Release Date:
April 28, 2009

Reviewed by:
Shannon West

"When I'm home my life becomes about my family, my home, just the basic everyday navigating and problem solving that we all do. But when I'm making music with the band and things are going well, I leave the anxiety behind. I escape that part of me that's just trying to survive in the world and I'm able to get in touch with that part of me that has nothing to do with practicality. It's something that's kind of divine, and I don't normally think in those terms, but it's as close as I can get to that ideal. I really do get swept away in it and it's a marvelous, spiritual, therapeutic thing.” Jay Beckenstein in the press release for Down The Wire.

This, then, is the essence of this album, because listening to Down The Wire has just that effect. When we think of music that embodies those concepts - spiritual, therapeutic, transcendent, escapist - the first thing that comes to mind is the relaxing side of the smooth jazz genre. You know, light a candle, pour some wine… yada yada yada. Or the soft meditative music that people used to call "New Age" - stuff that's pretty and not very challenging. The music on Down The Wire will take you away in a way that is more fulfilling and more exciting. The complexity of the music is so absorbing, the textures and shadings so sensory, and the energetic undercurrents so tangible that it fires up your imagination. Again, Beckenstein sums it up:  "I've always felt that music, and particularly instrumental music, has this non-literal quality that lets people travel to a place where there are no words. Whether it's touching their emotions or connecting them to something that reminds them of something much bigger than themselves, there's this beauty in music that's not connected to sentences. It's very transportive." Music like this takes you out of yourself and brings you closer to yourself at the same time. What does all that mean? Let's put it this way - two minutes into the first song with Scott Ambush's funky bass and Julio Fernandez's first rock-tinged solo and you won't be thinkin' of layoffs, bills, taxes, traffic, e-mail, or phone calls.

That would be the title track, which makes a statement from the get-go by moving into every place that got obliterated when the music smoothed out. It's got speaker shakin' bass (try to sit still!), searing electric guitar, and a sax line that is spiky, not smooth, and some solo tradeoffs that sound like the band is jamming on stage. There's so much going on in this one song that you'll be hitting repeat just to catch some little thing you had to hear again. That's the nature of this whole project. There is more going on in any given song on Down The Wire than there is in most complete albums… melodic and textural shifts, lots of soloing that's never excessive, improvisational passages that segue into tight sonic themes. Each song seems to build and reach for more. "Unspoken" starts off as a lyrical ballad then gains momentum and power as it builds toward the end without losing the gentle underpinnings of the original theme. "Ice Mountain" and "Zona Rosa", my two favorites on the CD, shift constantly the way that the best early fusion rockers did. "Ice Mountain" veers back and forth from a powerful fusion riff to a lilting Latin groove bridged by some stunning soloing, especially one fast flashy keyboard line Schuman throws in that will nail you right between the ears. Former band-mate and current Allman Brothers Band member Marc Quiñones' driving percussion anchors "Zona Rosa" as it flips from rock to Latin to horn heavy jazz then lands on a speedy and nuanced Beckenstein sax line. They cover a wide scope of turf - mixing funk, latin and even a little smooth with heavy doses of fusion and improvisational jazz. This is not to say that all the tracks are big, fast, and shifty. "Island Pond," and "A Flower for Annie Jeanette" show the band's softer side and Schuman's expressive keyboard artistry. Through it all there is this sound, the way Beckenstein plays sax and a certain twist from major to minor that some melodies take that is vintage Spyro Gyra - straight from their 80s classics, Incognito and Carnival, and into 2009. Like most who have survived this long they have made concessions to industry trends along the way but this album throws a lifeline back to a time when risk taking was requisite and excitement was mandatory.

What it comes down to is that this album sounds live and, to toss around an overused word that fits, organic. It was a collaborative effort with all the band members contributing songs and getting involved in the production. Their recent releases have been very strong bu this one takes it to an entirely different level. It is completely original and uncompromised. It doesn't just sound good, it feels good, and it will for a long time forward because this is timeless music. The band may have been around for over three decades and at a point when some would be settling down or settling in these guys never stop moving forward. This one sounds like they are all fired up and ready for more.