Five thousand shows on six continents... now let's jazz up Cork!

Ronan Leonard talks to Jay Beckenstein of Spyro Gyra about how he manages to juggle life on tour and making records with daily life... and, of course, jazz!
Five thousand shows on six continents... now let's jazz up Cork!
US saxophone player Jay Beckenstein is playing Cork Jazz Festival.

Ronan Leonard talks to Jay Beckenstein of Spyro Gyra about how he manages to juggle life on tour and making records with daily life... and, of course, jazz!

Having just released their 31st album ‘Vinyl Tap’ and with over 5000 shows under their belts, it is safe to say Spyro Gyra’s work ethic hasn’t decreased since they formed in 1974. They’ve remained consistently popular since then with record sales of over 10 million units; Billboard considers them the most successful jazz artist of the 1980s. Jay Beckenstein, the band’s leader and saxophonist, has a very simple explanation of why they have remained so popular and his role in that success, “I have been a leader with a light touch and I've benefited from that because I happen to have a very talented and reasonable group of people around me. It would have been very stupid of me to let my personal ego as a band leader get in the way of their expression; and since I haven't the band has a feeling of a true group effort, there's not a star up on the stage. It's really like watching an awesome sports team pass the ball around brilliantly, I think that's the essence of being a group. The world is filled with stars with people playing behind them, but in the musical world it's a very rare thing to find a true ensemble that plays as a unit.”

The band are lauded for their longevity, their willingness to tour far afield - they have played on six continents - and their live performances, Jay consider their concerts to have a few cental components, “we always try to work between three elements; the first of which is that we always include something from the band's beginnings back in the 70s and 80s, as a certain part of our audience that really attached themselves to us and have been loyal for 40 years plus. However the second thing is that we are not a band that wants to live off our past, so we're always doing new things and trying new approaches. We try to bounce new concepts and sounds off with past tunes. We're not stuck in the past at all, we're very much interested in always doing new things.” Doing new things also feeds into their prolific output, as Jay continued, “the final thing is that we're quite a democratic organisation when it comes to creativity. All five people in the band have also been writing for the band over the years so we try to try to give every guy at least one song in our live sets where they can show off their composing abilities.”Jay’s method to song writing sounds very simple, “while there certainly have been songs I've written because something in my life or something in the world made me joyous or miserable, more often than not when writing I just go over to the piano and entertain myself for a while. And something happens and I hear a little bit of a snippet in that turns me on… and then I write from there!”Funnily enough their latest album, which was just released last week, doesn’t contain any original material by the band but Jay feels their musicianship has helped them make the songs ‘theirs’, “Vinyl Tap is in fact a record where we recorded other people's material. That is very much the exception rather than the rule for us. This is our 31st record and after writing our own material for the first 30 records, we thought it would be novel if we did fairly radical takes of the songs we listened to growing up, so we’ve made real, real changes to the originals, which we of course listened to on vinyl, hence the name. In a way I still think of the compositions on there as ours, even though they were written by other artists like Cream (Sunshine Of Your Love) or The Beatles (You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away) - I feel that we really put our mark on this record.”Continuing on the idea of revisiting that songs the band grew up listening to Jay reflected on his youthful years and ears, “there's a period of time in your life, probably going from 5 years to 25 years, maybe not even 25, when you really inputting; your brain is a fertile plot of land to grow in. All this music is coming into your mind, much in the way languages come into your mind and that it's much easier to learn them. That music and culture that seeps in at that period in your life really puts an imprint on you, no question about it. It can even be bad music but if it was at the right moment, that's important. And I think that stands to a musician, that's when the musician learns his or her language. What comes after that is applying the language to your own voice, etc, etc but that programming period when you're young, is critical.”

Despite the band’s work ethic and willingness to tour so much that doesn’t mean they live in tour bus most of the year, Jay says that over the years the band has developed a “50/50 approach, which is half the time we're working really hard. We cluster our dates and cluster our labour. Then the other 50% of the time I'm maybe not even thinking about music. I'm thinking about family, and health and other things.”His concert in Cork will be a rare chance for both sides to combine, as he continued, “my daughter moved to Belfast three years ago and this concert in Cork is the first time my Irish relatives will see me play live. I'm terribly excited about it, I have holidayed in Dublin and Belfast while visiting her and my relatives there, but I’ve not ventured outside either city so far. I've yet to see Ireland and I shall as soon as I build up the courage to drive on the left side of the road!”

Spyro Gyra play The Everyman on Saturday, October 26, at 9pm.

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