Spyro Gyra 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's music has been criticized for being light-weight and for emphasizing melody over improvisation. They have nevertheless 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.
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:
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".
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 1984.
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.
Infinity Records folded by the end of the year and Spyro Gyra's follow-up record, Catching The Sun was released on MCA Records in February 1980 to similar success. Morning Dance became Billboard's #3 Jazz Album of 1980 and Catching the Sun was the #4 Jazz Album of 1980. Bass player Jim Kurzdorfer left the group in 1980 and was replaced by David Wofford. They released their next album Carnaval in late 1980. Both Catching The Sun and Carnaval were gold selling albums. Carnaval would become Billboard's # 7 Jazz Album of 1981.
Freetime, the group's fifth album, was released in 1981 and became the # 8 Jazz Album of 1982 as well as beginning their tradition of releasing a new album every year. 1982's Incognito represented a stylistic change in their artwork and featured Marcus Miller, Steve Gadd, Tom Scott, Richard Tee, Toots Thielemans and Jorge D'Alto as guests and would be Billboard's # 8 Jazz Album of 1983.
1983's City Kids, would be the last album using this producer centric approach, calling on famous session musicians to play in place of the full time band members. City Kids incorporated bass player Kim Stone, who would later go on to a long career with the Rippingtons.
Breakout, the 1986 follow-up, would be the first with Manolo Badrena as a full time member, replacing Gerardo Velez. Badrena was a veteran of Fusion titans Weather Report and a previous guest musician on Spyro Gyra's albums. Alternating Currents and Breakout would be among the top 15 Jazz Albums in Billboard in 1986. Longtime co-producer Richard Calandra passed away in October 1986 of pancreatic cancer.
1987 would see another personnel change within the band as Kim Stone left the band and the bass position was taken by Roberto Vally for the Stories Without Words album. Vally would go on to play with people like Michael Franks, Bobby Caldwell, Boney James, Boz Scaggs, Arturo Sandoval and Randy Crawford.
1988's Rites Of Summer album would be the first of the band's history without a percussionist, other than the drummer. It would also be the introduction of Oscar Cartaya, later to play with Herb Albert, Jennifer Lopez, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Tito Puente, Robbie Robertson and Willie Colon. Both Stories Without Words and Rites Of Summer would be among Billboard's top 15 Contemporary Jazz Albums of 1988.
Point Of View would provide another turning point in 1989 for the band as Julio Fernandez left the band and was replaced by Jay Azzolina. It was also the first album in five years to have a guest musician, Roger Squitero on percussion. Julio Fernandez was also listed as a guest musician for one song.
Fast Forward would bring another new face into the band in 1990. Marc Quiñones would be with the band for two years and then go on to greater fame with The Allman Brothers Band. Fast Forward would be another #1 Contemporary Jazz Album for the band and one of Billboard's top 10 Contemporary Jazz Albums of 1990. Spyro Gyra would end the decade as Billboard's most successful jazz artist of the 1980s.
|Title||Year of Release||Label|
|Spyro Gyra||1978||Infinity Records|
|Morning Dance||1979||Infinity Records|
|Catching The Sun||1980||MCA Records|
|City Kids||1983||MCA Records|
|Access All Areas (live)||1984||MCA Records|
|Alternating Currents||1985||MCA Records|
|Stories Without Words||1987||MCA Records|
|Rites of Summer||1988||GRP|
|Point Of View||1989||GRP|
|Dreams Beyond Control||1993||GRP|
|Love And Other Obsessions||1994||GRP|
|Heart Of The Night||1996||GRP|
|Road Scholars (live)||1998||GRP|
|Got The Magic||1999||Windham Hill Jazz|
|In Modern Times||2001||Heads Up|
|Original Cinema||2003||Heads Up|
|The Deep End||2004||Heads Up|
|Wrapped in a Dream||2006||Heads Up|
|Good to Go-Go||2007||Heads Up|
|Title||Year of Release||Label|
|The Best of Spyro Gyra - The first ten years||1997||GRP|
|The Very Best of Spyro Gyra||2002||GRP|
Spyro Gyra was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards in 2007.
Their music can be heard during The Weather Channel's "Local on the 8s" segments and their song "Breakfast at Igor's" is included in their 2008 compilation release, The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz II.