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Spyro Gyra: A Night Before Christmas

Woodrow Wilkins By

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'Twas A Night Before Christmas, and all through the land, everyone was listening ... to a world-famous band. With apologies to Clement Moore, the title of Spyro Gyra's first all-out holiday release delivers on its promise of good cheer.

Founded in the mid-'70s by Jay Beckenstein and Jeremy Wall, Spyro Gyra has consistently remained among the most popular and forward-thinking instrumental groups. Its music has crossed the boundaries of fusion, pop, Latin, Brazilian, African and various shades of jazz. Though there have been many personnel changes, saxophonist Beckenstein and keyboardist Tom Schuman have been together since their self-titled debut album. Guitarist Julio Fernandez joined in 1984 and, except for a brief hiatus, has been a fixture since. Bassist Scott Ambush came on board in 1992, while drummer/vocalist Bonny B is the new kid in town.

While Spyro Gyra has recorded several songs over the years ("J Squared," "Birks Law," "The Unwritten Letter," etc.) that delve into straight-ahead jazz, the group has never recorded an entire album in this style—until now.

"O Tannenbaum" gets the holiday started. Beckenstein is in top form on soprano, Schuman offers an exceptionally elegant piano solo, Fernandez contributes a guitar solo, and Bonny B is crisp on the hi-hat. Christine Ebersole, a Broadway actress and singer who won a Tony for her part in 42nd Street, is the voice for "It Won't Feel Like Christmas." Written by Beckenstein with Terry Cox, the song is a lament for those who have to spend the holiday away from loved ones. Beckenstein on tenor and Schuman perform a swing duet during the instrumental break.

Former band mate Dave Samuels, who founded the Caribbean Jazz Project as well as producing a few solo albums, brings his vibraphone magic to "Winter Wonderland" and "Carol of the Bells." Fernandez's solo and Ambush's accompaniment are among the former's highlights. The latter is a clever arrangement, borrowing phrases from "What Child Is This?" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things."

Ambush's bass comes through a little more to help underscore Beckenstein's soprano lead on "Christmas Time Is Here," with Fernandez adding a soulful guitar solo. Janis Siegel, a founding member of The Manhattan Transfer, joins Bonny B for a vocal duet on the sassy "Baby It's Cold Outside." Siegel has performed live with Spyro Gyra before, but this is her first appearance on an album by the group. The connection is long overdue.

Other songs include a delightfully bluesy rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The First Noel," "Silent Night," a somewhat subdued "This Christmas," and "The Christmas Song," which again features Bonny B on vocal. Throughout, the group sticks to a predominantly acoustic sound. Ebersole and Siegel's contributions are proof that instrumental jazz bands can have guest vocalists without sounding like a dime-a-dozen pop or R&B act. It is A Night Before Christmas, so Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good listen.

Track Listing: O Tannenbaum; It Won't Feel Like Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time Is Here; Baby It's Cold Outside; Carol of the Bells; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; First Noel; Silent Night; This Christmas; Christmas Song.

Personnel: Jay Beckenstein: saxophones; Julio Fernandez: guitars; Tom Schuman: keyboards; Scott Ambush: bass; Bonny B: drums, vocals (5, 11); Christine Ebersole: vocal (2); Janis Siegel: vocal (5); Dave Samuels: vibraphone (3, 6).

Title: A Night Before Christmas | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Heads Up International

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