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Saturday, June 22, 2024


Oct. 8, 2001 – As he walks onstage Saturday night for the season's opening event at the Reichhold Center for the Arts, Spyro Gyra founder and leader Jay Beckenstein will have short-term and long-term memories in mind.
The long-term ones are local: The band has been in the Virgin Islands a number of times before, although in far different venues from the 1,200-seat amphitheater. It played on St. Croix in 1988, '89 and '92 and on St. Thomas at the old Barnacle Bill's in '88.
The Barnacle Bill's gig wasn't exactly planned, Beckenstein recalled in a Source telephone interview. "Basically, we went down to St. Thomas on vacation and were going to rehearse new material we were going to record," he said. But Barnacle Bill's owner Bill Grogan tracked them down and asked if they would come and play, "and we said, 'Why not?'"
Phil Brennan, whose Crosseyed Bear Productions has managed Spyro Gyra from the start, said the band was on St. Thomas for a couple of week-long stays before that, but his computer records only go back to 1988. Beckenstein says he has "romantic memories" of the islands — first with a girlfriend, and later with his wife.
The entertainment dynamics of playing in a funky, laid-back little venue like Barnacle Bill's are a lot different from those performing onstage at a large theater such as the Reichhold, Beckenstein said, but both have advantages.
"Part of me loves to play in a little place where the people are right there," he said. "It kind of helps me be more of a human being. I'm really speaking to people I can see, and I have to be very real.
"On the other hand, part of the whole music-making process is developing a feedback loop with your audience. You put out energy, they give it back, it makes you put out more. You get this wonderful upward spiral with a big audience. The more audience, more power there is."
A good time in the midst of bad times
The short-term memories have to do with Sept. 11 and the appropriateness of having a good time as part of America's healing process.
"We had shows scheduled for the 15th and 16th in California," Brennan said. "We were unable to get the band there because of the problems with air travel, so we didn't have to decide if we or the audience was ready for a concert at the time. The decision was made for us. We were able to reschedule one of the shows, and the other one was canceled. The following week, we had more shows in California and Arizona that the band did play."
During those shows, the group opened its concerts with "The Unknown Soldier," a song Beckenstein wrote for the band's 1989 album "Point Of View." He also shared his feelings with the audiences as the leader of a band whose members hail from the New York and Washington, D.C., areas.
Travel was by air, and it was unnerving, Beckenstein recalled. "It really was uncomfortable flying — pilots were getting on the intercom telling us, 'You people are responsible for the rear cabin.'" A week after Sept. 11, "planes were still empty, relatively speaking. At Phoenix, the airport was a ghost town." By another week after that, traffic "had picked up marginally, but the lines for security were still long, despite nobody being there."
Beckenstein wasn't deciding ahead of time whether he would do "The Unknown Soldier" for the Reichhold concert. But "I think it's likely," he said.
"Making music seems a little trivial compared to current events," he noted. "There's a certain discomfort for people to going out and having a good time right now. To let us still have a good time and our audience have a really good time, we start by playing this somber song up front that has a patriotic element. And I say to the audience, 'We weren't sure we wanted to come out here tonight. And I didn't want to leave my children. Yet, I couldn't think of anything that I could do, other than coming out here and playing; I couldn't think of anything that would be as self-healing. So, let's try to have a good time for the next couple of hours.'"
This introduction, he said, "has seemed to allow everyone, including ourselves, to enjoy a good show."
Seniority means more than 10 years
Spyro Gyra consists of Beckenstein on saxophones, Tom Schuman on keyboards, Julio Fernandez on guitars, Joel Rosenblatt on drums and Scott Ambush on bass. Along with Beckenstein, Schuman and Fernandez were part of the band that played at Barnacle Bill's.
A quarter century after he and Jeremy Wall founded the band, Beckenstein is its only original, full-fledged member, but Schuman comes darned close. "Tom was an auxiliary member," Beckenstein recalled. "Jeremy was the keyboardist and Tom was about 16 at the time — it was a kind of sitting-in thing." Fernandez came aboard in '81 or '82, he said, and Rosenblatt and Ambush joined the group about 10 years ago.
