Smooth jazz pioneers, Spyro Gyra are unapologetic about their high-gloss style of jazz 

Formula for Success

Spyro Gyra are about as good as "smooth jazz" gets. Unfortunately, the scene is too often mired in overproduced and underplayed mediocrity. While their best selling recordings over the past 25 years pioneered the high-gloss commercial polish typical of the genre, the glitz always seems to overshadow any foundation of improvising.

"The studio is more of a laboratory process, more precise," keyboardist Tom Schuman says. "We need records to promote the band. And we have to fit in to be played by the radio people."

The result is CDs like their latest, "Modern Times," a tightly arranged collection of songs, with very short, sound bite solos embedded in a matrix of digital effects.

Playing live is a different story. "The live show is the meat and beans of the music," according to Schuman. "We can stretch out, and put on a very powerful show. Improvising is what jazz is all about, and we have the freedom to do that. We play the tunes we know and then, when we solo, [we] go off into our own musical worlds. You take chances, and sometimes it's a train wreck but usually, even then, the audience likes it.

"That's what makes it fresh. A lot of musicians, in big bands, playing with Madonna or someone like that, are making big money but they are bored as hell playing the same thing every night. The freedom to play what we feel is what keeps the music fresh. And its what's kept us together, and given the band its longevity."

Schuman has been there since the beginning. He, Jay Beckenstein and Jeremy Wall began playing together at clubs in Buffalo, NY back in 1975. The band wasn't even called Spyro Gyra then. The name comes from spirogyra, a species of freshwater algae. A club owner's phonetic rendering resulted in the current spelling.

It was more a loose aggregation of Buffalo-area musicians than a working band when Beckenstein and Wall put together their first recording. Self-titled and self-funded, the independent record was appealing enough to be picked up and released by major label MCA. Even greater success came from their multi-platinum breakthrough "Morning Dance." By this time, the collective had grown to incorporate some of the cream of NY's studio musicians.

"A quarter-century later we're still here — not bad for a band that is all instrumental," Schuman says. He also confided that they tried adding vocals without much success.

The new release follows the group's well-established approach while incorporating some Latin, Middle Eastern, rock and R&B sounds.

Success with the general population doesn't always equate with critical acceptance. While their best-selling CDs are easily found in the jazz section of music stores, their commercial style excludes them from "serious jazz" publications like the massive Penguin Guide to Recorded Jazz, the premier collection of jazz reviews.

Schuman is unapologetic about the band's smooth formula for success. "I'm very proud of what we do. This is a business and we understand that. We have to sell to survive. Sometimes that involves a difficult choice: Am I willing to starve to play what I want to play? What about our fiscal responsibilities for our production company? What about the fan base who have been faithful to us across the years?"

"Music is a communication medium," Schuman concludes. "The better we can communicate, the longer we can continue to satisfy our audience and ourselves. I think we strike the perfect balance between making music and making money."


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