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Spyro Grya justifies live performance reputation


With Barbara Higbie.

At the Berklee Performance Center.

Saturday, Dec. 1.


JAZZ MUSICIANS OFTEN HAVE the reputation of performing their best in front of live audiences. This is certainly the case with Spyro Gyra, who last Saturday night at Berklee outperformed their often bland recordings by at least 10-fold. Spyro Gyra contains nothing but fine musicians, and they made a point of showing this off in a performance which one friend described as a "six-ring circus." Each musician could have easily stood alone, but together they made a powerful and cohesive team.

The concert opened with guest artist Barbara Higbie who performed beautifully, playing piano and singing in a relaxed fusion style. She was quite in touch with the audience, and was received well. Her music lacked the punch, though, that most of the audience had come for.

Spyro Gyra has been in existence for 16 years, and has spent much of that time on the road. As a result, they are masters of captivating the attention of their audiences. Featuring the talents of one member for an entire song was one approach they used Saturday night.

Their first feature began with keyboardist Tom Schuman playing a lovely ballad that soon changed to a hard-driving rhythm-and-blues vamp, which Schuman played around with for about five minutes. Soon the band entered with a medium-tempo 12-bar blues. Dave Samuels took two traditional jazz-style choruses on vibes, but it was Schuman's vehicle, and he took it the rest of the way with his boogie-style piano.

Jay Beckenstein, founder of Spyro Gyra, showed the most depth on an abstract, dreamy ballad laced with wildly dissonant chords. He has an appealing sound on tenor sax, which might have been played a little more often during the concert. The percussion was showcased on a Latin piece, which might have been stronger but was still quite enjoyable.

By far the audience's favorite was a feature of bassist Oscar Cartaya, who started the tune with a slow, cool funk. That didn't last long, though, as the rhythm section soon switched to a Latin beat, then a spirited funk that left the audience howling.

Spyro Gyra played a high-energy concert, ending as strong as it began. Many jazz fans would have complained that the concert was too monotonous, not enough variety. Most people went prepared for that, and expected to hear a full night of loud and exciting fusion. Spyro Gyra has found that niche in jazz, and I hope they keep it up. It makes for an evening of great entertainment.