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, former member and now Allman Brothers band member Marc Quiñones and the NYC based No Sweat Horns. Despite being as well received as it was, this effort was swimming against the tide of the fashion made popular by the juggernaut that was Smooth Jazz radio in the 90's. The group made some effort to bridge that gap with their next release Love and other obsessions. This release featured two more traditional Smooth Jazz type vocals with guests Deniece Williams, Barrington Henderson, Billy Cliff and a host of other backing vocalists and musicians (which now included Dave Samuels who left the band to pursue his own Caribbean Jazz Project). The vocal tunes were an odd fit with the band's identity and this release marked the group's last flirtation with traditional R&B vocals. The instrumental "Ariana" from this album, did go on to become a #1 song at Smooth Jazz radio. The band's next release, Heart Of The Night, marked a conscious effort to produce a "themed" album of songs signifying the "moods of the night" from romantic to jumpin' at the club. The group's last studio album for GRP, 1997's 20/20 was named for its distinction of being the band's twentieth release in twenty years. This release was notable for its jazz version of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" and for the Spyro Gyra debut of guest trumpeter Chris Botti. The band's last CD for GRP was 1998's live album, Road Scholars, the title being a sly nod to the band's history of twenty plus years of thousands of shows. This album was not as big a seller as the group's studio releases, but it began a critical reappraisal of the group's place in jazz history spurred by extended versions of familiar tunes, including the ten minute plus piano trio version of the group's first hit, "Shaker Song." The Nineties closed out with "Got The Magic," a single release on Windham Hill Jazz, a new effort of the venerable new age label to expand their identity into a Smooth Jazz realm. This album featured another #1 song at Smooth Jazz radio, "Silk and Satin," and a jazzy vocal by Basia Trzetrzelewska written by Jeff Beal and his wife Joan. Jeff had made his Spyro Gyra debut as a trumpeter and songwriter on 1990's "Fast Forward" and has been very busy with soundtrack work, including the HBO blockbuster Rome (TV series).
Spyro Gyra 1978 Infinity Records
Morning Dance 1979 Infinity Records
Catching The Sun 1980 MCA Records
Carnaval 1980 MCA Records
Freetime 1981 MCA Records
Incognito 1982 MCA Records
City Kids 1983 MCA Records
Access All Areas (live) 1984 MCA Records
Alternating Currents 1985 MCA Records
Breakout 1986 MCA Records
Stories Without Words 1987 MCA Records
Rites of Summer 1988 MCA Records
Point Of View 1989 GRP
Fast Forward 1990 GRP
Three Wishes 1992 GRP
Dreams Beyond Control 1993 GRP
Love And Other Obsessions 1994 GRP
Heart Of The Night 1996 GRP
20/20 1997 GRP
Road Scholars (live) 1998 GRP
Got The Magic 1999 Windham Hill Jazz
In Modern Times 2001 Heads Up
Original Cinema 2003 Heads Up
The Deep End 2004 Heads Up
Wrapped in a Dream 2006 Heads Up
Good to Go-Go 2007 Heads Up
A Night Before Christmas 2008 Heads Up
Awards and nominations
Spyro Gyra has received the following Grammy nominations:
1980: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Catching the Sun"
1982: Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance for "Stripes"
1982: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Incognito"
1983: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "City Kids"
1984: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Access All Areas"
1985: Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Shakedown"
1985: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Alternating Currents"
2007: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Wrapped in a Dream
2008: Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Simple Pleasures" from Good to Go-Go
2008: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Good to Go-Go
2009: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for "A Night Before Christmas"
Spyro Gyra was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards in 2007.