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National Beat: Spyro Gyra Does A Morning Dance at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe

Spyro Gyra - Julio Fernandez
Spyro Gyra - Julio Fernandez
Nick McCabe - Front Row Photo

Spyro Gyra performing at Harrah's Lake Tahoe

Rating:
Star5
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By Nick McCabe – Front Row Photo
Nick.frontrowphoto@gmail.com

Spyro Gyra blew the roof off of Harrah’s South Shore Room Saturday night (July 12th). I don’t know where to begin with this one. The show was beyond amazing with regard to musicianship and unbelievable skills! It was the kind of performance that leaves you sitting there with your mouth hanging open in awe. Just when you think you’ve heard the best players that are out there, Spyro Gyra come to town. These guys had to have hung out at the intellectual end of the music building when they were growing up. There’s no doubt about it. The only sad thing was that there was room for more people at the show. If the general public was more exposed to the music of Spyro Gyra, the house would not have been big enough for all of them. Unfortunately their music doesn’t get the air time it deserves.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Spyro Gyra’s music falls in the category of jazz fusion. They share the field with such wonderful bands as Weather Report, Return to Forever, The Yellowjackets, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and many others. What is ‘jazz fusion? According to Wikipedia, “…variants of a musical fusion genre that developed from mixing funk and R&B rhythms and the amplification and electronic effects of rock music, complex time signatures derived from non-Western music and extended, typically instrumental compositions with a jazz approach to lengthy group improvisations, often using wind and brass and displaying a high level of instrumental technique.” Whaaattt??? Let me summarize. It’s really hard to play and really cool to hear.

Admittedly I haven’t been keeping up with Spyro Gyra for a while. There was a period in the 80’s when I was deeply absorbed in the jazz fusion scene. I don’t know when that changed, but I drifted. As a result I can’t name most of the songs they played. I do know they started with something called Tangent of The Sun. Shortly after that they played a very nice song written my guitarist Julio Fernandez. He is of Cuban extraction and the song sounded very cuban. It was also the only song of the evening with vocals. It had a very light sound to it with very delicate finger picking. Very nice.

This year also marks the 35th anniversary of their landmark album, Morning Dance, released in 1979, which is their most commercially successful album and the one from which I discovered them. They played a trio of selections off of this: Morning Dance, It Doesn’t Matter, and Starburst. When talking with the audience about Morning Dance and these songs Jay (Beckenstein) misread is notes prompting bass player Scott Ambush to step forward and offer him his glasses. This got a laugh from the audience and the other band members.

There were some show stopping highlights too. Scott Ambush lead the way on Not Unlike That (from, The Rhinebeck Sessions) which had a blistering bass solo that boggled the imagination. How one pair of hands could get that much sound out of one bass guitar is beyond me. I was watching his hands closely trying to see what he was doing to get so many notes out, but I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t just ‘lots of notes', it was quality of melodic patterns at the same time. Harmonics – chords – bends – slapping – it was impressive.

From here they let drummer Will Calhoun take the spotlight with a solo in Odds Get Even, also from The Rhinebeck Sessions. This started out as a very light song and quickly moved into the drum solo that had Will changing meters, moving to a rack of synthesizer drums behind him, and even firing up a digital delay that allowed him to ‘layer’ his parts live. When he returned to the drum set the lights dropped and he picked up a pair of glowing drum sticks and went wild. The crowd was very excited and responsive to this little bit of theatrics, as was I! Cool is cool, right?

Spyro Gyra consists of founding members Jay Beckenstein (saxophones), Tom Schuman (keyboards), long time members Scott Ambush (bass guitar), Julio Fernandez (guitar), and new member (or stand it, I don’t know) Will Calhoun (drums).

This was by far one of the finest musical performances I have ever seen. The skills and musical knowledge required to execute this type of music so well and to improvise so seamlessly is of a special caliber. I can go on and on trying to describe what I heard, but at some point it’s like describing color to somebody who has never had vision. I am unable to do it. If what I’ve shared lights a little fire under you to experience Spyro Gyra, go to their website and find out when they will be in your area. You will not be disappointed.

To see a full photo gallery, click here.

…and the beat goes on.