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A Confession in Triplicate: Spyro Gyra, Guilty Pleasure

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By Something Else Reviews

We attempted to give ourselves some cover by assuring one another that Spyro Gyra started out more in the vein of Weather Report than, say, David Sanborn. We really did. But, after pulling out the actual albums, it didn't take long to see how baldly ridiculous that premise so quickly became.

Spyro Gyra, whatever their initial intent, are the living embodiment of everything that went wrong in the 1980s when a radio format called “smooth jazz" suddenly became confused with an actual musical genre. They were, in keeping with the shotgun conformity of that Members-Only-jacketed era, often too safe, eventually formulaic, as occasionally forgettable as they were blindingly prolific.

So, why do we still, you know, love them so? Let us count the ways ...

MORNING DANCE (1979)

By Mark Saleski

1979. Almost ready to graduate from high school. I had a reputation to uphold (OK, it wasn't much of one but you know how we all were when we were 17) so there's no way that I would have admitted to listening to Spyro Gyra. The good news is that I didn't have to admit it because I'm pretty sure I didn't hear “Morning Dance" until my freshman year in college.

Oh, I had plenty of guilty pleasures going on at the time, from certain disco tunes ("Knock On Wood") to Hall & Oates to Chuck Mangione. The guilt was only in my head because nobody knew about any of it except for my girlfriend and neither of us were talking about the Mangione.

It was probably later that year at the University of Maine, where I was introduced to piles of new music. Sure, much of it was what we call now call “classic" rock, but there were also things like Weather Report—some dude down the hall cranked “Birdland" one afternoon and my head almost exploded with excitement—and also ... Spyro Gyra.

Yep, “Morning Dance" has many of the pop-jazz characteristics that grew to become smooth jazz, but I loved the song anyway. I loved the marimba and the quickly strummed acoustic guitar and the Caribbean flavor of those steel drums. My inner jazz snob hadn't begun to form yet so the fact that this was pretty lightweight stuff was of no consequence. All of these years later, I still think it's a load of fun.

Now where did I put that Chuck Mangione record ... ?

LOVIN' YOU (1980)

By Pico

Going back through Spyro Gyra's first ten years of material is like taking a stroll down memory lane for me and though I could never enjoy a single album from beginning to end, you could make up some killer mix tapes from their first nine or ten albums.

Saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Tom Schuman have always been the band's mainstays, but the revolving cast of musicians manning the other spots made some notable contributions over the years, vibes and marimba player Dave Samuels being amongst one of the most recognizable ones.

Guitarist Chet Catallo wasn't one of those most recognizable names, but the jazz-rooted, amenable character of his guitar helped to shape the early sound that through his playing, accessed rock and R&B with as much knowledge and professionalism as contemporary jazz.

In the group's follow-up to their breakthrough Morning Dance, 1980's Catching The Sun, Catallo got his big showcase and he made the most of it. “Lovin' You" has such a strong, catchy and whistle-able melody, they made a minute-long introductory interlude of Catallo alone softly plucking a jazz guitar softly around it. When the main song kicks in, the thematic line is played in unison by Catallo and Beckstein's sax, and I dare you to resist to urge to hum along to it after a couple of listens. Almost everyone, even the drummer, gets a brief solo turn, with Schuman's light but funky synthesizer one on the bridge being a highlight. But Catallo once again steals the show with some chop-heavy improvising sandwiching Beckenstein's tenor sax solo and one more round of that golden chorus.

Though my tastes might have since pivoted away some from Spyro Gyra, “Lovin' You" remains just as irresistible to my ears now as it did then. Smooth jazz or not, damned good songs are damned good songs. “Lovin' You" is damned good.

BOB GOES TO THE STORE (1986)

By Nick DeRiso

By this time, Spyro Gyra had become root-bound in formula. Even the addition of former Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena as a full-time member, it seems, couldn't dig them out. Yet the band's 10th album Breakout, the last one I ever bought, wasn't without its moments—notably the still-fun opener, written by former bassist Kim Stone (1982-86; later with the Rippingtons).

A quickening, surprisingly sprite Spyro Gyra sets up this luminous guitar riff by then-recent addition Julio Fernandez—still today a member of the group, along with co-founders Beckenstein and Shuman—before “Bob Goes to the Store" tumbles into a memorable, contemplative ether: Stone's solo is a lonely delight. Shuman and Beckenstein return for a '70s-fusion-inspired turn, all throwback-spacy, then Fernandez closes things out with a fretboard solo that's completely, deliciously of its time.

For all of their canny musicianship, “Bob" doesn't take itself too seriously—and that's its enduring charm: During the resulting Spyro Gyra tour I learned, as Stone made the introductions, that this song was actually about his dog sneaking off to a nearby grocery to try to coax free food from strangers.

Later, they made a video—shot largely from the pooch's perspective. Spoiler alert!: Bob gets out of there with quite a treasure, completely ruining his dinner.


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