Rick Braun, in October 2011 issue of JazzTimes magazine, admitted what those who are in the smooth jazz business end have known for a while, notably the demise of commercial radio and its commercial music business. He admits the good side of this is that, “there’s no pressure on the artists to come up with radio-play hits anymore.” With both of the above facts now in play, there has been a mad scramble going on among record companies and artists.
For the long-time instrumental jazz music stalwarts Spyro Gyra, who rode smooth jazz’s coat tails but didn’t begin within that narrowly defined genre, this has meant going back, from Heads Up International, to the small label that helped launch them in the beginning, Amherst Records. Since just about anything Spyro would want to put on a CD will outsell anything else currently being released by Amherst, the band members must have found themselves with a freedom that was daunting.
The result is their most musically ambiguous record yet. While their recordings have always covered a number of musical areas, those areas were always wrapped within the traditional Spyro sound – Caribbean-like rhythms with catchy melodies and solos that aim for emotional excitement rather than musical development. It’s a great formula and has worked for the ensemble, not just commercially but also musically, for almost 30 recordings.
In A Foreign Affair we don’t get anything that remotely sounds like the Spyro Gyra of yore until the third track, “Sweet Ole Thang.” Leading up to that are a nondescript drum-machine sounding track, “Caribe,” and a world-music Indian-Spyro fusion experiment, “Khuda.” Unfortunately neither work very well. There are other tracks that also don’t lock in, such as David Broza’s “Chileno Boys,” where Spyro doesn’t seem to fully commit themselves.
On the other hand there is a highly successful tangent. The smokey-Holiday Inn cocktail bar-ish/Don Potter-esque ballad “Last Call” featuring Keb’ Mo on vocals is incredible. Sypro’s take on the torch ballad genre is so good you can’t hope but wonder if they will walk down this avenue with more depth and variety in the future. Bassist Scott Ambush’s “Dancing On Table Mountain” is a delight in the traditional Spyro mold but with Yellowjackets overtones, and Tom Schuman’s “Samba For Two” swings sweetly.
On the whole the plus of the recording is in realizing how many commercially launched bands have the opportunity to rediscover themselves almost 40 years into their history. The possibilities are endless, and it will be interesting to see where this new road will lead.