The founder and leader of Spyro Gyra finds art in more than one way with the jazz group’s approach to music.
Jay Beckenstein sees the quintet’s concerts around the world as “a different animal” from more than 35 years of recording albums.
“We are jazz artists,” he said last month by phone from home outside New York. “And ultimately, the freer we are to improvise and stretch, the more chance there is for something inspirational to happen.”
Spyro Gyra will play Saturday at Brookgreen Gardens as the headliner for the Pawleys Island Festival of Music & Art, which continues through Oct. 2.
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Measuring the method for making CDs versus performing live 60 to 70 times a year, Beckenstein described how each demands a special development.
“The CDs are like paintings,” Beckenstein said. “You have a real concentration to construct something. The live shows are in real time, more like a dance.”
He credits the many years of live performances to Spyro Gyra’s longevity.
“People keep supporting the shows because they like what they’re hearing,” Beckenstein said.
He also cherishes the camaraderie among the band, with bassist Scott Ambush, drummer Bonny Bonaparte from Trinidad, Cuban native and guitarist Julio Fernandez and keyboardist Tom Schuman.
“We have a really nice group of people,” said Beckenstein, a saxophonist. “We really enjoy each other and complement each other and that’s critical to staying together.”
The band’s lineup has undergone some change, but Beckenstein and Schuman have kept a core from its formation in Buffalo, N.Y. Beckenstein’s quip about spirogyra, a term for pond algae he had learned while studying biology, led to a club owner’s misspelling the name on an outdoor sign, a quirk that has since spelled out the group’s identity.
The sun never sets for this band known for such titles as “Morning Dance” and “Catching the Sun.” Its latest CD, “A Foreign Affair,” released Sept. 13 on Amherst Records of Buffalo, reflects the group’s immersion into places it plays.
Beckenstein said the album took a year to create and that the group enjoys including numbers “from places we visit.” Among the 11 tracks, “Khuda” comes with lyrics completely in Hindi, and “Sweet Ole Thang” captures a Trinidadian calypso flavor.
Spyro Gyra has played in Hong Kong, but not in mainland China, but “it just seems inevitable,” though, Beckenstein said.
Estimating that “there’s a third of the world’s pool who has heard of us,” Beckenstein said “it’s nice to make a little ripple” in faraway lands.
“From South Africa to Norway to Indonesia to French Guyana to Brazil to Japan,” he said, “we just get to play so many places, and it’s such a treat.”
Staging their shows outside, whether under a tent at Brookgreen or spreading three dates during eight days in India, Beckenstein thinks an outdoor concert brings “sort of a picnicking and relaxing quality to an event” and the capacity for large crowds.
Of course, “It’s all about the weather, and only if the stars align,” he said.
The band mates also enjoy exploring when encircling the globe, so they can find “a great restaurant in a really cool part of town or get a drink at a pretty bar,” Beckenstein said.
“It’s about meeting people in those places as much as the concert appearances,” he said.
Sublime to ridiculous
Answering a question about performing in the most unforgettable settings, Beckenstein went to extremes.
“Playing on Lake Geneva in Switzerland is the absolute sublime,” he said. “The seven-hour sound check was absolutely ridiculous. Both of them are incredibly memorable.”
When pondering the recording business, Beckenstein figured the “main change” happened going from the 1970s to ‘80s, and through the Internet access and delivery of music that evolved into the 21st century.
“You used to tour to support the sales of records and CDs,” he said, stressing the importance of promoting legitimate, not bootleg, music downloads.
“It now seems like that putting out a CD is promotion of your live shows, and your live shows are the things that cannot be poisoned.”