Original Cinema, Spyro Gyra's complex and challenging new album, was born from one simple fact: After 25 years, Jay Beckenstein had had enough.
As founder, producer, chief songwriter, and saxophone wizard with Spyro Gyra, he had listened for years to the voices of the jazz cognoscenti not getting what his band was all about. The public, of course, could hear the truth about this rock-solid ensemble, whose fiery performances had little in common with the cool facade of smooth jazz.
Still, the stereotypes persisted. "I never thought that we were unconnected to jazz," Beckenstein says. "But the jazz world had split on me. One part went into this smooth thing, and the other part clung to traditionalism. We believed that being unique was good, as opposed to the smooth direction, where so many artists sound the same, and the traditional thing, where everybody is trying to sound like somebody else."
For Beckenstein, keyboardist Tom Schuman, guitarist Julio Fernandez, bassist Scott Ambush, and drummer Joel Rosenblatt, the future was indicated at one time by groups like Return To Forever and, above all, Weather Report - bands that were fueled on their creative flights by a willingness to do things that had never been done before. "I believed we were springing from what Weather Report did," Beckenstein says, looking back to Spyro Gyra's formative days in Buffalo, New York. "I never thought in commercial terms; I just thought that they were the next evolution of jazz, and that we would be a part of it."
Though the fusion phenomenon failed to endure, Spyro Gyra definitely did catch on. With their u nprecedented blend of virtuosity, stylistic range, and accessibility, they've built a massive following even as the media harnessed them with labels that didn't quite fit. The band soldiered on, selling more than ten million copies of twenty-plus albums and tearing it up on marathon tours throughout the world. But finally, Beckenstein admits, things got to the point where they couldn't tune out the static anymore.
"Both the smooth and traditional movements in jazz are about being conventional," he insists. "They're the only musical genres I know of where you have rules like, 'In smooth jazz we don't want any improvisation,' or 'In straight-ahead jazz we don't want any electric bass.' It's just crazy, and it's left us with too many musicians who are concerned more with emulation than with discovery."
Not only that - Beckenstein came to realize that these tendencies had come to affect his band. "On the last few records I think we were trying to appeal to an audience that had been attracted to us through the smooth jazz thing," he says. "That's when I decided the next one had to be different - we owed it to ourselves and to our fans."
From this determination to set things straight comes Original Cinema, the follow-up to 2001's In Modern Times, which spent 64 weeks on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz Album chart, peaking at #2. More than any of their other records, this one stems from a sense of mission. Though just as accessible as anything else they've done, Original Cinema defies preconceptions about who Spyro Gyra is and, more crucially, what jazz is all about.
As a first step on this project, Beckenstein turned his home studio inside out, replacing his recording gear with a new and unfamiliar setup. "I wanted to change my way of working," he explains. "I wanted to experiment as I wrote, and embrace anything exciting and new that came up, as opposed to looking for a way to produce pleasant-sounding music or things that are reminiscent of what we've done in the past." This housecleaning ignited an approach based on taking risks. "For example," Beckenstein says, "I hadn't played much tenor sax on the last few records, so I said to myself, 'Okay, let's be different. Let's write all of this for tenor.' It didn't turn out that way in the end, but there's a lot more tenor than usual on this record. I also got into the idea of mixing odd-sounding, unconventional percussion sequences with real drums. When I took them to Joel, that inevitably set these tunes into some unusual directions.
"I also didn't run away from dark-sounding melodies or moody chords this time," he adds. "Some of the stuff I came up with was a little dissonant and disjointed, but that gives these tunes more depth than had I just done the safe melodic thing."
While Beckenstein finessed seven of the tracks that would appear on Original Cinema, the other guys in the band were on the same wavelength and writing equally provocative material. The results add up to the most vivid picture to date of a great band at the peak of its powers. From "Capetown Love," whose township vibe compares favorably to Joe Zawinul's most eclectic work, to the intimate free-tempo ballad "Flashback," on which Beckenstein plays sax to his own piano track, and on to the rest of the album, a whirlwind of funk, postbop, Latin, and influences that can't be categorized blows through these performances.
Even with all this variety, and with the edgier intensity evident in the solos and rhythm tracks, Original Cinema is instantly recognizable as a Spyro Gyra project. "That stems from the individual voices," Beckenstein suggests. "My sax playing doesn't sound like anybody else's. Tom is absolutely unique, a monster player. As a pure jazz technician, he certainly blows me away. Julio has a really big palette too: He was born in Havana and brought up in New Jersey - so that's all part of his vocabulary, and he's one of the best rhythm guitarists I've ever had the honor of playing with. Scott is a really inventive bass player; he doesn't like to do the same thing twice, which is always an adventure, and on the live shows he is a kick-ass soloist. And Joel does everything well; he intentionally seeks out the most difficult challenges for himself and always comes out on top."
These diverse talents stand together as harbingers of what may be the next revolution in music. In pushing toward new frontiers of improvisation and interaction, while never losing touch with their appeal to the broad base of listeners, Spyro Gyra attempts something on Original Cinema that no other band has accomplished: a true populist experimentation, open and illuminating to audiences at all levels of discernment.
"In the end, it's about feeling," Beckenstein says. "When I was playing experimental classical music in college, as intellectual and unemotional as it could be, I was paying my bills by gigging with blues bands … and it was the blues that gave me a rush. Eventually I went to jazz for more sophistication, but I never wanted to lose the goose bumps. I really believe that you can do the most interesting music and still get that stuff that I found in the blues, in any style or form."
Original Cinema proves the point. Come on in; the show's about to start.