Rather than make a big to-do with some sort of major retrospective or another greatest hits package, Spyro Gyra celebrated its 30th anniversary as recording artists last year the only way the band knows how: adding 60-some live shows to over 5,000 others and recording yet another high energy disc, Wrapped In A Dream, which earned the band its ninth Grammy nomination this year.
The category: Best Pop Instrumental Album, a designation that barely captures the dazzling stylistic rollercoastering Spyro brings naturally to all its projects. The slot was created several years ago to recognize in the pocket smooth jazz artists like Norman Brown, Boney James and Dave Koz. Then again, the Recording Academy had to put Jay Beckenstein and the giddy, ageless wonders in his band somewhere.
“That’s been the blessing and curse of our whole career,” says the group’s founder and saxophonist, “that we don’t fall into anyone’s categories. Are we jazz, smooth jazz, fusion, Latin, all of the above or none of the above? From a marketing standpoint, our curse is that we’ve defied categorization, but creatively, that’s a blessing. On stage and in the studio, we live in this world of combining all of these things, including the R&B that’s so much a part of smooth jazz. But that’s just one of the many things we do.”
If the high-spirited, almost constantly pulsating Good To Go-Go, Spyro’s fifth release on Heads Up, gets the Academy’s attention, they may have to shift the band into the world music realm. The vibrant calypso, playful reggae and overall Caribbean slant of tracks like “Jam Up” and “Island Time” (both featuring the glorious steel pans of labelmate Andy Narell) provide the foundational vibe of the disc; Beckenstein was also thinking a different kind of global when he wrote the bubbly, sensual funk jam “The Left Bank” based on an imaginary travelogue of Paris running through his head. The song titles say it all about the celebrating going on, from Beckenstein’s playful “Simple Pleasures” to guitarist Julio Fernandez’s blistering “Funkyard Dog” and keyboardist Tom Schuman’s intensely soulful and catchy, ultra-melodic “Get Busy” and “Wassup!”
The source of the happy island bopping? Spyro’s hot new drummer/percussionist Bonny B (short for Bonaparte), a dreadlocked. Trinidad-born groove master who began playing live with the band in late 2006; Beckenstein first saw him play at a Latin extravaganza in Las Vegas, where B is a first call drummer. In addition to his rhythmic skills, he’s also a great songwriter and vocalist who provides colorful indigenous rap and cool voicings on his tune “Jam Up!” Beckenstein is pleased to note that his band’s newest member is also a powerhouse singer in the Stevie Wonder/Marvin Gaye tradition. These days, that is the ultimate ingredient for a smooth jazz airplay hit. Not that Spyro will necessarily be exploiting his voice like that anytime soon.
“Bonny has an astounding voice, and the opportunity to do more vocal things is there,” Beckenstein says, “but we’ll worry about specifics when we get to the next project. The cool thing is that making Good To Go-Go was such a fun, effortless process that we all can’t wait till we get to make another. Everything just flowed so naturally. Bonny has been a big difference and has really triggered a renaissance for us. We’re really excited about making music with this guy, who is not only a great drummer but also a great spirit. The guys have always gotten along well personally, and our friendships have deepened over the years. Bonny’s talent adds the kind of creative spark that reminds us why we’re still excited about making music. That positive energy couldn’t help but translate into a more upbeat and buoyant record.”
In addition to going in a more tropical direction musically, the band was after a more unified, live sounding, less produced feeling — which translates especially well to the SACD version of the disc being released in 5.1 Surroundsound. With the Bonny B infusion, the band had been sounding super-hot on the road in recent months, and Beckenstein wanted to capture that fire in the studio as much as possible.
“There’s a more unified sound than on most of our recent albums,” he says. “In the past, we always sort of produced from tune to tune. If one needed more reverb, we gave it some. If one called for big production, it got it. If another required a sparse arrangement, the same. In the past, there might be more reverb on a ballad, where the funk tune would be dry. This time, we made an effort to put every single track in the same sort of sonic space, so it sounds natural and organic. The drums sound the same on every tune, the reverb on my sax is the same, and everything feels more live. We’re so into these songs, in fact that when we tour this summer, we plan to perform every one of them — with maybe a medley of our old hits to satisfy the fans who go way back with us.”
No matter how critically acclaimed or Grammy nominated Spyro Gyra has been, at the end of the day — on the rare occasions when the band reflects back on its incredible success - Beckenstein says the buck stops with those fans. “If you had asked the 28 year old Jay how long this ride would last, I’d have said, of course it would go on at least another 15 years,” he laughs. “Somewhere in the middle of our run, I might have said, we’d all be surprised if it goes another 15. At this point, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t last another 15. That’s how excited we are right now. There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s about a band whose members are diligent, kind, considerate and talented. But it’s really our fan base that is responsible. They keep coming to the shows and buying the CDs and inspire us to make music that delights us and in turn, brings them joy. We love what we do, but we understand that we get to keep doing it because they stay so interested.”
Currently gearing up to release their first dual album together, smooth jazz superstars Rick Braun and Richard Elliot are making good on their promise to make ARTizen Records — the label they co-own with their manager Steve Chapman and Al Evers — accessible to new artists. While HeadBoppin’, the brilliantly funky label debut from Down To The Bone’s irrepressible saxman Shilts, didn’t catch on with radio and audiences as they hoped, they’re excited about the strictly urban vibe of their latest sax signee, Jackiem Joyner. Only 26, Joyner brings a solid sideman pedigree to his debut Babysoul, including numerous gigs with Marcus Johnson, Bobby Lyle and Jaared; co-headlining a tour with Ronnie Laws, Angela Bofill and Jean Carne; and opening for India.Arie, Boney James, Spyro Gyra and George Benson.
It’s always hard to predict what will fly with smooth jazz fans that can’t get enough of their favorite star veterans and only selectively let young guns into the big leagues. But some of Joyner’s song titles show a sense of optimism that is as bright as many of his performances on the disc — “Elevation,” “Say Yes,” “Just Groove,” and perhaps as an ode to his age, closing with a sensuous declaration of “Innocence.” The soulful first single doesn’t have the most original title — “Stay With Me Tonight,” no relation to Jeffrey Osborne — but the combination of Joyner’s melodic style and Peter White’s sweet acoustic guitar is hard to resist.
Elliot and Braun also planned to showcase Joyner on select dates of their big Jazz Attack tour this summer.
1) Ryan Shaw, This Is Ryan Shaw (Columbia/One Haven/Red Ink) – James Brown may be gone, but his soul train keeps chuggin’ thanks to this fiery new vocal powerhouse. A sizzling mix of covers and originals, some toe-tappin’, some romantic, this is retro-soul on steroids, taking us back to the days of Booker T., Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
2) Donny Osmond, Love Songs of the 70s (Decca)
3) Jeff Golub, Grand Central (Narada Jazz)
4) Michael Buble, Call Me Irresponsible (143/Reprise)
5) Julie Dexter/Khari Simmons, Moon Bossa (Brash Music)