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Jay Beckenstein

Nearly thirty years into performing, Spyro Gyra is still at the top of their game and still known as jazz fusion’s most original group. While other groups are ready to retire, Spyro Gyra is ready to keep on "keepin’ on" with a wealth of creative talents, adding young, fresh performers as they go.

Sure, this group has a signature sound, but nothing is ever the same as they aspire to push their individual creativity. No wonder their original fan base is still with them-by the millions around the world. And, it keeps on growing, awaiting each new work by this enchanted assembly of master musicians.

Dynamic leader, saxophonist, producer-Jay Beckenstein, was generous with his time and his answers as he participated in this interview. Warm, down to earth and candid, Beckenstein’s love and admiration for his fellow players shows through each answer. Wrapped In A Dream is truly wrapped in a dream of delightful musical magic.

JazzReview: This is exciting to me. I’d like to tell you that way back before I wanted to listen to jazz, your group was the first I heard that actually drew me into the jazz world. Your group is special to me.

Spyro Gyra is known as jazz fusion’s most original group. Could you help our readers understand what jazz fusion is?

Jay Beckenstein: Jazz fusion, which is actually an old term now, simply means mixing jazz with other musical styles (rhythm & blues, pop, jazz). It’s such a strong musical form, it’s been able to incorporate other styles into it and turn it into new types of jazz.

JazzReview: You guys are very good at it. It’s not abrasive. I used to have trouble staying with jazz. It made me nervous, but your group is different. What makes it different?

Jay Beckenstein: I think the accessibility people find with our music is about a couple of things. But first and foremost, it’s about melody. I think we play very melodic music.

JazzReview: Yes, it’s gentle on the ears yet it’s exciting and interesting. Those of us who are not musicians don’t often know the technical terms. We just know when it feels good.

Jay Beckenstein: Well, back to fusion. We grew up as players in the '50s and '60s. Those were times, particularly the 60s, when a whole bunch of really great music was being made--great music with a lot of different styles from jazz, but also from rhythm and blues, the Latin world and all that great rock and roll--the Beetles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. When we got together for our set during the 70s, we had a lot of terrific music to draw on. So a big part of our language is this big bunch of music people are familiar with. All of those great elements of all that great music are to be found there [in our music].

JazzReview: That’s a great way to explain it. That was the time when music blew wide open.

Jay Beckenstein: It was the best. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just an old guy looking back and saying, ‘Well, the music I grew up with was the best.’ I believe I was blessed to grow up in one of the richest explosions of American music.

JazzReview: I think you’re right. People still go back and listen to the music they grew up with.

You are no stranger to success. Since you began your band, you have consistently stayed at the top of the charts. With your last album, "The Deep End," you kind of took a different swerve, but you came right back with "Wrapped In A Dream," which takes you back to your tradition.

Do you feel you have a signature sound?

Jay Beckenstein: It’s hard to say because we’re so willing to play so many different styles. It’s hard to say: Are we a jazz band? Are we a Caribbean group? Are we Rhythm and Blues? We’re all of those things!

We grew up inputting in a very rich time with a lot of different styles. But I will say the individuals in the band and the sum of the individuals in the band, because it’s a band that’s had certain people in it for a very, very long time, do have signature sounds.

I have my own voice on saxophone. Julio Fernandez on guitar sounds like Julio Fernandez on guitar, whether he’s playing jazz or salsa. Tom Schumann also. The three of us have been together for 20 or 25 years. I think those voices are very distinct. So yes, we have our own sound.

JazzReview: This album begins with "Spyro Time." It’s very adventurous and your guitarist really stands out.

Jay Beckenstein: I think he stood out all over the record "Spyro Time" for whatever it’s worth. You know musicians-you say let’s meet in the lobby at twelve o’clock and they show up at 12:15. Well, our group shows up at quarter to twelve. We call that Spyro Time.

JazzReview: Oh really? That’s interesting. Thank you. Following "Spyro Time" is "Midnight Thunder" written by Chuck Loeb. He also wrote "Tuesday" for this album. Chuck Loeb is a very successful musician on his own. Do you work with him often?

