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Spyro Gyra

Funksters Spyro Gyra, whose music has traversed numerous genres and drawn from numerous eclectic musical influences during the course of their almost thirty year career, recorded an excellent Christmas jazz album, A Night Before Christmas, while the cherry trees were blossoming in New York. Joining Spyro Gyra’s regular cast, which consists of Jay Beckenstein (saxophones), Tom Schuman (pianist), Julio Fernandez (guitar), Scott Ambush (bass) and drummer Bonny B., are singer and Tony Award-winning actress, Christine Ebersole, and vocalist Janis Siegel. Also returning to the fold for this one album is former band member and vibraphonist Dave Samuels, who left the band to pursue a teaching position at Berklee.

Between the sets of a Spyro Gyra concert, Jay Beckenstein took time to talk about the Christmas CD, the band’s longevity, and their newest member. "It (the CD) was a chance to do something different. After so many records, it was just a welcome change of pace. We don’t do cover tunes, we always write our own material and there was something nice about doing all of these different Christmas classics, which somebody else had written, and where we weren’t involved as composers. We were just being a band, trying to do these tunes with a great deal of sensitivity," says Beckenstein. He continues, "We did ninety percent of the record, with the band in place and everybody playing at once. I really took "A Night Before Christmas" as an opportunity to do a Spyro Gyra jazz record. It’s tough to do on one of our studio records, because we have so many different writers who come from so many different places, that it is hard to push them all into one mold. The Christmas record was the chance to do a real acoustic jazz record. I think that it fits perfectly with a nostalgic Christmas feel."

There are many magical moments on A Night Before Christmas, such as Samuels’ vibes on, "Winter Wonderland," and "Carol Of The Bells," but two of the finest moments belong to Christine Ebsersole’s vocal performance on, "It Won’t Feel Like Christmas," and the Janis Siegel/Bonny B. duet, "Baby It’s Cold Outside." The song, "It Won’t Feel Like Christmas," was written by Beckenstein several years ago as a response to dealing with his divorce, and lyricist Terry Cox later penned the words. "The original lyrics were much more tragic sounding and Terry Cox said, ‘Oh it’s a beautiful tune, but it’s too personal and sad to be a Christmas classic.' She made it about the lyrics and about somebody who was coming home," explains Beckenstein.

Christine Ebersole was asked to sing, "It Won’t Feel Like Christmas" because, "She is a Tony Award-winning actress who has a great voice. I wanted to make sure that the song fit the mood of the record. What I was after was the kind of record that I listened to when I was a kid. It almost harkens back to the fifties a little bit. I set out to make that song an old vintage classic. When I was looking for vocalists, I shied away from big voiced R&B singers, who I felt would have given it more of a modern R&B feel. I went after an older fashion jazz feel and when I listened to a number of vocalists, Christine had a very pure voice that fit the tune, and what I wanted to do with it. I guess I was looking for Broadway," says Beckenstein.

Unless you totally miss the point of, "Baby It’s Cold Outside," the Frank Loesser tune is always a lot of fun, and Janis Siegel and Bonny B. ensure that tradition is carried on with their rendition on "A Night Before Christmas." Beckenstein recalls the recording of "Baby It’s Cold Outside." "We laid down the instrumental tracks first, and then Bonny and Janis laid down the vocal tracks together. We definitely wanted the vocals to be an interchange. They were improvising. None of that stuff they did was predetermined or written out. They were staring at each other, with one of them in a big studio room and the other one in an iso booth. It was all very au-naturel. It was blast. Bonny hadn’t met Janis, and he is a real musical character. There is no shyness in him, but Janis is such a powerhouse that at first, she just bowled him over. He didn’t know what hit him and then he realized what a fun thing that he had stepped into. At first, he was just like 'wow,' because she is a master at that style of music."

As a saxophonist, how does Beckenstein prepare for a song such as, "Baby It’s Cold Outside"? He says, "As far as setting up my head, it is so filled with big band and Frank Sinatra. Gosh, my household was filled with music in the fifties and the sixties. So much of it was jazz, big band jazz and vocal jazz. When something like, "Baby " gets recorded, it’s like a visit to my past. I really like it. There is a part of me who is a frustrated jazzer. My wish is that I was playing on Kind of Blue (Miles Davis-1959-Columbia Records)."

Keyboardist Tom Schuman and Jay Beckenstein helped found Spyro Gyra close to 30 years ago and as music aficionados well know, the majority of bands do not even come close to staying together for that length of time. Beckenstein offers some insights as to how, after all of these years, Spyro Gyra has been able to not only continue to exist, but to record and perform at such a high level, "First and foremost, everybody is reasonable and nobody is a nut case. Everybody has passed through whatever difficult transitions their lives have presented, and we are all pretty even-keeled people now. We actually like each other after all of these years. I like to think that Spyro Gyra is a very cool band to be involved with. The players write the music and have a lot of say in how things are done. Artistically, it is a democratic organization, there are no sidemen. It is not like I am out there fronting a band, but it is a band in which everybody gets their space. We are not the norm, we are very much a group effort, and I think that is very attractive. Everybody still has their heart in it (the band) because everybody has a chance to express themselves."

That group effort was evident when it came to song selections for A Night Before Christmas, as each of Spyro Gyra’s members chose one or two of the tracks. Two years ago, drummer Bonny B. signed on as the drummer for Spyro Gyra and brought with him solid vocal abilities. Beckenstein says, "We knew when we hired Bonny that the guy was a monster. He is really a super strong player who has musical talent oozing out of him. He has written a couple of tunes for a record that we are producing now, and they are incredibly complex, but he sits down at the piano and he plays them. They have all these complex harmonies and stuff. He is an incredibly, well-rounded musician."

As November drew to a close, Spyro Gyra was coming off a world tour, which included stops in Turkey, Holland, Germany, Israel, India, the Caribbean and South Africa. On December 8th, they will launch a shorter tour, consisting of eight dates in five different cities. Spyro Gyra will be unveiling their Christmas repertoire during these gigs and will have a vocalist accompanying them.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Spyro Gyra
  • Subtitle: Spyro Gyra: Original Cinema, Original Music
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