(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – Jazz fusion legends Spyro Gyra bring a smooth-jazz twist to the holidays with A Night Before Christmas on Sunday, December 11, 2011, at 7 p.m., at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The eight-time Grammy Award nominated outfit, founded in Buffalo, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, is one of the longest-running and most commercially successfully jazz groups, combining pop, jazz, world beat, rock and Latin influences into its unique fusion.
Spyro Gyra’s breakthrough success was with the calypso-inspired hit “Morning Dance,” followed by the Grammy Award-nominated “Wrapped in a Dream” that spent 64 weeks on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart, where they still command a presence to this day.
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. 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.
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. Schuman and Beckenstein are the remaining original members of Spyro Gyra.
The group’s increasing popularity – combined with the purchase of a new sign for the club – prompted the owner to insist that Beckenstein come up with a name for his band. “It began as a joke. I said ‘spirogyra,’ he misspelled it, and here we are thirty years later. In retrospect, it’s okay. In a way, it sounds like what we do. It sounds like motion and energy.”
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.”
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 in the jazz jam beginnings. These albums were the product of the band and a great number of the top session players in New York. In 1983, Beckenstein made the decision to make the albums the work of the band members he shared the stage with night after night, only supplementing with occasional guests.
There were several personnel changes in the 1980s, which slowed down about 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. Bonny Bonaparte joined the band in 2006, making him the “new guy” at five years.
“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?”
The Mahaiwe is located at 14 Castle Street in Great Barrington, Mass. Box Office Hours: Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6pm and three hours before show times. For tickets and information, visit Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center or call 413.528.0100.