After 17 albums in 16 years, Spyro Gyra leader Jay Beckenstein knows by now how to keep things fresh.
“The reason why we’re not bored,” the saxophonist from Buffalo, N.Y., said during a stop in the popular jazz band’s tour with Basia, “is because we haven’t been playing ‘Morning Dance’ every concert for the past 15 years.”
“Morning Dance” was Spyro Gyra’s breakthrough instrumental hit in 1979, peaking at No. 24 on Billboard’s pop chart. The album of the same name sold more than 1 million copies, and since then, the group has garnered 11 Grammy nominations (with no wins) and remained a mainstay in the contemporary jazz scene, consistently selling about 200,000 copies per album.
Still, the pop radio climate is mostly cloudy for traditionally based jazz musicians.
“First of all, radio has changed (since ’79),” Beckenstein said, “and even before it changed, it was a lightning strike that an instrumental tune would be a big single. It happens occasionally, once every few years.
“The quest for that holy grail is futile, so we’ve long, long ago learned to survive in the music world without relying on that kind of radio. You get around it by touring a lot because you need to let people know you’re still around, that you’re still doing something.”
Beckenstein has kept Spyro Gyra from falling into a rut by incorporating other musical elements into its adventurous jazz sound. The group’s latest GRP Records album, “Dreams Beyond Control,” is sprinkled with doses of soul, pop and Latin influences, as well as the band’s first English-language vocals (from Santana lead singer Alex Ligertwood) on two tracks.
“Not that a vocal tune is cutting any new ground here,” Beckenstein said, “but, for us, it’s something we hadn’t tried before.
“This band has always opened up the creative sides of everybody who’s in it. … We always want to try new things and keep exploring new ideas, and that has kept it fresh.”
As for the current state of jazz, without any name-dropping, Beckenstein laments the influx of what he calls “soft, smarmy stuff.”
“Anything with an edge or anything that’s trying something new, anything with a lot of passion doesn’t get on the radio,” he says, “and the record doesn’t sell very well, especially if you’re a new artist.
“We’re a little insulated because our name is established, but for the new guy, he’s got to make the kind of record that’ll get on the radio and that means making a boring record. … All in all, I won’t say there’s no good music being made out there; it’s like 5 percent and there’s an awful lot of crap. An awful lot, my goodness.”
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