Led by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra are one of the most consistently commercially successfully pop-jazz groups to emerge out of the fusion era. Taking inspiration from bands like Weather Report and Return to Forever, Spyro Gyra broke through in the mid-'70s, combining R&B and elements of pop and Caribbean music with jazz. Known for their stimulating live performances and knack for crafting danceable melodies, the group has issued a steady stream of high-charting albums like 1979's gold-certified Morning Dance, 1981's Freetime, and 2001's In Modern Times. They have also earned over ten Grammy nominations, for albums including 1980's Catching the Sun, 1990's Fast Forward, and 2009's Down the Wire.
The roots of Spyro Gyra lie in Buffalo, New York, in 1974. Beckenstein and his longtime friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, had been leading a group with a revolving membership; every one of the many members in the band were loosely involved in the local jazz and rock scenes. Around 1974, the group was beginning to gel and cultivate a following. A club owner who wanted to advertise an upcoming appearance by the band asked Beckenstein for the group's name. The saxophonist told him "Spirogyra," a word he learned in a college biology course. The owner misspelled the word as Spyro Gyra, and the band fell into place, featuring Beckenstein, Wall, Jim Kurzdorfer, and Tom Walsh. Not long afterward, the group added keyboardist Tom Schuman. Electric guitarist Chet Catallo, drummer Eli Konikoff, and percussionist Gerardo Velez all joined in 1978 (with Wall dropping out), and bassist David Wofford was added in 1980.
Spyro Gyra independently funded and recorded their debut album, releasing the record on the local independent label Amherst in 1976. The album slowly became a success and Amherst sold the rights to the band to Infinity Records, a division of MCA. Wall left the band in 1978, leaving Schuman as the group's main keyboardist. Morning Dance, their first album for Infinity, was released in 1979. The record became a major hit, spawning a Top 40 single with "Morning Dance" and going platinum. Morning Dance firmly established Spyro Gyra as one of the most popular artists in contemporary jazz, and throughout the '80s their popularity continued growing. Their albums were consistent best-sellers, and their concerts often sold out. In 1983, vibraphonist and marimba player Dave Samuels — who had played on several of the group's albums — became a full-fledged member of the band. Over the course of the '80s, the membership of Spyro Gyra fluctuated, but Beckenstein and Schuman remained at its core, keeping the group's signature sound intact.
In 2009, Spyro Gyra released their 31st album, Down the Wire. It charted in the Top Ten of the Billboard Jazz Albums chart and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album. The group returned two years later with Foreign Affair, which found them drawing upon their world music influences. It landed at number two on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart and included guest appearances by Keb' Mo' and Arijit Singh, who appeared on the track "Khuda" singing in Hindi. The Rhinebeck Sessions arrived in 2013 and featured drummer Lee Pearson, who had replaced the departing Bonaparte in 2011. Pearson then left, replaced by Lionel Cordew in 2015. In 2019, Spyro Gyra released Vinyl Tap, which found them reworking many of their favorite tracks from the vinyl era, including songs by Blind Faith, Cream, and jazz saxophonist Oliver Nelson, among others. ~ Scott Yanow & Stephen Thomas Erlewine