Jay Beckenstein: Chuck wrote some of his own material. He was gracious enough to ask me to play. I did a solo album four years ago and Chuck was a huge contributor to it. Chuck has a real knack for getting tunes played on the radio.

JazzReview: Is it his name or his style?

Jay Beckenstein: It’s his style. So we brought Chuck in to help in that direction a little bit.

JazzReview: Well, it worked. "Midnight Thunder" is more of a smooth composition. You can feel the midnight mood.

Jay Beckenstein: It falls more into a smooth jazz vein.

JazzReview: "Voodooyoodoo" is strong in percussion. Dave Samuels came onto this project.

Jay Beckenstein: Dave has never really left us. If you look back over the last ten records, he’s on every single one of them. He’s always been a contributor.

JazzReview: Someplace I read he had gone on to a different project.

Jay Beckenstein: He does have his own group, but when we make records, Dave always gets a call.

JazzReview: Let’s talk about Cyro Baptista on percussion. He is hot.

Jay Beckenstein: Yeah, Cyro is a brilliant percussionist. He works with just about everybody. He’s been out with Paul Simon, with Herbie Hancock. He’s very popular and he’s very colorful.

JazzReview: A little later in the album, you come out with the flute. I understand this is the first time you’ve played flute on a CD.

Jay Beckenstein: It is. I think we’ve made 27 CDs and it’s a challenge to do anything that’s different. There’s so much material and [on] every record we want to be a little different. I was searching for something I haven’t done before, so that was the flute.

JazzReview: It’s great. It adds a nice dynamic to the sound. It isn’t aggressive. It doesn’t take over. It just adds a nice layer of texture to the music. "Tuesday" is a kicky tune with lots of spunk to it. I understand that Tuesday Night Jams from a long time ago; Tuesday is the night you had off from performing. Does Tuesday Jams tie into Tuesday?

Jay Beckenstein: That’s another tune written by Chuck Loeb. I think he was aware of that story. I haven’t asked him but maybe that’s what he meant.

JazzReview: From "Tuesday" you go to "Toledo" then to a nitty-gritty "Lowdown," which is all the way funky. Please tell me about bassist Scott Ambush and some of the other musicians we haven’t mentioned yet.

Jay Beckenstein: Scott Ambush is somebody who’s now been in the band 14 years. He’s a very, very creative bass player. He’s very inventive and plays in the foreground. He’s one of the most inventive bass players I’ve ever played with. He’s also a great writer. He wrote "Voodooyoodoo"

Scott played with such people in the past as Stanley Turrentin, and Pieces of a Dream. He’s an excellent band member.

The member we haven’t talked about is Tom Schumann. Google Tom Schumann. He’s been coming out with his own records, which are just terrific. He has one that’s on the radio right now. He is a marvelous musician.

JazzReview: He is marvelous and stands out throughout this album.

Jay Beckenstein: He joined with the band, I think, in 1977, so he’s one of the oldest ranking members of this group-a thirty year a band member.

JazzReview: Wow! It’s amazing to be able to say that. It’s difficult being in a studio with such creative artists without getting in each other’s way.

Jay Beckenstein: Yes, and traveling together, learning each other’s habits and frustrations.

We are such good friends. We’ve been through so much together. It’s sort of like a really mature marriage now. Whatever bugged us about each other has long been worked out and put in the past. We all know each other so well and we are all sympathetic toward one another. These days if someone is misbehaving, we all know how to handle it. It’s really like an old marriage.

JazzReview: Do you think that’s what shows through in your music and makes it so alive and so original?

Jay Beckenstein: I hope so. You know, it happens to be a pretty talented group of people. But I like to think the music we make is special because we’ve had the opportunity to play with each other for so many years. And, we are so supportive of each other, that however great the individuals are, when you put them together, they are that much better.

JazzReview: It has worked out in your case. I’ve wanted to talk about the individual talents. But let’s also talk about you bringing in young talent. I understand you bring in teenagers so they can get the feel, plus they bring in newness.

Jay Beckenstein: That, which I spoke of earlier-some things make what we’re doing now, a little bit different, a little bit fresher. And yes, the two drummers who played on this record, Ludwig Afonso and Josh Dion, I think they’re both 26 years- old. They brought a lot of energy and a lot of new ideas and they kept us on our toes.

