Jay Beckenstein doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what constitutes “real jazz” and what doesn’t. The longtime leader of the pioneering post-fusion group Spyro Gyra is too busy playing his own music and listening for new sounds that he can incorporate into it.
“To me, that entire argument is a waste of time,” he said last month from his office outside New York City. “In a general sense, I don’t care if it’s jazz or it’s bluegrass; I don’t care if it’s classical or opera. I like all of it, and I don’t judge it by its style. I can enjoy music in so many different forms, so the whole argument of ‘is it real jazz, is it not real jazz’ doesn’t really affect my way of enjoying music.
“I try to find the good in all of that stuff. It’s when a radio format becomes utterly predictable that I’m looking elsewhere. But I like good jazz and I like good country---I like good everything, as long as it’s honest and has some sort of unique character to it. I can’t stand the stuff that’s formulaic and just sounds like what somebody else did last week. It’s not about style, it’s about content.”
When Beckenstein formed Spyro Gyra thirty years ago at Tuesday night jam sessions in a Buffalo club, there was no model to follow and no radio format to pander to.
“What we came out of at the time was, first of all, definitely Weather Report,” he remembered. “And Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were doing things in the ‘70s. That was part of our template. But I think more than any of them, we had also grown up with The Beatles and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, so we had some additional stylistic ingredients to what we did.
“Radio was so much more adventurous back then. Stations at the time were being programmed by individuals; they were little local individual visions of what it was supposed to be. So you could still get unusual stuff on. There were radio stations where you could actually hear Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis back-to-back. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much a thing of the past. Because of that, I’m glad that we didn’t grow up based on any particular format. And, while we had some big radio hits in the ‘80s, that isn’t what we continued to base the existence of the group on. So we were able to avoid that most obvious of pitfalls, producing the record for a radio format.”
Since their second album, 1979’s Morning Dance, caught the attention of a significant slice of the listening public, Spyro Gyra has been one of the most consistent bands working on the contemporary side of jazz. Friday night, Beckenstein and company headline the Norfolk Jazz Festival in Town Point Park, an outdoor venue they’ve visited several times before.
This weekend’s festival takes a big leap forward musically from last year’s when all of the performers were relatively interchangeable in their adherence to the “smooth jazz” recipe. Spyro Gyra is joined on the bill by the guitar-tapping virtuoso Stanley Jordan, and there’s an all-star tribute to the late Grover Washington, Jr., led by keyboardist Jeff Lorber that features saxophonists Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright. The only bow to the smooth jazz formula is the inclusion of Paul Taylor on Friday night, a fine player who offers no apologies for the success he’s found with his seductive soprano sax stylings.
Though his band has also found a home at times on smooth jazz radio, Jay Beckenstein considers the work he’s done with Spyro Gyra to be more a natural evolution from the jazz/rock/soul fusion that was ascendant in the 1970s.
“If you’re talking about fusion, the artists weren’t doing anything different than jazz artists had always done,” he asserted. “There’s this issue of ‘you’re putting a rock beat into this’ or ‘you’re using musical influences from outside the mainstream.’ Well…what the hell? Charlie Parker played Broadway show tunes; Latin music was combining with jazz under Dizzy Gillespie. Going right back to the beginning, the music was a fusion of African and European musical styles. The idea that jazz becomes tainted by elements from the outside is hysterical and counter to the whole idea. Jazz was always able to reinvent itself by being open-minded and open-eared. And that’s all fusion music was doing.
“Now, if you want to get into it like you’re teaching a college course, you have to make some firm definitions. If you want to make the case that the music made by the jazz community up until 1965 was what is ‘real jazz,’ you’re welcome to make it. But it relegates jazz to a museum status, and it basically means that jazz, which was a music that always had the doors open for innovation---and perhaps that was its finest quality---if you’re going to say that it has to end because we’re going to put these limits on it, basically you’re thwarting the entire idea of it. You’re saying that innovation is not welcome, and you’re relegating it to the same place that Mozart has been relegated to.
“Mozart deserves to be listened to, and the jazz of the ‘50s is a glorious set of musical forms that deserve to be listened to. But what made those musical forms in the ‘50s so startling is they were brand new. For a jazz community to try to petrify the art form…that shuts it down.
“For us, we never said we can’t do this. It was always quite the opposite: We can do whatever we want and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to listen to it.”
After 27 albums, a lot of folks are still listening. Friday night at Town Point Park, Spyro Gyra gets the chance to show why. If past performances are any indicator, they’ll light up the downtown riverfront with explosive musical fireworks.
THE CINGULAR NORFOLK JAZZ FESTIVAL
Town Point Park
Friday, July 15
5:30 – Jim Newsom Quintet
7:00 – Paul Taylor
9:00 – Spyro Gyra
Saturday, July 16
4:00 – Against All Odds
5:45 – Stanley Jordan
8:00 – “Groovin’ for Grover Tour”
featuring Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum and Jeff Lorber
copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.