It's been 30 years since Spyro Gyra released their one and only crossover hit, "Morning Dance". Changes in how decisions are made as to what gets played on the radio pretty much guarantee the group will not score another; that's unfortunate, because they continue to make eye-opening, jaw-dropping music.
Down the Wire is a set of 11 new songs, all composed by members of the group: Jay Beckenstein, saxophones; Julio Fernandez, guitars; Tom Schuman, keyboards; Scott Ambush, bass; and Bonny "Bonny B" Bonaparte, drums, percussion and vocals.
The group has scored several Grammy nominations, but is the perpetual bridesmaid when it comes to actually winning. Taking its early cues from Weather Report and Chick Corea and Return to Forever, its music crosses several genres: straight jazz, funk, fusion, blues, Latin, Brazilian and instrumental pop.
Ambush's funk-driven bass line opens the title song, which he also wrote; Fernandez, Schuman and Bonny B set the background, with Ambush and Beckenstein leading the way. The bass gets in some rapid-fire action on the bridge; after an alto sax solo and another bass-led bridge, Fernandez goes on a trip of his own.
Ambush comes back with another solo before he and Beckenstein resume the melody— through it all, Schuman and Bonny B show that they're not merely background, but active parts of this tapestry; bass and sax trade turns during the song's final sequence.
"The Tippin' Point" is one of those songs that defies those who would pigeonhole this band as a smooth jazz act. Written by Beckenstein and Schuman, this up-tempo piece brings some old-school jazz flavor to the party; Beckenstein leads on tenor while Ambush gives some vintage bass lines and Bonny B taps the hi-hat in the finest jazz tradition.
The middle break features Schuman on piano, leading what amounts to an acoustic trio; Beckenstein's tenor solo ranks among some of his best (e.g. "Whitewater," "Birks Law" and "East River Blue").
Bonny B wrote the riveting "Ice Mountain," a song that shows how easily the group can shift from one style to another; in this case, from straight-ahead to fusion. It's difficult not to think of Weather Report, with the blending of sax, keyboards, guitar, bass and drums right out of the Zawinul-Shorter-Pastorius handbook, especially when two or more players strike the same notes at blazing, stop-time speed.
And when they all go in different directions, buckle up, because there's quite a ride ahead.
Gerardo Velez, the group's full-time percussionist during the middle 1980s, guests on two tracks—Fernandez's "Unspoken" and Ambush's "A Flower for Annie Jeanette." Another Spyro Gyra alum, Marc Quinones, appears on Beckenstein's "La Zona Rosa" along with a three-piece horn section.
Down the Wire, borrowed from a line by the founder of the Flying Wallendas, is an apt summation of life and music.
1. Down the Wire
3. Not for Nothin'
4. Island Pond
5. Tippin' Point
6. Ice Mountain
7. Flower for Annie Jeanette
8. Zona Rosa
9. What It Is
10. Distant Memory
11. Make It Mine