Primary Instrument: Band/ensemble/orchestra
In 1997, saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and his band Spyro Gyra celebrated twenty years of recording with their 20th album, 20/20. Though the band actually began in Buffalo, New York in 1975, 1977 marked the release of their first self-titled album, featuring the (instant) instrumental smash, Shaker Song. In 1997, to commemorate all those years of music and touring, Spyro Gyra did what they always do; hit the road for a spring to fall tour. Only this time, they recorded the proceedings every night.
The result is Road Scholars, the second live concert album of Spyro Gyra's career (the first was the double LP Access All Areas from 1984). Unlike Access, which was recorded over three nights in Florida, the new album was culled from over sixty performances throughout the year from all over the USA, plus one new studio recording titled Best Friends, recorded at Jay Beckenstein's BearTracks Studio in Suffern, NY.
Native New Yorker Beckenstein explains, Of the 15 to 20 tunes we performed during the year, I had at least 30 versions of each to listen to. It was kind of a nightmare deciding which songs and versions to include. On the other hand, it gave me a lot of chances to capture some magic. While we were still recording, I listened to the tapes and made precise notes. When you have over sixty shows to listen to and each one is nearly two hours long, well, you can do the math yourself!
Though Jay makes the choices, the band did have some say. With anybody's song that was their composition or their feature, I would narrow the choices down to five, make my decision, then hand the five over to the composer. It usually worked out that they were in agreement with me.
One might think it would be costly to record every show on a tour of 60+ dates, but Jay states, Expensive is relative, especially today when a movie can cost $200 million. In our case, it wasn't terrible because there is some great consumer gear like DA-88's, DA-38's and ADAT's. When we did Access, that stuff wasn't available, so the only choice you had then was to bring a big recording truck out to your shows and record as many as you can afford to do. You try not to think about it, but there's always that edge of 'We have to get this right tonight'. What I wanted to do was to capture the band at its most relaxed because I know that's when the fun stuff happens. These guys can play well every night, but you don't always get 'playful'. So we commissioned a company to build us a roadworthy case carrying five DA-38's synced up to provide 32 tracks of digital recording capability with one left over in case of technical problems. We had our monitor console modified so that we could split all of the channels onstage to the tape machines without any EQ added or subtracted. Eventually everyone just forgets that we're recording, the fun starts and the adventure begins.
Choosing the best performance of each song for the album was the biggest challenge. We had already picked songs that translate well in a live setting, Jay explains, and that gave us a lot of room to stretch out. We like to touch on a lot of bases musically and I think that comes through on Road Scholars. Listeners will find the band seamlessly shifting from a lovely sax/keyboard duo on pianist Tom Schuman's elegiac Innocent Soul, to energetic outings from the full quintet like Shanghai Gumbo (both originally on 1988's Rites of Summer).
The songs chosen date as far back as the debut Spyro Gyra disc to as recent as the previous 20/20 collection. But Jay is quick to point out, When we touch on the early stuff - though 'Morning Dance' is pretty true to its original spirit - we don't play them the way we did on the record. Indeed, though the most noticeable difference in the Top 30 hit Morning Dance is that there are no drums on the live take, it is given a completely tropical and acoustic arrangement (with the exception of a synthesizer recreating the marimba melodies).
The most radically and thoroughly exciting new arrangement comes on a 10-minute Shaker Song, the smash that started it all. It was made even more popular when vocal quartet The Manhattan Transfer recorded a vocal version (with lyrics composed by Allee Willis and David Lasley) on their 1979 album, Extensions - one year after the original was released.
This piano trio version of Shaker Song is so different, it's almost startling how far the song has gone from the original recording. One night a few years ago after a show, Tom was fooling around with a swing version of Shaker on a hotel bar piano. Our manager suggested putting it in the show like that and I thought it would work as a trio feature. Since then Tom, Joel and Scott have twisted and turned it into what you hear on this album. That's the fun stuff that I was talking about before because none of the different meter, tempo and dynamic changes you hear were preplanned when they first happened.
Jay reflects on the inspiration behind some of the other songs
Breakfast at Igor's: Igor's is a neighborhood bar in New Orleans on St. Charles Street that's got a cool jukebox, short order food, pool tables and washers and dryers. For a guy on the road, it's the perfect hang. They also make LARGE hamburgers. It's a really cool place and to this day, Dreams Beyond Control, the album that 'Breakfast At Igor's' comes from, is on their CD jukebox. Coincidentally, the cover artwork for Dreams was done by a New Orleans artist.
