Spyro Gyra – The Rhinebeck Sessions – Crosseyed Bear

Spyro Gyra – The Rhinebeck Sessions – Crosseyed Bear Productions CEB 1045, 57:35 [9/24/13] ****1/2:

(Jay Beckenstein – saxophones; Tom Schuman – keyboards; Julio Fernandez – guitars; Scott Ambush – bass; Lee Pearson – drums, percussion)

After decades of successful recording and performances, Spyro Gyra is still making vital music. From their meager origins in the Buffalo jazz scene, the band became a staple of contemporary jazz. Saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Tom Schuman (original members) created a fusion of jazz, funk, latin and soul that was accessible and melodious. But it was the album Morning Dance (1979) and their single “Shaker Song” that initiated their rise to stardom. Over the course of the next four decades, the lineup would change, but the quality of the music did not. Four Grammy awards and supporting musicians like Tom Scott, Steve Gadd, the Brecker Brothers and Toots Thiemans defined a time-tested catalogue.

Returning to their New York roots, The Rhinebeck Sessions finds Spyro Gyra in vintage form. The opening track “Serious Delivery” is just that, well-constructed jazz with an impeccable arrangement. Beckenstein’s soulful lead on saxophone is enveloped by a snappy tempo. Schuman enters at the three minute mark with an uplifting cascading solo. He brings in salsa flourishes that percolate. Beckenstein follows with a bop-like solo of his own. Julio Fernandez adds a gritty sounding distorted electric guitar   to the mix. It feels like a live set. Next is a change of pace, “Wishful Thinking”. But this is more than a ballad. Schuman’s soulful, bluesy lines are scintillating and Beckenstein’s tracked saxophone is melodious and rich. Bassist Scott Ambush powers the opening to “Not Unlike That” with a seventies-flavored slap bass. There are copious grooves and hooks, punctuated by Fernandez’s emotional solo. Ambush also solos and the quintet (with flawless drumming by Lee Pearson) is precise and very cohesive.

Having endured four decades of “smooth jazz” misrepresentation, “I Know What You Mingus” easily dispels that moniker. Starting off with a sax/drum swing, the band comes together for a syncopated romp. There is harmonic timing with key shifts. The tune has a transition that leads to an exciting, jazzy piano solo. Slower blues grooves create a finger-snapping rhythm, launching Beckenstein into swing mode. “Off The Cuff” is funky, but full of interesting phrasing and time signatures. Schuman handles electric piano with flair and intensity. Beckenstein’s saxophone is hard-hitting, but displays a tender resonance. Taking on fusion structures, “Clubhouse Jam” brings artistry to the genre like Return to Forever and Weather Report. With a complex pulsating rhythm framework, this is deft improvisation, setting up unison play and individual runs by Fernandez and Beckenstein. The internal timing and chemistry of the group is exemplary. This continues on “Odds Get Even”. Spyro Gyra is able to shift the timing accents with colorful nimbleness.  Never predictable, the closing piece, “Who Knew!” is a mercurial, at times restrained cut that explores several changes to the momentum.

Spyro Gyra/The Rhinebeck Sessions just sparkles!

TrackList: Serous Delivery; Wishful Thinking; Not Unlike That; Sorbet; I Know What You Mingus; Off The Cuff; Clubhouse Jam; Odds Get Even; Who Knew!

—Robbie Gerson

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