What’s in a name?

Spyro Gyra beats for longevity, and is still doing the business, a full 45 years after it first formed. The American quintet will perform just a single show here, at Hangar 11 at the Tel Aviv Port

After 45 years, Spyro Gyra remains  a force on the global jazz scene (photo credit: BRIAN FRIEDMAN/B FREED PHOTOGRAPHY)
After 45 years, Spyro Gyra remains a force on the global jazz scene
(photo credit: BRIAN FRIEDMAN/B FREED PHOTOGRAPHY)
In the jazz sphere keeping a group in operation for more than a few years as a viable going concern can be a taxing challenge. What the jazz fraternity calls “working bands” are a rarity in the sector, with stellar pianist Keith Jarrett’s trio, which disbanded in 2014 after 31 years, a prominent exception.
Spyro Gyra beats that for longevity, and is still doing the business, a full 45 years after it first formed. The American quintet will perform just a single show here, at Hangar 11 at the Tel Aviv Port on November 12 at 9:45 p.m.
The guys are still very much a vibrant creative force. The Tel Aviv date is part of a grand world tour the group will soon be on, and I caught up with founder saxophonist Jay Beckenstein between telephone interviews with reporters from different parts of the globe.
“Oh, that was Brazil,” says the evergreen 68-year-old American Jewish reed-man, apologizing for missing my first call. “The interview ran on a bit.”
After a couple of minutes on the phone with Beckenstein, it became clear why his previous media slot was a protracted affair. The man is the most engaging of interlocutors. And he isn’t too bad at getting his thoughts and feelings across in his instrumental work either, both to audiences the world over and on the band’s 30-piece discography to date, which have brought the band four Grammy nominations over the years.
Spyro Gyra has been one of the top jazz fusion outfits around for a long time. The lineup has ebbed and flowed a bit, but Beckenstein has been around ever since the band got on the stage for the first time, at a Buffalo bar, with keyboardist Tom Schuman joining shortly after that. The current fivesome also includes guitarist Julio Fernandez and bassist Scott Ambush, with Lionel Cordew on drums.
 As band monikers go, Spyro Gyra is right up there with the weirdest and less fathomable of them. It was, Beckenstein explains, simply a matter of pragmatism.
“The obnoxious owner of the club in Buffalo told us he would fire us if we didn’t come up with a name, to advertise us,” Beckenstein recalls. “I thought of this silly sounding algae [spirogyra]. He took it, got a sign, misspelled it, and it’s been our name ever since.”
Naturally, back in the mid-70s, Beckenstein had no thoughts of where he and the band might be all these years down the road.
“The way I was living at that time – I didn’t expect 40 years of life,” says the saxophonist, who was first pointed in a musical direction by his opera singing mom and jazz-loving clarinet playing dad.
Thankfully, both the reed-man and the group are still alive and kicking, and putting out their trademark mix of jazz, rock, funk and R&B to adoring audiences and listeners across the globe. And, besides honing their technical and expressive skills, they have taken on some of life’s lessons en-route, all of which finds its way into their music, too.
“Forty-five years ago, I was very self-centered, and it was all about what I wanted to do with my writing and my music,” Beckenstein explains. “For me, back then, the players around me were there to help deliver my vision. It was all about me, me, me, me.”
Beckenstein says he has mellowed, and has a more collaborative take on his craft now.
“After so many years of working in a band, which is more a team effort, I think I’ve learned that you can you can do so much more in a cooperative artistic environment than you can ever do on your own.”
That certainly comes across in the 2013 Rhinebeck Sessions record, on which Beckenstein & Co. took a more laid-back approach to the project. They purposely went into the studio without having anything scored.
“It was an effort to maximize that cooperative aspect of the band,” he notes. “Before we made that record, we had a lot of conversation about, you know, that the times have changed and the album isn’t so critical in terms of us surviving. We do that with the live shows. We realized we can do whatever we want. So we thought let’s do that something special that no one ever does.”
The plan worked to a T, and the result was an energized dynamic free-flowing product of unbridled creativity and joyous music making. That expansive comfort zone stretching also came into play with the group’s latest release, Vinyl Tap, which came out earlier this month. That, too, was the upshot of the gang taking their foot off the gas, and allowing their creative juices to flow naturally.
The project – and, yes, the name comes from the iconic rock band mockumentary Spinal Tap – comprises Spyro Gyra’s unique takes on a bunch of well-known pop and rock numbers.
“For most contemporary jazz musicians, doing covers of pop tunes is as about common as anything,” Beckenstein says. “We have followed a very different thing, in that we have, with very few exceptions, we have insisted we write our own music, to give us our own voice.”
The gang felt it was time for a change.
“After 30-something records, looking for novelty, we decided let’s do the thing we always said was forbidden – let’s do covers,” he says. “We said let’s really change the numbers up so they don’t sound like the originals, and they have our own stamp.”
The nine-track album features Spyro Gyra’s singular readings of such rock and pop staples as Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” “Carry On” by Stephen Stills and the Beatles’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.” It was an inspired move.
“It was a blast,” says Beckenstein. “Not writing your own material meant you had this incredible world of music to choose from. I sort of gave the instruction that the songs should songs the players had heard on vinyl, which inspired them.”
There’ll be some of that in the Hangar 11 repertoire, along with some of the band’s golden oldies. It should be an entertaining evening for all concerned.
For tickets and more information: www.hangar11.co.il/events/event/spyro-gyra/