Art & Culture

Interview with Spyro Gyra

Grammy nominated Jazz band Spyro Gyra almost broke up around the time Elvis Presley passed away. The band that has been around making music for three decades was in the city to enthrall jazz fans as a part of the Black and White tour. My Bangalore spoke to the very energetic five member band, whose line up include Jay Beckenstein on saxophone, Tom Schuman on piano, Julio Fernandez on guitars, Scott Ambush on bass and Bonny Bonaparte on drums. Excerpts from the interview.

How did the band start out?
Jay Beckenstien: I was a student in Buffalo, New York and every Tuesday night I played with a band at a club which didn’t pay us, but let us play music. Tom (Schuman) was only 16 when he got involved and since he was underage we smuggled him through the back door to play at the club. We became popular band in Buffalo and ultimately went from playing once a week to being regular performers at the club. As musicians we had a little future in the town and decided to split and just to say goodbye we made a recording of our music. We made 150 copies of that record and distributed it to local TV and radio stations and record stores. I got a call saying that a local radio station was playing ‘The shaker song’ and that local record stations needed more copies of our records. We went back to the place where we had our records made and asked them to make more. Spyro Gyra almost died because Elvis Passed away and every record station were only making Elvis records. We did manage to get more records made and also decided we didn’t want to break up.
The name of the band was born out of a joke, tell us more?
Jay Beckenstien: We were getting known for our music but we didn’t have a name, at the club we were called ‘Jazz Jam every Tuesday’. So the club owner demanded we find a name for the band or else he would fire us. At that time I had written a paper on a small green plant in college called spirogira and as a joke I told the club owner to call us Spyro Gyro. They spelt it wrong and that’s been the name ever since.

The name was by a total accident, but over the years has the name acquired any connection with the music the band is known for?
Jay Beckenstien: Initially nothing at all, but Spyro Gyra sounds like motion. Yes we play very energetic music that makes you want to get up on your feet. Spyro Gyra sounds like that. There never was a connection, the name was an accident. When we started getting recognized in America, I hated the name I meant it as a joke. I suddenly found myself stuck with Spyro Gyra and I’ve been explaining it ever since.

Your music has been influential in the development of smooth Jazz, but what genre do you classify your music as?
Jay Beckenstien: It’s got a jazz foundation I still think its jazz in its heart. But we’ve been free with combining jazz with other kinds of music. As far as influencing smooth jazz, it was a radio format that started in 1986 and we started in 1975. There were elements of that in our music as well as music from other artists at that time but, we never can call it smooth jazz. We had way too much energy to be smooth jazz. Smooth jazz is instrumental R&B. We cling to the idea we’re jazz musicians rather than improvisations.

The band has around 100 live performances every year, how do you find the time to record new material?
Scott Ambush: It is difficult since we are constantly touring and performing live. Just when we plan on focusing on recording new material our schedule gets busy. But technology has made it easier for us. When we are home, we exchange notes, fly them back and forth on the internet and download them and that has helped. Technology has helped us a lot.

You have released 25 albums, what’s in store for the future?
Jay Beckenstien: We have just released a Christmas album called ‘A night before Christmas’ and we’re pleased with it. We have also just finished recording in the studio for another album which will be out in May of 2009. The band evolves but we keep our ears open and involve new elements and with every CD we make progresses ever so slowly and that has kept our sound contemporary. We don’t sound like we did in 1979 and I’m happy we don’t sound like that and hopefully ten years later we won’t sound like we do now.

Have you been exposed to Indian music?
Tom Schuman: I have been working with Sandeep Chowta, who’s in Mumbai. We have been working over the internet exchanging notes and I can’t wait to meet him. I hear that he’s very well known in Bollywood and it will be exciting to meet him.  

Julio Fernandez: For me a band that exposed me to Indian music was the Beatles and Ravi Shankar and being a guitarist I was intrigued by the sound which I heard when I was just 13. For example Across the Universe is a great influence as a track.

Scott Ambush: Ravi Shankar is probably one of the biggest Indian influences, at that time him and the fusion band Shakti were well known so I did get to listen to Indian music through these artists. Also these days you hear the Indian flavour in so many kinds of music, like listening to the tabala in pop music.

Is this your first visit to India?
Jay Beckenstien: Tom and I have visited India before we traveled to Delhi and Mumbai. But for the rest of the band it is their first time. It is my first trip down south and I told my kids that there is a lovely airport here. I have noticed how strangers smile and there is a great deal of warmth in the culture here. We are looking forward to play to an Indian audience and I promise that there will be an explosion of improvisational music.
Tags: Spyro Gyra, jazz fusion, Tom Schuman, Julio Fernandez, Scott Ambush, Jay Beckenstien, Bonny Bonaparte

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