JazzReview: Do you feel you have reached that place where you can sense when someone is having a bad day or having an off night?

Jay Beckenstein: Oh, absolutely! My band guys are so great at covering my mistakes. They really are. If I take a left turn that wasn’t on the map, they are there with me. They are very, very intuitive. Again, we’re like an old marriage. We all kind of know what’s coming.

We have all learned how to make each other feel better when we’re not feeling good. If someone’s having a bad night, no one in this band goes, "Hey, you’re having a bad night-you’re ruining this." It’s more like " You’re having a bad night. What can I do for you?"

JazzReview: That’s a very special place to be. It just doesn’t happen too often.

Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do with this particular album? With such a terrific line-up of talent, it’s easy to understand how and why you all stay together. Did you have a specific agenda when you began this album? Was there something in particular you wanted to create orr was it more flow as you go?

Jay Beckenstein: It just came together as it was. I never really know when we start a project how it’s going to end up. I’m just not that good. Whatever ideas I have and whatever ideas the others have, when we get into the studio you can count on the others to maximize them. It’s actually a lot of fun to go in without everything planned. It’s a real group effort.

JazzReview: Right. It becomes spontaneous.

Jay Beckenstein: Absolutely, and you get surprises. If you plan it all out, you’re going to get what you planned. But if you leave room for other people, other talented people, to add to what you’re doing, you get these great surprises.

JazzReview: I like that. It gives them all a chance to express their own individuality.

Jay Beckenstein: And it takes the pressure off. I know if I have a song that is 90% there, but I just don’t know what to do with the ending, I can count on some help. And I do the same for them.

JazzReview: I think that’s great. I want to ask about your association with Heads Up. Dave Love is wonderful about finding world-class music-folks known worldwide by their name. How did you hook up with Heads Up?

Jay Beckenstein: Well, you know, it’s not so much that Dave finds people. People now come to Dave. He has a terrific reputation for being a record company president that is a) fair and honest, and b) someone who is very, very musical. He understands what people are trying to do, which is very important. That’s because Dave is a musician-a really good trumpet player. Some of the original rosters are people he played with.

I’ve been at some very big record companies and while some of these people may be marketing geniuses, when it comes to jazz, they haven’t a clue. Dave is not like that. Dave really loves music and as a musician, I like to work with a record company owner who is in it because he loves it.

When you’re a musician, you have an opportunity. The decision is: where do I want to go? I have a choice to go to this label or that label. You ultimately call your friends and ask: How is that label? Did they pay you? Are they nice? Are they honest?

The word in the musician’s community on Dave is really good. The word has been out for some time now that Head’s Up is a good home. Dave is a real guy, very knowledgeable-someone I can call on the phone and have a real discussion with. If there’s something wrong, I’m not afraid to discuss it. If there’s something I need help with, I know I can go there. I don’t have to worry about someone having another agenda. Dave is a very open, supportive individual.

JazzReview: Let’s talk a little bit about the Bear Track Studio. I understand some music magic has been created there. And this is your last album being produced there. It sounds like a musical home to magic.

Jay Beckenstein: It is a home-a barn next to my house. But the studio business has slowly dried up. People use home computers and home studios.

To me, it’s saying good-bye to part of my life. We do that all the time anyway, don’t we? We move on and make the next part of our life exciting. That’s how I’m looking at that. It’s been a great place to make music. My home here, that I’m leaving, is a lovely, lovely home. I have tremendously wonderful memories, but I’ll make new memories.

JazzReview: That’s a great outlook.

Jay Beckenstein: You can look at everything negatively or positively. What’s the use of being negative?

JazzReview: Actually, you just got back off tour??

Jay Beckenstein: I just got back from Israel working with another artist. What an amazing place. It’s mind-blowing. It’s such a fascinating place with people from so many different cultures seeming to get along. I know they don’t always, but there they seemed to. A remarkable place to visit and I would highly recommend it. It’s really not dangerous.

JazzReview: That’s very interesting. I have images of it just being bombed all the time.

Jay Beckenstein: That’s funny. You go to other countries and people think the US is a place where you see car chases with people shooting at each other, because that’s what they see in the movies.

