Rock stars from the 70's and 80's pass through my hometown frequently. They trot out their staple set of familiar hits and deliver them with skill and precision but often by rote, as if they have turned into human juke boxes stuck in replay from bygone eras. Jazz musicians don't do that. Spyro Gyra have been in the game since the mid 70's. With all these years, 29 albums, millions of records sold, and thousands of live gigs under their belts they are still growing and evolving. They are standing as strong on the cutting edge of contemporary instrumental music now as they were when “Shaker Song” came out in 1978. A Foreign Affair
is another impressive milestone on a long road that has been paved with milestones.
When the band started working on ideas for this project Jay Beckenstein suggested that since they have traveled the world they should let the places they have visited inspire the songs they write. The result is a melting pot of international influences simmering into the essence of the Spyro Gyra sound, then served up with a big dose of musical evolution and gutsy playing. The journey starts with the loose, flowing reggae vibe of “Caribe,” then moves into an absolutely breathtaking vocal called “Khuda” which is sung in Hindi by Arijit Singh. This is beautiful, transcendent music and the way Beckenstein's sax weaves around Singh's voice will take your breath away. My favorite song on the album, “Chileno Boys,” came from both sides of the ocean and their own back yard. It's a poem by Mexican-American writer Alberto Rios that was set to music by Israeli star David Broza, arranged by the band and sung by guitarist Julio Fernandez, whose singing voice is as expressive and dynamic as his guitar work. Fernandez was also responsible for the stunning fusion adventure, “Falling Walls” which plays on the band's Chick Corea/Weather Report influenced roots with solos building on Middle Eastern scales. “Shinjuku” is a tribute to Tokyo night life and the interplay of traditional and contemporary cultures. It shifts seamlessly from graceful textured passages into driving, funky jazz. The sound of the koto – the instrument June Kuramoto of Hiroshima plays – is evident throughout but not credited on the liner notes so I'm thinking either Fernandez or keyboardist Tom Schuman are creating that sound with other instruments. Interestingly, “Sweet Ole Thang” - the song that sounds the most like the early Spyro Gyra recordings - was written by the newest member, drummer Bonny Bonaparte. The band's early work was defined by their fusion of jazz and Latin/Carribean influences and Bonaparte, who is from Trinadad and was still a kid when “Morning Dance” came out, brings the steel drum sound to the foreground with a joyous party vibe. “Cancao De Ninar” ventures into a straight ahead jazz acoustic setting and we return to the USA for brilliant roots/blues vocalist Keb'Mo's take on “Last Call.”
A big part of the magic in these songs is the interaction between the musicians and the solos they take. These are constants throughout the album. They specifically created a large studio space so they could all be together while they created and recorded the songs and there is at least one song from each band member on the CD. Beckenstein is the master of keeping a clear clean sax tone while playing even the speediest, most complicated solos. Fernandez can shift from eloquent acoustic lines to some of the most searing rock/fusion guitar work out there. Schuman's creativity and musicianship are always over the top, Bonny B. has brought vitality and buzz to the mix and he bassist Scott Ambush keep the bottom strong when it needs to be or subtle when the song calls for it. It is such a joy to hear real drums in an over-programmed musical world too.
One of the delights of the genre is that our artists don't grow old, they grow stronger. They continue to develop their skills and identities, they grow more confident, and if we are lucky they become more confident that their audience will be open to fresh, exciting music. In this case we are very lucky because A Foreign Affair
is full of jaw-dropping artistry and musical adventures.
Watch the video
about recording the album.
There are also several videos about the individual songs on Spyro Gyra's Facebook page