Founded in 1974 by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra have consistently been one of the commercially successfully pop-jazz groups of the past 30 years. The band became a full-time venture in 1976 and has been touring ever since. Critics love to attack this band's music, which combines R&B and elements of pop and Caribbean music with jazz, but its live performances are often stimulating -- unlike many of its records, which emphasize the danceable melodies.
The roots of Spyro Gyra lay in Buffalo, NY, in 1974. Beckenstein and his longtime friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, had been leading a group with a revolving membership; every one of the many members in the band were loosely involved in the local jazz and rock scenes. Around 1974, the group was beginning to gel and cultivate a following. A club owner who wanted to advertise an upcoming appearance by the band asked Beckenstein for the group's name. The saxophonist told him "Spirogyra," a word he learned in a college biology course. The owner misspelled the word as Spyro Gyra, and the band fell into place, featuring Beckenstein, Wall, Jim Kurzdorfer, and Tom Walsh. Not long afterward, the group added keyboardist Tom Schuman. Electric guitarist Chet Catallo, drummer Eli Konikoff, and percussionist Gerardo Velez all joined in 1978 (with Wall dropping out) and bassist David Wofford was added in 1980.
Spyro Gyra independently funded and recorded their debut album, releasing the record on the local independent label Amherst in 1976. The record slowly became a success and Amherst sold the rights to the band to Infinity Records, a division of MCA. Wall left the band in 1978, leaving Schuman as the group's main keyboardist. Morning Dance, their first album for Infinity, was released in 1979. The record became a major hit, spawning a Top 40 single with "Morning Dance" and going platinum. Morning Dance firmly placed Spyro Gyra as one of the most popular artists in contemporary jazz, and throughout the '80s, their popularity continued growing. Their albums were consistent best-sellers, and their concerts often sold out. In 1983, vibraphonist and marimba player Dave Samuels -- who had played on several of the group's albums -- became a full-fledged member of the band. Over the course of the '80s, the membership of Spyro Gyra fluctuated, but Beckenstein and Schuman remained at its core, keeping the group's signature sound intact.
In 1990, MCA's jazz roster was absorbed by GRP, so Spyro Gyra switched labels, releasing Fast Forward, their first album for GRP, later that year. In 1993, Samuels left the touring band, but he continued to play in the studio. By the late '90s, the band featured Beckenstein, Schuman, Julio Fernandez, Joel Rosenblatt, and Scott Ambush, and released Got the Magic in 1999. Two years later the band moved to the Telarc-affiliated Heads Up label and released In Modern Times in 2001, followed by Original Cinema in 2003. Drummer Rosenblatt left the band and was replaced by Ludwig Afonso for 2004's Deep End. A fourth Heads Up album, Good to Go-Go, was issued in 2007. The holiday album A Night Before Christmas followed in 2008. ~ Scott Yanow & Stephen Thomas Erlewine