[15 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra has led a relatively drama-free existence for almost forty years—by which I mean they’ve survived band personnel changes, record label changes and flagging music sales without any big, splashy scandals. Recorded jazz music keeps trying to gain traction in America as big record labels with big expense accounts continue to go the way of the dinosaur, but the old Buffalo band just likes to keep busy. They continue to tour the world, garner up a few award nominations, and generally not sully their name with standard musician showboating or nostalgia-milking (unless you consider them performing their sophomore album Morning Dance in its entirety next year to be a punishable offense).
So to shake things up a bit, the current line-up of Spyro Gyra have decided to do something that they’ve never attempted before, which is to make an album completely on the fly. The Rhinebeck Sessions is nothing more than three days of work in a studio in Rhinebeck, NY. No songs were written beforehand and, according to saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, some songs were recorded before anyone even discussed them. Some of the songs from The Rhinebeck Sessions are an expansion of one member’s foundational idea while others are nothing more than five guys following one another’s groove. Neither the CD nor the press release tells you which are which. You can make your best educated guess for each one, but just know that Spyro Gyra make almost anything look easy.
In short, The Rhinebeck Sessions does not sound like just three days of writing and recording. It sounds like a Spyro Gyra album that took the usual amount of care, planning and rehearsing as usual. It also favors uptempo funk in lieu of many tender and reflective ballads. Scott Ambush and Lee Pearson together make a terrific rhythm section, one that is key to Rhinebeck‘s bounce and tap. The amount of snap that Pearson puts into the album is impressive considering he’s been playing drums for Spyro Gyra for only two years. Tom Schuman is one of those keyboardists who seems to never hit a suspect note, no matter how fast the band is going. Beckenstein and guitarist Julio Fernandez can read each other like open books at this point in their career. So it’s more or less official that this quintet can pick up almost any gauntlet.
The Rhinebeck Sessions even has some moments that can get stuck in your head, “Not Unlike That” being the catchiest of the grooviest. With a fragmented yet simple melody, I guarantee is can seep into the noggins of fusion haters. A reggae-lite “Wishful Thinking” swims by like any conventionally-constructed song with emphasized shifts in dynamics and mood. “I Know What You Mingus” takes a turn back to hard-bop history without forsaking any of the Spyro hallmarks. And the opener “Serious Delivery”, the album’s lengthiest track, is a crazy display of the band’s abilities under a tight schedule. The amount of intricate changes occurring in 8:12 is bewildering, to say nothing of the song’s tight arrangement. After the song comes to a big crashing Elvis-like finish, you can hear someone shout “now that’s how you play!” A pat given to one’s own back, yes, but it’s well deserved.
It’s not all tight. “Clubhouse Jam” is, well, a meager jam and the last track “Who Knew!” is just noodling (the intermittent studio laughter suggests it exists just to amuse the band). But that’s all forgivable because The Rhinebeck Sessions will prove to be worth the gamble. Spyro Gyra have a lot on the line by financing this project themselves, but that’s what you call a labor of love.