March 2002

Spyro Gyra - In Modern Times
Heads Up HUCD 3061
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]It’s been over 30 years since Miles Davis served as midwife for fusion, that bastard child of rock and jazz, with his landmark album, Bitches Brew. From that beginning, fusion took off, spawning such groups as Return To Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, and inspiring artists like Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham and Chick Corea. Adult contemporary jazz, Spyro Gyra's forte, is a further evolution of the fusion genre (some might use the term corruption, but that’s another argument). In Modern Times, Spyro Gyra's latest recording, is another link in the evolutionary chain, and as such, deserves our attention.

Spryo Gyra has been a working entity, churning out their own brand of jazz for 25 years (and yep, this album is their tribute to that anniversary). During that quarter century, they’ve honed their musical style to a razor's edge. They have remained true to their musical vision, even after hitting it big with their crossover instrumental "Morning Dance" in 1979. The formula is simple: Take one part jazz, add a dash of funk, a pinch of R&B, some Latin spices and pop effervescence, and, voila, you get Spryo Gyra.

Bandleader and group founder, soprano saxophonist Jay Beckerstein weaves his magic throughout In Modern Times. But for all his talent, it’s the support he receives from his band mates Tom Schuman (keyboards, mostly the Hammond B-3), Julio Fernandez (guitars), Scott Ambush (bass) and Joel Rosenblatt (drums) that gives this disc its impact. It’s easy to fall into the groove set up by the rhythm section -- for instance, the way the drums and bass set up a firm foundation for the sax and guitar on "Feelin' Fine Pt. 2."

But In Modern Times' preponderance of electronic instruments is what may keep audiophile listeners at arm's length, preventing them from understanding exactly what this music really sounds like. There is just too much processing that goes into this style of music to ever allow it to become demo material. That being said, the individual sonic sounds of the instruments are easy to follow. The bass is firm, deep and tight, the various keyboards are  differentiated, and the drums have a solid snap -- and, over all of these sounds, Beckerstein’s sax floats effortlessly. Unfortunately, the soundstage is almost nonexistent, stretching only from speaker to speaker, with no depth at all.

What would Miles think of the direction his idea has taken? Would he be pleased or would he disapprove? In Modern Times offers more than much of the dreck that passes for adult jazz these days. The sense of improvisation that is so fundamental to jazz is very much in evidence here, which certainly keeps things interesting. Like them or loathe them (and I’ve seen very little wiggle room here), Spryo Gyra isn’t going to go away. As Beckerstein puts it, "with each recording, I feel like I’m playing with a whole new band." After 25 years, perhaps that’s what keeps them sounding fresh.