There's great significance to the fact that "Joel joined about six days later than Scott," Beckenstein said. "This band has a seniority thing. If there are four good hotel rooms and one not-so-good one, well, you know who gets it."
The band, known for its fusion of jazz, Latin, Caribbean and R&B rhythms, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and got its name from a misspelling of the scientific word spirogira, a microscopic marine organism — read "pond scum" — that Beckenstein had written a biology paper about in college. Early on, when a club owner needed a name for the band, that's the one Beckenstein came up with. "It was a joke," the Spyro Gyra web site states, but it stuck.
Their 25th anniversary album, "In Modern Times," came out in May. The band hasn't gone back into the studio for the next one, "but my computer is filling up with musical ideas," Beckenstein said.
Staying together, playing together
Last year, Beckenstein did something he'd never done before since the band made its mark on the jazz world. He recorded a solo album, "Eye Contact," for Windham Hill Jazz. The reason, he said candidly, was "opportunity."
He explained: There has always been a legal ambivalence between Jay Beckenstein and Spyro Gyra." For recording contracts, "I have always signed for the band as me doing business as Spyro Gyra. I'd never been allowed to do an album outside" — although he had the opportunity to produce solo albums for others — Schuman and former band vibraphonist Dave Samuels.
He perceived mixed feelings on the part of the band about his solo venture. "The band members are my buddies, and they know that I'm very dedicated to the band and its continuance," he said. "On the surface, they were very, very supportive — but underneath, unquestionably a little uneasy. I could sense it. I knew they were concerned that my interests were waning or something." However, "the fact that 'In Modern Times' was such a band-oriented production took away all that," he added.
He would do it again, even though he learned that going solo was a lot of work. "I realized in making 'Eye Contact' how easy making Spyro Gyra albums are for me — because I have all these other people who are big contributors," he said. "It really is a team effort."
The multi-platinum contemporary jazz ensemble "endures as an audience favorite because they created an original style that sounded like nothing that came before," Jonathan Widran wrote in Jazziz magazine a while back. He credited the group with having "one of the most amazing live shows in instrumental music and killer, killer songs."
The magazine's August issue had the band on the cover for a quarter century of havin
g "stood at the center of the contemporary jazz universe." In the cover article, Bill Milkowski cited Beckenstein as saying that Spyro Gyra has endured not because of its initial burstof success during the late '70s, but in spite of it. "While the band has not altered its sound significantly in order to sell records or remain contemporary," he wrote, "Beckenstein says that Spyro Gyra has kept its collective ears open to interesting musical sounds coming from other places."
The band's enduring popularity has a lot to do with the facts that "Nobody got sick, nobody made themselves sick and we like each other," Beckenstein told the Source. "I've come to realize over the years that the main reason is that people still keep coming to hear us. You end up playing certain places 10, 15 times. We've played Akron, Ohio, 15 to 20 times. It would be easy around time 7 to go, 'Well, I've already done that.' But they keep coming — and that's what keeps us together."
Ticket information
Spyro Gyra performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Reichhold Center, opening the 2001-02 subscription season. Tickets for the A section were $55, but they're sold out. Tickets for the B section are $35 and only "a few" remain, according to box office personnel. Tickets in the C section are $20.
Outlets in addition to the Reichhold box office are the UVI St. Thomas campus bookstore, Modern Music (Nisky Center and Havensight), Parrot Fish Music and Crystal & Gifts Galore on St. Thomas; and Connections on St. John. For charge-card reservations, call the box office at 693-1559.
The Reichhold Center has put together travel packages for those wanting to cross the waters from St. Croix or Puerto Rico to take in the concert. In addition to tickets (on an availability basis), they include round-trip airfare aboard Seaborne Airlines, Saturday night accommodations at the nearby Best Western Emerald Beach Resort, continental breakfast Sunday, and ground transportation to and from the seaplane ramp and to and from the Reichhold Center. The packages are priced at $260 from Christiansted and $280 from San Juan. For reservations, call 693-1566.
There's a pre-concert reception to meet the band members that's by invitation — for season subscribers and donors. Season subscriptions are still available, in several customized formats. For details, visit the Reichhold's ticket information page and click on the green text "Become a season subscriber."

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