Spyro Gyra (IPA: /ˌspaɪroʊˈdʒaɪrə/) 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 smooth jazz, combines jazz with elements of R&B, funk and pop music. Although generally considered to be more „jazz” than „smooth”, Spyro Gyra have been praised as skilled instrumentalists and for their live performances, which average nearly 100 per year.
With the exception of alto saxophonist, songwriter & 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.
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.
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 Deep End NSJF 2004
Wiggle Room (Scott Ambush bass solo)
Old San Juan
Para Ti Latino
Catching the Sun
Patterns in the rain
A Winter Tale