Daddy's Got A New Girl Now (originally on Rites of Summer): I have three daughters and I wrote that song when my oldest girl was born. It's the official theme song for having daughters!
De La Luz (originally on Heart of the Night): Julio wrote that for his mom - 'De La Luz' was her maiden name. Julio has always sung in every other band he's been in and he didn't have that opportunity with Spyro Gyra until this song. This version was recorded on a beautiful evening in Battery Park in lower Manhattan. It was a great night.
Ariana (originally on Love and Other Obsessions) - This was composed by Jeremy Wall who was the first keyboardist in the band and cofounded Spyro Gyra with me. The song recalls the signature Tropicana of the early band hits, but with a harder driving rhythm. This was a big song at radio for us.
To gauge the tour's timeline, fans should note that 'Heart of the Night' was from the very first night we recorded and 'Morning Dance' was from the very last night.
In total, the listener is treated to a close approximation of what Spyro Gyra is like in concert. It pretty much represents the way we do a show, Jay says, but we couldn't fit an entire show's length of material on the record. A CD can't hold more than about seventy-four minutes of music and our shows are at least ninety minutes, often more.
Thinking back on twenty years of concerts that have earned him the tongue-firmly-in-cheek honor of road scholar, Jay states, Spyro Gyra played clubs for two years before we put out a record. But once we put out our first album (Spyro Gyra - 1977),things progressed really quickly for us. Our second album (Morning Dance - 1979) was a platinum seller and suddenly we were playing in some of the biggest venues around. Since then, my life has been a very long, amazing and satisfying journey, playing for thousands of people every year.
Can life on the road still be a pleasure after all these years for Jay, a family man with a wife and three daughters? I'm kind of ambivalent. When I'm out for too long I start to miss home. On the other hand, I sort of have a cake-and-eat-it life. I have a good marriage, a wonderful family and privacy. But for half the year I'm out on the road seeing the world. I'm lucky to have both.
Reflecting on the '97 tour from which Road Scholars' performances were culled, Jay continues, The fun all comes down to the fact that everybody sincerely likes each other and gets along. The guys in this band, which has been unchanged for nearly seven years, really respect each other and are generous with each other musically. That's true of our road crew, too. When you're on tour with people like that, it feels good - like family.
Jay introduces us to today's lineup of Spyro Gyra
Keyboardist Tom Schuman is from Buffalo, New York. He was seventeen when he became an official member of the band after sitting in for a couple of years. Spyro Gyra has been his musical life in a lot of ways. He's the glue that holds the band together.
Guitarist Julio Fernandez first got involved with us back in '84. He took two years off but has been back for the last seven years. He was born in Cuba and has a dual musical personality - born in Havana, brought up on the rock and blues of Hoboken!
Drummer Joel Rosenblatt, who was born in California but raised in New York, also brings Latin credentials to the band (he composed the Latin Funk escapade South American Sojourn, originally on 20/20). Before us, he played with pianist Michel Camillo, the Dominican musician. He also has great jazz chops as you can hear.
Scott Ambush is from Frederick, Maryland - a very inventive bass player. As a section, he and Joel provide a kaleidoscope of rhythmic textures for the rest of us to play with.. (note: Ambush co-wrote the smokin' New Orleans backbeat shuffle Breakfast at Igor's with Beckenstein.)
Jay Beckenstein is the son of a father who was a staunch jazz enthusiast and a mother who sang opera. He began studying saxophone at the age of six at school in Farmingdale, New York. He studied at State University of New York at Buffalo while soaking up influences from all over the musical map. After playing with several bands, from the down home blues of Spoon and the Houserockers to the avant garde Creative Associates, the breadth of his influences were poured into a Buffalo nightlife sensation that became Spyro Gyra.
On the name, Jay shares, The 'spirogira' is an algae I once wrote a paper on in college for a biology class. Years later I was in a bar called Jack Daniels' on Forrest Avenue in Buffalo, New York. The club owner (Tommy Telesco) was twisting my arm for a band name. As a joke, I remembered spirogira. Tommy went and misspelled it 'Spyro Gyra'. That's the way it was advertised and that's the way it stuck.
The band came along at a time when there wasn't a radio format catering to the contemporary instrumental sounds of Spyro Gyra and contemporaries such as Herbie Hancock, David Sanborn, Tom Scott and Grover Washington, Jr.. Back then we were exploring this music as an adventure, Jay states. That same idea is behind this live album: Playing the music we love with the same enthusiasm that we had when we first started playing just for the love of it. We just happen to have been fortunate enough to get the breaks that allowed us to build a lifetime of performing experience from it. Hopefully, that's what you hear when you read 'between the lines' of this album.