Israel is not a place that’s so dangerous. It doesn’t feel dangerous. And the US isn’t a place where you see people shooting at each other all the time.

JazzReview: Do you have a future agenda, another album in the works or touring for this one--maybe taking a break?

Jay Beckenstein: No. We’re going right out. We have some very nice dates in front of us. We’re playing with the Air Force Orchestra in Washington, which is going to be a lot of fun.

Then we have a couple isolated dates. We’re going to be in Tennessee and Punta Gorda, Florida. Then we head out for a week in Seattle. Then we are going to be going to Japan.

JazzReview: Oh, my goodness. There seems to be a lot going on in Japan. I understand the Yellowjackets were there.

Jay Beckenstein: Japan is very supportive of music.

JazzReview: You are teaching me a lot. I thank you for that. Are you looking forward to another tour or are you at the point where you’d just as soon not tour?

Jay Beckenstein: A little of both. I love playing music for people. I really do like it. I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for performing on a stage and my band members are close friends. I enjoy being with them, but I get really tired of airplanes. And I miss my children, especially when I go on the road for ten days or so I miss them very much.

JazzReview: Do you have sights for the future of your group? Do you have another CD planned?

Jay Beckenstein: We’ll probably start another CD in the fall.

JazzReview: Hmm Does your mind ever go blank? Do you ever reach that point where you say, "I think I don’t have another note left in me?"

Jay: I do reach the point where I go: I have to make another CD. What am I going to do that’s different from the last time? Where am I going to come up with new ideas? I approach it one step at a time and it always seems to work out.

JazzReview: That’s why you guys stay on top, consistently. That’s why you have an audience that follows you around the world. That’s why you have people waiting for your next CD to come out.

Jay Beckenstein: We’ve been incredibly blessed, right from the beginning. In our early days we sold millions of records and had the opportunity to introduce ourselves to so many people. So we had a very, very big fan base from the beginning. And thank goodness they’ve stayed with us.

JazzReview: You are incredible talents. I think it’s what you play and how you feel. Music is more than a hearing thing. It is a feeling thing-an emotional experience. I believe the audience picks up what you feel.

Jay Beckenstein: I totally agree with that and we are a band that after the show, if possible, we’ll go out in the lobby and sign autographs. We love doing that. Because of that, I’ve discovered I have thousands of family friends. These people who have been in my band for twenty plus something years, we go out there and fans have baked us cookies!

It’s the sweetest thing. It’s like this huge extended family. The people in my band are very accessible. It’s not like we’re stars or ultra important or anything like that. We’re pretty normal folk. I think the audience members who meet us realize we are like your neighbor. They feel very comfortable around us, so it’s like I’m seeing my friends.

JazzReview: I think they feel that through your music. I think they feel touched by your music because it comes through that way.

Jay Beckenstein: Again, because I have this opportunity to meet the people in the lobby, I hear so many stories about how our music touched somebody’s life. Some of them are very cute, like-"We listened to your music on the night our daughter was conceived." Sometimes it’s very poignant, "My dad passed away last year and he always loved your music. So when he was feeling really sick at the end, he asked us to play your records."

That is so sweet. Something I did, without even knowing it, had a positive effect on somebody else. That means more to me than ever winning a Grammy or having a platinum record, or being famous. The fact that something I did in my life had a positive effect on someone makes me feel that I’m not here without a reason.

We all have days when we don’t feel good about ourselves. When I’m not feeling good I can always go to the Website and look at the notes people are leaving for the band and I know "I’m not feeling good about myself today, but somebody loves me!"

To sum it up, we get asked how do we stay together so long? There are a lot of answers, but at the top of the list: We stayed together so long because our fans stayed interested. I just want to tell those people out there who have followed us for twenty some years, coming to our concerts and buying our CDs, "I’m really, really grateful to them because they’ve let us do something with our lives that’s been very fulfilling.’" And if they hadn’t continued to support the effort, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

JazzReview: After 25 years, all their experience and all the greatness of their music, Spyro Gyra is still very humble and down to earth. They are still making news with a flair that comes from their love of music, of each other and especially the love they hold for their fans. Their music is truly Wrapped In A Dream.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Spyro Gyra
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2006
  • Subtitle: Spyro Gyra.... Wrapped In A Dream
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