Spyro Gyra – Down The Wire

Spyro Gyra
Down The Wire
Heads Up – 2009
Concord Music Group

“Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” – Karl Wallenda

The patriarch of the famous aerialist family certainly knew what he was talking about after a lifetime of thrilling, edge-of-the-seat performances for his audiences. While the stakes might not be as high for a jazz band improvising in a recording studio or in front of a live audience, Spyro Gyra’s leader and saxophonist Jay Beckenstein understands the passion that drives a person and makes “life on the wire” so appealing.

“This music is what I’ve done for most of my life. I very much define who I am by the music I make.” He allows, “Traveling to the shows is definitely about waiting. But even when I’m home, I have the same kinds of concerns as everyone else. 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.”

Their new album, Down the Wire, is a snapshot of Spyro Gyra’s enduring dedication to that walk down the wire.

For more than three decades, they have maintained a position at the forefront of modern jazz by successfully managing not just one, but several feats of creative dexterity. “That’s what has kept this band going,” says Beckenstein. “There are always balances to be found – between the individual player and the group, between the songwriter and the player. It’s about both satisfying yourself and satisfying your audience. And when you’re improvising in front of a crowd, you’re really walking down that wire. There are always surprises that way, but our openness to those surprises is what makes this band what it is. We just happen to be walking on a slightly more forgiving tightrope.”

Although often still pegged as being from Buffalo, NY, this is the first Spyro Gyra recording to come out of Buffalo in thirty years, when they recorded their landmark classic, Morning Dance. “Recording in Buffalo was more relaxed than when we record in New York. There were fewer distractions. Particularly for Tom Schuman and I, who came out of the Buffalo scene, it always feels really good to go back there. It touches on a time in our life that – although we didn’t know it then – was supremely magical. For as long as I’ve been away from the city, I’ve never personally stopped feeling that part of me is a Buffalonian.”

So what place does the listener have in this group’s balancing act? “My hope is that it has the same effect on the audience that it does on me. 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. I would hope that when people hear our music or come to see us, they’re able to share that with us. That’s the truly glorious part of being a musician.”

Asked where Down The Wire belongs in Spyro Gyra’s substantial legacy, Beckenstein is quick to reply. “You know, everybody up on the wire knows one thing for sure,” Beckenstein laughs. “The real trouble comes if you start looking behind you. The future’s in front of you.”