For Spyro Gyra, it is about staying fresh with the music

Published on March 26th, 2021

By Jim Dail

Improvisation, where music is concerned, is the act of composing or arranging without previous preparation. It is also a hallmark of traditional jazz.

It’s also what Spyro Gyra did with its latest record, “The Rhineback Sessions.”

“I feel pleased the way it came out, considering it was a big departure from our normal routine,” said Jay Beckenstein during a recent phone interview. The band will perform Sunday, January 21 at Thornton Winery as part of the 2016 Champagne Jazz Concert Series.

The band has been a mainstay in the jazz world for decades and is noted for excellence of musicianship, which in the past meant being extremely organized and ready to go for the studio.

“In jazz, the composition is a launching point for improvisation and improvisation is the key thing,” he said. “In other types of music or some hybrid, the composition can be more important and the soloing can be something in middle of less importance. I think it depends on the song. We try to find the right balance of featuring the song and the soloing.”

But this time around, the focus was more on writing on the fly.

“We went into studio without written material and basically jammed away and wrote as we jammed and all the tunes were written there,” he said.

Beckenstein attributes the success partially to how the recording went down. 

“Truth be told, we booked three days in studio and it was one with live in facilities, so we had access to the studio 24/7,” he said. “The day before our first three days, the studio owner was kind enough to have us bring our equipment in and get our sound down. That night we got two songs basically done while checking the lines.”

And it all starts with someone just starting off with a few notes.

“The owner said to do something and we just started playing,” he said. “It was probably Scott, our bass player, who just picked a key and started to play and everyone joined in.”

Granted, not all of the songs were as completely spontaneous.

“For others we started out that way, but then when we found something good we stopped and arranged it,” he said. “We have five creative guys and if you were to allow too much time, too much opinion to creep in, then it might not have worked. You can’t have too many people fiddling with it. It might be a good idea, but then you’d have five of them and it would slow the process down. This way it is much fresher and less tampered with.”

Beckenstein wasn’t too worried about the album being a mistake or failure,

“I think the greater fear after making music for 30 years is that it doesn’t sound new,” he said. “What would a failure be at this point? The demise of record stores and the complete non-existence of a stream to sell product means we make records because we want to, not to make money.”

That’s good because Spyro Gyra is a mainstay on the worldwide stage, constantly filling venues.

“A little of the focus has changed since the importance of recorded material is lessened these days,” he said. “We pride ourselves on our live shows and having as much fun while we do it as humanly possible.”

And they are dedicated to being good on stage.

“Musicians could be playing for a crowd of 350 or 35,000 and there in the front row is a sax player I really like,” he said. “I am playing for the musicians.”

That’s not to say the others don’t matter because every person in the building is who Beckenstein considers important.

“This has been a long journey with plenty of great things and plenty of struggles and here at this point I look back on what is really great about this,” he said. “First, it is having fun and having a brotherhood that isn’t corrupted by ego and problems. It’s about having a nice family on stage that is functional and realizing that everything that has ever been given to you is by the audience. They paid for everything to get me to this place where I can still play music. The more I embrace them, the more it is a kind of group hug.”


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