BELIEVE IT OR not, smooth jazz as we know it is almost 25 years old. While there's a long-standing tradition of attempted jazz crossover into the pop field (hey, jazz actually was popular years ago), none has taken hold of the public as firmly as the current "contemporary jazz" niche. Under the leadership of saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra has been there from the start -- their now classic "Morning Dance" is instantly recognizable to most listeners, and still gets plenty of air time on the mesh of smooth jazz stations nationwide. On Wednesday, August 12, they bring their live show to the Rialto Theater.
Their newest release, Got The Magic (on the Windham Hill Jazz label), is a return to meticulously crafted studio production after last year's live outing, Road Scholars (GRP). The new CD has all the familiar markings: laid-back funky grooves, Latin-tinged rhythms, multi-layered keyboards, tasteful solos, tight ensemble work and pristine sound quality. Pop vocalist Basia does a graceful cameo appearance on the beautifully arranged, obligatory vocal tune; and longtime associate member Dave Samuels is here again playing marimba and vibraphone on two tracks. While you could call this CD formulaic, it's a formula Spyro Gyra helped invent, giving the music a depth not often found in the cookie-cutter "project CDs" that proliferate the contemporary jazz market. Beckenstein still has a rare, distinctive sound in an otherwise crowded sea of David Sanborn imitators. What's more, he has a knack for writing tunes that draw in the listener with promises of relaxation ahead.
The band is a rare thing these days, in that it's a real band. Most acts record with the cream of L.A. session players, and tour with a busload of hired guns, like music school graduates based in L.A. who're willing to leave town for some road credits to build their résumés. While the proficiency and talent is there, you can't schmooze your way into the vibe created by a long-established group of top-notch players. The guys you hear on a Spyro Gyra CD are the guys you hear in concert. Longtime keyboardist Tom Schuman creates vibrant, multi-leveled textures over the solid groove laid down by world-class bassist Scott Ambush and the impeccable drumming of Joel Rosenblatt. Guitarist Julio Fernandez crosses stylistic barriers with ease, executing screaming rock solos, Cuban charanga, or subtle acoustic work as needed.
Spyro Gyra's show is part of a series being put on by Seattle-based concert producer Michael Schivo. Schivo is a forerunner in the field, having produced contemporary jazz shows since 1980. In conjunction with smooth jazz station 97.5-FM The Oasis, Schivo has plans to bring many more top contemporary jazz acts to Tucson. "Now that Tucson has The Oasis, we put our heads together and came up with a series of jazz concerts. We figure to bring in a show every six weeks." Schivo promotes tours through the West and Southwest, generally taking an act out for several weeks. "Now we can make Tucson a stop on our tour itinerary," says Schivo. Some upcoming shows include nuevo flamenco guitarist Ottmar Leibert, sax man Richard Elliott and trumpet player Rick Braun.
Since the arrival of The Oasis, 97.5-FM, there's been an upswing in local jazz activity, both smooth and non-smooth. The station has lent its support to several ventures, sponsoring shows at the Cottonwood Club, weekly Saturday night gigs at Ric's Café, the annual "Hot Nights -- Cool Jazz" series at the Tucson Mall, interplay with the Tucson Jazz Society, and now at Tucson's revived Rialto Theater.
"We think it's important to put a face on the music. Some people marginalize smooth jazz, but when they see how good the bands are, they realize the players are significant," states Alan Hammerel, sales manager at The Oasis.
It's good to see the Rialto bringing in national acts of all genres, but apparently the smooth jazz format is proving a boon. The Rialto's co-manager Jeb Schoonover says, "We want to present all kinds of music here, and make this place what it really is." By casting a bigger net, the Rialto does seem to be catching more fish: A recent Oasis/Schivo show brought in seminal smoothies The Rippingtons and Craig Chaquico, guitarist of Jefferson Starship fame. The predominantly youngish Boomer crowd filled the house (even with monsoons, the atmosphere was livable thanks to several industrial fans).
Schivo is happy with the Rialto as a venue for his artists: "It's the perfect sized hall, it has a great history...Jeb Schoonover and Paul Bear have a vision for the place, and are following it." All of this spells good news for Tucson's contemporary jazz fans. With the Rialto, The Oasis and Schivo smoothing the way, Tucson is now a regular stop on the stress-free circuit.
Spyro Gyra comes to town Thursday, August 12. The all-ages show starts at 8 p.m. in the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Tickets are $27.50, available at the Dillard's box office. Call 1-800-638-4253 for ticket information. For information on this and upcoming shows, call the Rialto at 740-0126.