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REVIEW: Spyro Gyra’s 40 Years of Music from the Heart (Dakota Jazz Club)

Spyro Gyra performing in Huntington, NY. Photo by Brian Friedman/B-Freed Photography.

The band Spyro Gyra has been around for over 40 years and has performed over 5,000 shows.  They have recorded over 30 albums, including two gold albums and one platinum, racked up 13 Grammy nominations, and sold 10 million albums.  While it has been five years since their last album (The Rhinebeck Sessions in 2013), the band promised during Thursday’s sold-out performance at the Dakota Jazz Club that a new album is coming out in the spring.

As you might expect in a group of four decades’ tenure, Spyro Gyra has seen numerous lineup changes.  The current set includes two founding members of the group, Jay Beckenstein on sax and clarinet, and Tom Schuman on keyboards. Scott Ambush on bass and Julio Fernandez on guitar each have more than twenty years with the group. The relative newcomer, Lionel Cordew, has played drums with the group since 2015.

The current lineup of Spyro Gyra. Photo by Brian Friedman/B-Freed Photography.

The set started with a song promised for the forthcoming album, a vibrant version of Johnny Rivers’ pop hit, “Secret Agent Man”. Late in the set, the group offered a medley of some of their better-known songs from decades ago: “Shaker Song”, “Pipo’s Song”, and “Morning Dance”.

The band found ways to feature each musician during the set.  Schuman took the lead on “City Kids”, from the 1983 album of the same name.  Fernandez was featured on the Cuban-inflected “De la Luz” from Heat of the Night (1996). (This was also the only appearance of singing during the evening, with the guitarist offering deeply felt lyrics, in both Spanish and English.)  Ambush gave a virtuoso performance on a funky “Down the Wire”, the eponymous song of a 2009 album.  We could not but focus on Cordrew’s extended drum solo during “Cashaça” (from 1980’s Carnaval) as the rest of the band exited the stage, leaving the drummer alone in the spotlight.  Beckenstein offered impassioned solos on nearly every song, hunched over his sax, varying between sweet melody and intense, almost violent rhythms.

The cover of Spyro Gyra’s 1980 album Carnaval, one of several hit albums whose songs were featured in the night’s set list.

The strength of Spyro Gyra has always been the way it mixed and fused a wide range of musical styles – all in the service of an uplifting, frequently danceable sound.  There were throughout the set elements of pop, rock, fusion, soft jazz, R&B, funk, Latin, Brazilian, and many more styles.  The drumming could be pounding – almost Taiko style for one song, then a soft calypso the next.  The guitar could go from Hendrix to Cuban.  And the keyboards frequently offered a buffet of styles even in the course of a single song.  Somehow it always worked.

As Beckenstein has written:  “What could be better than this? We still get to play music that our hearts are involved in, untainted by the world around us.”

Brian Bix