PICTURED: Spyro Gyra, from left: Scott Ambush (bass), Julio Fernandez (guitar), Jay Beckenstein (saxophone), Lionel Cordew (percussion) and Tom Schuman (piano). Photo by Brian Friedman/B-Freed Photography
by Marina Dunbar
Legendary jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra is coming to the Scherr Forum Theatre in Thousand Oaks. On Oct. 15, the prolific group will bring their signature blend of jazz, funk, R&B and pop to Ventura County fans.
Spyro Gyra, whose now iconic name comes from a type of freshwater green algae, was formed in Buffalo, New York during the mid-1970s. What began as a Tuesday night jam would go on to become one of the most influential groups in the genre of smooth jazz, much to the surprise of the bandmembers.
“In the beginning, we had no thought that what we were doing was going to have any great. lasting impact,” says bandleader Jay Beckenstein. “When we put out our first record, which was called Spyro Gyra because we didn’t think there’d be another one, it was almost as a farewell statement to our fans in Buffalo before we as individuals went off to different cities. It was a big surprise that it ended up being so successful as to launch our careers.”
The members of Spyro Gyra have been impressing the jazz world for decades with their skilled musicianship and diverse sonic palette, which Beckenstein says comes from having a varied approach to musical styles and music-making. “I’m not the only composer in the band, so my background isn’t the only one that gets represented. For myself, I grew up with classical music and jazz. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I snuck a transistor radio under the covers and listened to The Beatles.”
This sort of musical open-mindedness is at the core of jazz fusion, with artists drawing from a wide range of influences, often from different corners of the world. One band in particular stood out as having had a massive impact on the Spyro Gyra music-making process. “I think what Weather Report gave me is the desire to use world music in my music” explains Beckenstein. “They had this feeling of real earthy music, like it was coming straight from West Africa but was mixed with jazz and electronic. It was a magical band.”
And that musical magic is carried on by Spyro Gyra and other jazz bands that continue to share their art with audiences of today. “Compared to other genres, jazz is much more of a conversation, much more about equality, but it’s much more than that . . . I’m not up there with the band to show off my saxophone playing. I’m up there in a group effort to make something beautiful. That’s the ethos of Spyro Gyra and it’s the ethos of jazz.”
As the local musicians of Ventura County have shown us, the ethos of jazz is a resilient one. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an effect on how people relate and rely on one another in crisis, especially a crisis that requires social distance. The jazz world in particular was uniquely impacted by the lockdowns due to the communal nature of the music.
“It was pretty depressing not playing for two years. I was getting existential for a moment there. I know this was a common feeling, especially among musicians, because the people you play with become your second, or perhaps your first family. Not seeing them for so long was quite surreal.”
But the spirit of Spyro Gyra cannot be broken so easily. The band continues to be as creative and virtuosic as they were over 40 years ago. Their most recent album, 2019’s Vinyl Tap, is proof of this. And the longer they go on, the bigger of an inspiration they become to young musicians who may need a reminder that a life of jazz is one that compels a humble soul.
“On behalf of the whole band, we’ve realized after we’ve come back on the road just how much we value what we’ve been allowed to do with our lives. When we think of why we were allowed this blessing, it’s really because of audiences, people kept coming out to see us. I just want to say thank you, thank you for such an interesting life.”
Spyro Gyra performs on Friday, Oct 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2700 or visit bapacthousandoaks.com.