Sunday, February 1, 2009


Over the past twenty five years, as contemporary instrumental music has evolved through many different stylistic names and formats--from "fusion" to "rhythm and jazz" to "smooth jazz"--the one constant in both popularity and musical ingenuity has been Spyro Gyra. Jay Beckenstein's roaring, emotional saxophones have been the anchor of the band's multi-genre signature sound, but there's always been more to his artistry and musical soul than Spyro's discography can document.

No doubt as Beckenstein was itching all these years to do a solo venture, Spyro fans were just as eager to check out a fuller scale, more personal revelation--a deeper portrait of the man behind the music. After 23 albums on three labels--including last year's Windham Hill Jazz debut "Got the Magic"--Beckenstein makes an exciting departure from his almost annual ensemble recording schedule with "Eye Contact", his highly anticipated debut.

Never one to rest on his formidable laurels, Beckenstein had been after his former labels MCA and GRP to do a project of his own for years, but the ongoing success of the band and his instant identification as leader made such an idea seem self-competitive. He quenched part of his desire by producing solo albums in the 90's for bandmembers Tom Schuman and Dave Samuels. GRP finally agreed and Beckenstein got started on a few of the album's tracks in 1998, only to suspend the work when Spyro Gyra signed on with Windham Hill.

Windham Hill is now pleased to honor that original commitment, and Beckenstein has delivered a knockout punch with the help of musicians and producers Chieli Minucci (Special EFX), Jason Miles (Miles Davis, David Sanborn), Jeff Beal and Chuck Loeb. Beckenstein also likes to refer to "Eye Contact" as "the Bass Player Magazine project" thanks to contributions by world class bassists Mark Egan, Marcus Miller, Will Lee, John Patitucci and South African player Bakithi Kumalo.

"When you've played in the same band as long as I have and have a recognizable sound, there's bound to be some stylistic overlap," says Beckenstein. "But this project gave me the opportunity to hook up, play with and learn from other great composers, musicians and producers. The trick to survival in the music business is finding ways to avoid creative ruts, and I've found that pushing the envelope, bouncing ideas off of new people, was a great and necessary growth opportunity for me."

While Beckenstein has always taken it upon himself to produce Spyro Gyra's recordings, he was ecstatic to discover a newfound freedom in collaborating for the first time with carefully selected outside producers. "Because of the unique Spyro dynamic, my own productions with them involved taking the best ideas from each member and acting as overseer of a group process. You always want to make sure that the guys have their opportunities to be heard, in both their ideas and their instruments," he says. "Here, I went from producing a band to assembling a team of new players, each to create a certain effect. I've been a longtime admirer of each producer I work with here. Chuck and Chieli are experts using digital recording, Jason is brilliant with sounds and samples and voices, and Jeff approaches everything like an orchestrator. Each helps me achieve a unique sound and go to places I'd never thought of before."

Over a pitter patter percussion pattern, Beckenstein's sweet soprano swirls magnificently around Minucci's breezy acoustic guitar lines on "Sunrise." Chuck Loeb's acoustic improvisations then ease in and around Beckenstein's clever alto and tenor horn doubling and Mark Egan's winding basslines on the upbeat "The Other Side." The bluesy, retro-soul flavored "Northline" finds Loeb's crying guitar line and organ simmering around the alto, while the title track features the Beckenstein and the guitarist creating pure romantic passion in tandem. Jason Miles surrounds the saxman's confident, strutting alto with moody atmospheres and a rolling bass groove on the aptly titled "West Side Cool." After another triumphant Beckenstein and Loeb romance on the soprano led "Heart and Mind," the saxman pays tribute to his one time teacher Charles Mingus with a smoky, Trio flavored, almost avante garde approach to the legendary bassist's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (featuring John Patitucci).

Loeb and Beckenstein then cross from romance to crazy cool on "Monsoon," a six and a half minute power jam featuring echoing blues guitar, a sitar/bass duet by Loeb and Egan a powerful low toned performance on tenor. Weather Report is one of Beckenstein's greatest influences, and he gives Joe Zawinal's "Black Market" a punchy, horn drenched (soprano and tenor) treatment with the help of Omar Hakim's explosive drumming and the African chanting of Bakithi Kumalo. The exotica continues on the South African fiesta "Turnaround," with Beckenstein again providing the two fisted horn section over Julio Fernandez's echoing guitar lines and the intoxicating chants of six native singers. Combining thick hip-hop grooves with retro flavors, Beckenstein concludes the album with a playful and positive eye toward the future on "Lookin' Up."

Long before there was an official radio format dedicated to the genre, the Buffalo, NY bred Spyro Gyra--whose name, given almost flippantly to a hometown promoter, was a joking reference to a college biology paper Beckenstein had once written--was setting the pop and instrumental worlds on their ears from the moment their single "Morning Dance" became a Top 40 hit and Adult Contemporary #1 single in 1979. Over the next twenty years and numerous bestselling recordings, the band became a favorite perennial live attraction; their audience appeal was documented first on Access All Areas in the 80's and later in the 90's with their final GRP album Road Scholars.

Beckenstein's own story goes back to Brooklyn, where his mother was an opera singer and his father introduced him to Charlie Parker and Lester Young before the youngster could even speak. Starting on piano in kindergarten, then sax at age seven, Beckenstein was the consummate school band performer. "My senior year in high school was spent in Nurnberg, Germany where my father was working and I went to school on a U.S Army base. I played in R&B bands there that performed both for the army and in German clubs.

Enrolling at the University of New York at Buffalo, Beckenstein studied classical and avante garde music and, always the adventurer, played in some avante garde ensembles. By his junior year, he was working steadily on the Buffalo club scene, playing a mix of R&B and jazz as a sideman. Longing for more, he and keyboardist Jeremy Wall did some off night instrumental sessions in small clubs, and over a year, this duo developed into a larger ensemble and Spyro Gyra was born.

Years later, upon wrapping production of Spyro Gyra's Windham Hill debut "Got The Magic", Beckenstein said, "We are not just a bunch of guys put together this year to sell some albums and tickets. I'm happy to say we've grown even tighter over the years. The confidence we have as a band is very real and we feed off our interaction to get it."

While Beckenstein is committed to his leadership of this remarkable unit, "Eye Contact" has given him a chance to reach beyond the expected and do music that "further resonates in my soul. I'm aware that stylistically, like a Spyro record, it's all over the place, but the journey of this project helped me recognize paths I want to go down in the future, both with the group and on my own. I've always believed that the only way to grow as an artist is to open your eyes and be receptive to new things."

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