SPYRO GYRA & JONATHAN BUTLER
Founded in 1974 by altoist Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra has consistently been one of the commercially successfully pop-jazz groups of the past 20 years. Although originally a studio group, the band became a full-time venture in 1979 and has been touring ever since. Critics love to attack this band's lightweight and rarely changing music, which combines R&B and elements of pop and Caribbean music with jazz, but its live performances are often stimulating -- unlike many of its records, which emphasize the danceable melodies at the expense of improvising.
The roots of Spyro Gyra lay in Buffalo, NY, in the early '70s. Beckenstein and his longtime friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, had been leading a group with a revolving membership; every one of the many members in the band were loosely involved in the local jazz and rock scenes. Around 1974, the group was beginning to gel and cultivate a following. A club owner who wanted to advertise an upcoming appearance by the band asked Beckenstein for the group's name. The saxophonist told him "Spirogira," a word he learned in a college biology course. The owner misspelled the word as Spyro Gyra, and the band fell into place, featuring Beckenstein, Wall, electric guitarist Chet Catallo, bassist David Wolford, drummer Eli Konikoff, and percussionist Gerardo Velez. Not long afterward, the group added keyboardist Tom Schuman.
Spyro Gyra independently funded and recorded their debut album, releasing the record on the local independent label Amherst in 1976. The record slowly became a success and Amherst sold the rights to the band to Infinity Records, a division of MCA. Morning Dance, their first album for Infinity, was released in 1979. The record became a major hit, spawning a Top 40 single with "Morning Dance" and going platinum. In the wake of the record's success, Wall retired from live performance, leaving Schuman as the group's main keyboardist; Wall stayed with the band as an assistant producer and occasional composer.
Morning Dance firmly placed Spyro Gyra as one of the most popular artists in contemporary jazz, and throughout the '80s, their popularity continued growing. Their albums were consistent best-sellers, and their concerts often sold out. In 1983, vibraphonist/marimba player Dave Samuels -- who had played on several of the group's albums -- became a full-fledged member of the band. Over the course of the '80s, the membership of Spyro Gyra fluctuated, but Beckenstein and Schuman remained at its core, keeping the group's signature sound intact.
Butler was just a teenager when British producer Clive Calder signed him to the London-based Jive Records in 1977; Introducing Jonathan Butler, his largely instrumental debut album, was released that year and employed Bob Cranshaw (who is best known for his long association with Sonny Rollins) on bass. At the time, Butler was often compared to Benson, a man who, like Butler, has been praised for both his singing and his guitar playing. It wasn't long before the teenage Butler won a Sarie Award, which is the South African equivalent of an American Grammy or a Canadian Juno Award.
But Butler didn't remain in South Africa much longer; in the early '80s, he escaped from apartheid and moved to England (where Jive's main office was located, and where Butler remained for 17 years before moving to Los Angeles). Butler maintained a loyal following in the '80s and '90s, not only in his native South Africa, but also, in the U.S. and Europe. One of his biggest releases came in 1987, when Jive released a self-titled album that contained a hit cover of the Staple Singers' "If You're Ready (Come With Me)." Butler's next Jive album, 1988's More Than Friends, was also a big seller; that CD gave us the major hits "Lies" (which was nominated for a Grammy) and "Sarah, Sarah." Butler continued to record for Jive in the early '90s; then, in the late '90s and early 2000s, he provided three albums for N-Coded Music: 1997's Do You Love Me?, 1999's Story of Life, and 2000's The Source. After that, Butler left N-Coded and moved to Warner Bros., which released Surrender in June 2002. His most recent release, Brand New Day (2007), focuses his talent and voice on the world of gospel music.