One of the bands often cited as a progenitor of smooth jazz and one of the style’s best known names, Spyro Gyra is also one of the most atypical acts of the form. Co-founder, leader and saxophonist Jay Beckenstein’s background immersed in Parker, Rollins, Gillespie and Armstrong wasn’t exactly training for pop-jazz, and neither was the avant garde studies he took at the University of Buffalo (where, as we previously noted, Charles Gayle was one of his instructors). That more adventurous side has always come out in SG records; remember, the same signature album that begins with “Morning Dance” ends with the radio-unfriendly “The End of Romanticism.”
And Spyro Gyra is not a “smooth” band live, as their shows are full of energy and risk-taking.
Thus, aside from issuing another live document, Beckenstein & Co. decided that for album #30, the only thing they could do to put on record the tightness and improvisational prowess they pull off night after night on stage was to convene at the studio with virtually no material, jam together and come up with the songs as they went along. Then record it like they would in concert, eliminating, in Beckenstein’s words, all the “overproduced, oversampled, overlooped” crap and make a record that sounds like fusion but moves like straight-ahead jazz, with no consciously commercial concessions.
They were able to pull it off for their new disc The Rhinebeck Sessions primarily because of two reasons: one, the record was made without the backing of a record company, and two, the lineup has mostly been very stable for a long time, so the rapport has been off the charts. Tom Schuman played keyboards on the 1979 breakout album Morning Dance and officially became a member shortly afterwards. Julio Fernandez has been the guitar player since 1984. Scott Ambush has played bass for the band for the last twenty-one years, and drummer Lee Pearson (late of David Murray, Snoop Dogg, Kenny Barron and Lauryn Hill) came on board just a couple of years ago.
The immediacy of the music hits you soon after the opening bars of “Serious Delivery,” and song with a wily Brazilian rhythm but a rock attitude, chock full of tight changes in modulation can only be pulled off on the fly by really good musicians who know each other very well. With everyone getting a solo turn, it might be a jam, but it’s a sophisticated one, and doesn’t feel overlong at all with its eight minute running time.
Songs were created by the band with little more then a beat, a riff or some other small idea that the band took and ran with, adding so much to the kernels. “Not Unlike That,” for instance, builds on Ambush’s wiggly bass line and Fernandez’s funky guitar riff forms the foundation for the tune “Sorbet,” another song with Latin syncopations with chord changes that doesn’t follow the template. “Off The Cuff” opens with a sax/Rhodes riff that’s just the kind of prowling groover they used to cook up regularly in the early days. But instead of squeezing it dry, they toss in other interesting motifs and bind them all together effortlessly.
“I Know What You Mingus” dives headlong into straight ahead jazz, starting with just Beckenstein and Pearson a la Coltrane’s “Countdown.” Schuman nudges in with a piano and a short and sweet ascending note theme is laid down before slowing down to shuffle while he takes over the song. Pearson pulls band back to the original quick tempo and right on cue Schuman heats up. Beckenstein takes his turn blowing and he never steps out of character but has no problem making his sax personality jibe with the “real” stuff.
At 5:17, “Clubhouse Jam” is their shortest track. It begins with a wah-wah guitar, bass, Rhodes and synth noodling around and before long, a good groove gets going. Once that gets settled in, Beckenstein rides it, followed by Fernandez. There aren’t any changes to the song, a rarity for this band, but it’s got a classic fusion vibe to it and makes the sound of fun. “Who Knew!” has an interesting unsettled beat that hints at reggae but never fully commits to it, and Schuman takes off on a searing Moog synth solo, just one of many highlights for one of contemporary jazz’s most underrated electric keyboardists.
The Rhinebeck Sessions, now on sale, is Spyro Gyra’s own Get Back without all the fussin’ and fightin’. A band that’s always been lethal in a field full of meek performers has finally bared its teeth fully. And, yes, I’ll say it: this is the finest album they’ve made since their early 80s heyday.